The planet gawps at the spectacle of US Secretary of State John Kerry descending on hapless French President Hollande (who has enough to worry about these days without weird foreigners embarrassing him in public) and hug-kissing him in no little profusion.
As if this were not enough, John Kerry brought with him to Paris James Taylor to play “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. But this highest-profile gesture of American solidarité after the Paris terrorist attacks was bungled: the organisers made the rookie error of not checking and re-checking before the performance started that the practical sound arrangements were working. Watch the whole ghastly spectacle unfold here. Poor James Taylor is perched high on a stool but hunched awkwardly over a useless microphone so that you can’t see his face. John Kerry stands there in ill-suppressed tension. As diplomatic self-mutilations go, this is right up there.
What is happening in all this awfulness?
Basically, for reasons known only to itself at the highest level the Obama Administration did not choose to send a prominent American to join world leaders at the huge march of defiance against Islamist terror. Even worse, US Attorney General Eric Holder who was in Paris anyway did not join the rally. Resounding criticism of this ‘snub’ extracted a humiliating concession by the White House press spokesman: “We should have sent someone with a higher (sic) profile.”
Anxious to make up for this ineptitude, the Administration decided to get John Kerry to Paris asap. Somewhere lofty in the Washington system grown men and women tossed around ideas for laying on thick the United States’ support for France in these difficult days. The key thing (they thought): get the symbolism right:
Listen, guys. It’s not enough to express our support through mere words. We need to show it, and how! John’s initial encounter with President Hollande has to be extra warm and ‘close’ if not downright personal: the warmest of warm embraces.
But Valerie, that’s not enough, given the mess we’ve made of this already. Let’s do something ‘extra’ and unexpected! What about taking along a top US performer to express our support and friendship by capturing France’s and the world’s public imagination in a touching and soulful way?
Brilliant! But who? Hmm… Michael Jackson’s dead, isn’t he? …
Got it! Has anyone got James Taylor’s number?
All this takes us back right to the start of the Obama Administration, when Hillary Clinton went to Moscow armed with a Reset Button that would symbolise a new start in US/Russia relations. What could go wrong?
Quite a lot. Because the American side messed up the translation into Russian of the expression ‘reset button’. That ill-fated US/Russia re-set button presented to a bemused Sergey Lavrov by an over-excited Hillary Clinton back in 2009 must now be sitting prominently in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s famed Museum of Diplomatic Curiosities, an exhibit shown as a stern warning for young diplomats on how not to behave.
This ploy did not fail because of the footling misspelling, exquisitely embarrassing though that was. The very psychological sense of the gesture was all wrong. In effect Hillary Clinton was proclaiming publicly to the Russian side: “Hullo! Here we are! Your new best friend! Whether you want a new best friend or not!” Russia just does not think like that. Or respect anyone who does.
Similarly now with this Kerry debacle. The way these gestures of support were managed was unforgivably incompetent: there is almost nothing worse in professional diplomacy than teeing up something apparently smart and ‘different’, but then messing up on the day. But more than that, the underlying emotional logic was misplaced. The whole effort was aimed at satisfying American embarrassment on American terms, not at showing respect for France itself in its current difficulties.
It’s like a man who somehow disgraces himself on a first date with a sensible woman, then rushes around pestering her with huge bunches of flowers and other over-ostentatious gifts to express his remorse. The insistent profusion of the man’s remorse is more annoying than the original mistakes. What the woman wants – and in fact will value far more – is a quiet sincere apology and maybe when she asks for it a frank discussion on what went wrong and why, to get things back on track.
In this case imagine how much better it would have been for US diplomacy had John Kerry strode up to President Hollande and simply shaken his hand with a private warm word of greeting, then gone indoors for tough exchanges on how Washington and Paris can work together to tackle those fanatics. No kissing or hugging. No awkward elderly songsters whose microphone fails. Deal with the issue by striking a firm, businesslike tone and letting the outcome of the talks be the story.
As so often in speechwriting as in the choreography of public encounters at the highest level of diplomacy, less is more. And above all, remember that in any relationship it’s not all about you and your feelings.
Charles Crawford is a British former diplomat turned communication and negotiation specialist. His work for HM Diplomatic Service featured postings in communist Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Russia, then three ambassadorships: in Sarajevo after the conflict (1996-98); in Belgrade after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic (2001-03); and in Warsaw when Poland joined the European Union (2003-07). He served as FCO Speechwriter in the 1980s and has drafted or contributed to speeches by members of the British Royal Family, Prime Ministers and different Foreign Ministers and other senior figures.
Charles left the FCO in 2007 to start a new private career. He has given masterclasses in negotiation and public speaking and speechwriting to private sector clients as well as international organizations and foreign ministries. He is a founder member of The Ambassador Partnership LLP, an international corporate diplomacy consultancy panel. He appears frequently on the U.K. and international media to discuss international policy issues and diplomatic technique (CNN, Sky News, BBC, ITV, Voice of Russia) and is part of the Daily Telegraph (London) comment team. When pressed or bribed he can mutter in Serbian/Bosnian, Polish, French, Russian or Afrikaans. He is married with three children and lives near Oxford.
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