Real diplomacy has moved out of embassy to the sandals-and-corduroy department, to the camomile-sipping, clog-dancing herbivores of the British Council. Mother Russia could not care less about a smooth chancery diplomat, but her soul is apparently tormented by student visas, poetry reading and Acker Bilk. These, said the Russian Federal Security Service on January 16, were "agents of provocation by a foreign power".
Culture and lifestyle are the diplomacy of the 21st century. Old-fashioned ambassadorship was long ago demoted by the telephone, the jet and the email to the Atlantis of 'Diplomatia', where officials cling to such ancient rituals as residences abroad, formal dinners and military attaches. No businessman worth his salt uses the commercial attache network. Most political telegrams, as Sir Nicholas Henderson noted, are unread and languish in the archive. Most hospitality is an emotional support for bored resident staff.
If governments wish to talk to each other, they lift the phone. Such diplomacy may need someone on the spot to keep a phonebook and offer the occasional hotel room, but a nice house, a man and a boy can supply those. The Foreign Office's institutional role in foreign policy — like that of the American state department — has long been overrated. Its demise was never clearer than in Blair's appointment of Margaret Beckett as his foreign secretary.
Britain's relations with India or Japan or Mexico, let alone with smaller states, are not dependent on these monastic outposts of bureaucracy. Today's true diplomats are comers and goers, tourists, foreign correspondents, exchange students, visiting artists and celebrities. They are footballers and football hooligans. They are backpackers and gap-year teenagers. They are fair-trade inspectors, merchant bankers and call-centre outsourcers. They are nominees for Oscars and Emmies, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. From The Satanic Verses and Hogwarts to soppy sentimental movies, non-political Britain is both diplomacy's image and its influence.
These new diplomats carry less historical baggage than their predecessors. In India recently I was told time and again that the British high commission was associated with the Raj while the British Council was associated with Shakespeare and London University. Indians preferred the latter. The same diplomatic importance attaches to those who welcome foreigners to British soil as hoteliers, academics and immigration officials. The London correspondents of American (or any other) newspapers have more influence over Britain's image than any diplomat, and merit appropriate care and attention. Yet the Foreign Office has cut the grant to London's Foreign Press Association.
The British Council has, since 1935, been the chief agent of cultural diplomacy. This followed the discovery (in the 1929 D'Abernon report) that the reason why some foreign politicians and businessmen declared themselves pro-British was that they had been taught in Britain. It was the equivalent of pro-British armies being those whose officers had been trained at Sandhurst. Such 'alternative diplomacy' mattered.
Yet 20 years ago the British Council was protesting that its budget was half that of the German and US equivalents, and a quarter that of the French. This remains roughly the case today. The council must earn what it can from teaching English — an increasingly competitive business — and selling university courses; but one of its core activities, the supply of local libraries, is pathetically underfinanced. Libraries are still the easiest way of reaching and creating young Anglophiles. In this the council has always been not just the poor relation of the Foreign Office, but less appreciated even than the BBC World Service.
The Russian assault this week on the council's offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg was, we are told, another round in the game of chicken that dominates relations between Russia and the West — to which the Litvinenko murder was a mere sideshow. Bush/Blair's contemptuous treatment of Vladimir Putin over Nato and the EU was bound to evoke a chauvinist response, and has done so. If anyone wants an example of the bankruptcy of conventional diplomacy (on both sides), it is here.
Yet such diplomacy is regularly upstaged by cultural confrontation. Moscow's attempt to foil the Russian treasures exhibition, opening next week at London's Royal Academy, was hamfisted. The excuse was that pictures from the Pushkin Museum had been (briefly) impounded two years ago in Switzerland by lawyers claiming ownership dating back to the second world war. Since the pictures were already on show in Germany, this was absurd. Nonetheless, Britain's culture department moved with speed, passing an indemnity law in 48 hours. This demonstrated both the potency of such diplomacy and how fast governments can pass laws when they choose. Never let a minister say there is 'no time' for new legislation.
The Russian attack on the British Council suggests that such semi-detached agencies are moving ever closer to centre stage. The council prides itself on not being a government department and thus being able to operate independently of the executive. This does not wash. The council office in St Petersburg may not have been targeted because its head is son of the council's chairman, Lord Kinnock. But Kinnock's appointment by Blair was a blatant political perk. As long as the council is financed by the government it will be regarded as doing the government's bidding.
It is a fantasy to imagine that cultural diplomacy, in the widest sense, can be divorced from international relations. It is and should be treated as part and parcel of the same enterprise. The budgetary ratio of conventional to cultural diplomacy (including the World Service) of roughly four to one should be drastically narrowed. That ambassadorship in Britain should remain a foreign service closed shop is also nowadays wrong. Other nations benefit from sending academics, writers and businessmen to represent them abroad. Britain should have the imagination to send a scholar to India or a general to Pakistan or a banker to Japan.
The British Council ought to be the lead diplomatic department in all but the most politically sensitive countries, and be staffed appropriately. Politics, defence and commerce should be subsidiary activities. In an age of soft power, Western democracies will do far better in propagating their values of freedom of speech and expression by the exchange of people and ideas than by the bullying diplomatic rhetoric of the war on terror. They should lead by example. That requires the diplomacy of human and cultural exchange.
The Russian closure of British Council offices is in every sense a step backwards. It will hurt young Russians aspiring to see and know more about the West. It will, in the longer term, hurt British interests in Russia and thus remit to the dark ages relations between two countries which should, in the light of history, be the best of friends.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist
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