Saturday, September 25, 2010

Missions to the middle kingdoms

Paul Smith 1Wolfson College sponsored a talk yesterday by Sir Anthony Brenton, a retired British diplomat and recent ambassador to Russia.  It’s always interesting to hear stories from people at the center of events, and Sir Anthony was eloquent about why the world needed diplomats, what ambassadors do, and how they flourished during the ‘Golden Age” of diplomacy in the late 1800’s.  A mathematician by training, he set out eleven traits of the good diplomat, including honesty, an ascetic private life, a love of good food and drink, ad a willingness to learn languages.  All good stories, as I’d expect from one who spends a lifetime in conversation and presentation.

I was most interested in his ‘Great Power’ view of the world: that diplomacy works best in a world dominated by a half-dozen major powers.  His Golden Age depended on a balance among major European powers; he views the coming decade as including BRIC / Asian as well as EU and US.  These powers, in turn, must be collectively vigilant about the smallest emerging and failed states, black holes that seem to breed the worst social and political abuses.

Paul Smith 2Lost in the middle are the many countries that aren’t strategic or big or ambitious.  Places like the Netherlands.

I think this is a general omission, and an unfortunate one. Graphs in the Economist and press releases from the EU regularly wring hands over the the  statistics of the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Spain.  They fret about politics and voting in eastern Europe and the Balkans.  They are generally silent about the broad middle kingdoms in between.

OECD statistics suggest that many of these countries, far from dull or uninteresting,  are succeeding. where larger and smaller ones are not.  Economically, they didn’t suffer as bad a downturn and most are dealing effectively with financial reform and budget-balancing. PSocially, they are preserving a good standard of living and innovative business growth.  Politically, they seem civil at the center.  It seems like there are lessons to learn in their variety successes and failures coming from the things each is doing differently from the others. 

Paul Smith 3It’s much the same in the US: Federal policy and the politics of large states like Texas and California dominate the news, while strugggling states like West Virginia and Louisiana lap up headlines. In between, middle states like Wisconsin, Hawaii, and even South Dakota are seldom covered, although they are the ones trying innovative social and economic policies.

Sir Anthony noted that the purpose of diplomacy was to project national interests and to collect foreign information.  It seems like there should also be a role for watching and learning from successful, non-troublesome countries.  There might even be a role for diplomatic exchanges at home, giving states access to one another’s experiences and ideas.

Sculptures by Paul Smith, exhibiting at Cambridge Contemporary Gallery.

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