Flat White

Dismembering diplomacy’s fourth wall

13 November 2018

4:12 PM

13 November 2018

4:12 PM

Strange things happen at international embassies all the time.

In 1984 a female British police officer was shot from the window of London’s Libyan Embassy when patrolling a protest of expatriates protesting against Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The order to shoot was given by Gaddafi himself who simply couldn’t abide the criticism. Significant international consequences followed.

Since 2012 we’ve had the absurdity of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid sexual assault charges that he claims will lead to his extradition to the United States to explain his leaking of top-secret US documents.

He relies on sunlamps and occasional Evita style balcony appearances where he rails against the evils of Amerika to get his regular doses of Vitamin D. And now Pamela Anderson is dating him.

2018 and its Russian spies that seem back in vogue – facilitated via the British Russian Embassy – attempting to poison ex-Russian spies living the quiet life in the UK.

Given this past history – and the ongoing sideshow that is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un having relatives murdered in airports – we shouldn’t really be surprised by the spectacle of Saudi journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi walking into an embassy and exiting in chopped pieces because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman didn’t like what Khashoggi has been saying about him.


The ongoing updates on what really happened behind embassy walls and how the dissection was made is the less elegant side of world affairs – the realpolitik truth that despite the national interest platitudes, world leaders – whether dictatorship or democratically elected – will usually do whatever they believe brutally necessary to achieve their goals and maintain their power.

This is what German Chancellor Bismarck famously referred to as the unpleasant reality of how the sausage is made and unfortunately for these often-shameless world leaders is increasingly exposed and amplified via modern technology and social media.

The art of diplomacy has been described as a kind of theatre but what we see now is when the actors themselves discard the diplomatic niceties, break through the fourth wall and reveal the truth directly to the audience.

This performance is then followed by even better political acting with the faux shocked denials of the guilty parties – corrupt Middle Eastern dictators, Russian strongmen, individuals normal people would never trust.

Or alternatively the rabbit-in-headlight reaction of free world leaders who have built great trade and security expectations only to now see this threatened by the inconvenient behaviours of their dodgy new best friends.

This is that look of Donald Trump as he equivocates over what to do next about the Saudi regime now it has admitted to killing Khashoggi.

While these are bloodthirsty extremes other more transactional examples also cut to the chase of the realities of international affairs – consider Obama’s US-Iran nuclear agreement which while full of ignored platitudes about Iran disarming for economic access really came down to one potent image –a cargo hold full of pallets stacked with American dollars believed to be worth close to $US 2 billion.

Which puts into context the last month’s revelation that the new environment minister Melissa Price bumped into the former Pacific Island president Anote Tong at a Canberra restaurant and offered to get her chequebook as she suggests its really just about the cash when small Pacific nations visit Canberra.

The idea that Price misled parliament by claiming her memory of the conversation was that she spoke of Australia’s friendship with the Pacific is sort of quaint given the increasingly visible and underlying duplicity of international diplomacy. It is quite possible she held both ideas in her head at the same time.

Blame social media, the loss of personal discretion in political affairs and the embrace of look-at-me celebrity politics (both dictator and free world) but the truth of the foreign policy sausage is out there for all to see these days and the diplomacy fourth wall dismembered like a problematic Saudi journalist in a suitcase.

Michael Scammell is a freelance writer.

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