Magazine article The Spectator

Diplomacy's Human Side

Magazine article The Spectator

Diplomacy's Human Side

Article excerpt

One of the more interesting, and yet often hidden, aspects of foreign affairs is how politicians get on with those they're negotiating with, not just at the conference table but over dinner or alone with each other. When I used to cover these things for the BBC I found that there was no point in asking diplomats as they either wouldn't tell you or if they did you could never be quite sure they were telling the truth.

Body language was often quite revealing. One only had to watch Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Kohl sitting side by side on a platform to be aware that they were uneasy in each other's company. Kohl's predecessor, Helmut Schmidt, appeared to find Thatcher rather trying but would openly joke about her manner as he left a joint news conference. John Major, I suspect, probably got on well with most of those he dealt with as he's a tactile man, given to placing his hand on your arm and confiding in you, an attractive quality which on one occasion when I was interviewing him took me by surprise.

Is it necessary for foreign leaders to like each other? Apparently, yes. Mark Brayne, a former BBC foreign correspondent and now European news editor at the World Service, took the extreme step of training as a professional psychotherapist to have a better understanding of the human dimension to momentous events of the last century. I don't suppose that was the only reason he took it up. No doubt he's installed a couch at Bush House and, in his spare moments, analyses his colleagues. A picture enters my mind of him asking them, `What do you think of when I say the name John Birt?' He would need more than spare moments for answers to that.

However, he put his newly acquired skills to good use in Mind Games on Radio Four, which I caught last Sunday on my way home from the airport (repeated from Tuesday). Not that he needed psychotherapy to ask leading players involved in the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union in 1989 to 1991 how they all rubbed along during this period, as any decent interviewer would have known what to ask anyway. Still, it certainly made an interesting programme.

Brayne spoke to Miklos Nemeth, the then Hungarian Prime Minister whose decision to open the border with Austria was the crucial moment that led eventually to the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union itself. …

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