09 March 2009

Bungling diplomacy

British newspaper The Telegraph reports on protocol gaffes during British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's recent visit to Washington, adding:

The real views of many in Obama administration were laid bare by a State Department official involved in planning the Brown visit, who reacted with fury when questioned by The Sunday Telegraph about why the event was so low-key. The official dismissed any notion of the special relationship, saying: "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment."

This is beyond a mere gaffe; it's a direct insult to what is, in fact, one of our most valuable and reliable allies. Somebody needs to be disciplined.

Then there was this embarrassment at the recent meeting between Secretary of State Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov:

"We want to reset our relationship and so we will do it together," said Clinton, presenting Lavrov with a palm-sized yellow box with a red button. Clinton joked to Lavrov: "We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?" "You got it wrong," said Lavrov, smiling as the two pushed the reset button together before dinner at a Geneva hotel. He told Clinton the word "Peregruzka" meant "overcharge", to which Clinton replied: "We won't let you do that to us."

It was a minor gaffe, but doesn't the State Department have any native speakers of Russian on the staff with whom they could have checked this? I'm not very concerned if the Russian regime feels insulted by the US goverment -- it's a murderous dictatorship, after all. I'm more concerned about the regime deciding that the US government is amateurish and naïve, which frankly would not be an unreasonable conclusion at this point.

The excuse that Obama is "tired" and "overwhelmed" has justly attracted widespread derision. The man is only 47 (younger than I am) and has been in office less than two months. Earlier Presidents such as Roosevelt and Johnson had to handle problems far more daunting and protracted than the current recession. If Obama is truly "surprise[d] at the sheer volume of business that crosses his desk", then this vindicates the warnings during the nomination process against putting forward a man with so little government experience for the highest office. In any case, wouldn't one simply expect that the chief executive of an organization as huge and complex as the US federal government would probably keep rather busy?

2 Comments:

Anonymous Carol said...

Condoleezza Rice probably would have caught the Russian mistranslation herself. Now we're courting the Syrians the same week we're dissing the British. A new era in diplomacy indeed. Sigh.

09 March, 2009 09:25  
Blogger Prash said...

Me [currently a French diplomat] would've said things differently....a diplomatic answer is to tell every country that they are a special ally. To make other believe that they are important is an art and what we call diplomacy, most of the times.

12 March, 2009 00:49  

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