After Salisbury: the lost art of diplomacy

Cool-headed diplomacy has given way to bluster and confusion.

The ongoing saga of the poisoned former spy in the normally quiet English city of Salisbury has led British government sources to accuse Russia of being ‘a strategic enemy’. Far more problematic for the future stability of the international order is how the response to the poisoning has revealed a gaping hole where cool-headed diplomacy and strategic coherence once stood.

At the operational level, systematic searches, forensic analyses and detailed inquiries continue to be conducted calmly and painstakingly by a wide variety of security professionals. But in the more strategic realm of communications, there has been a considerable amount of grandstanding by, and discord between, various significant parties.

Rash, early statements by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, to the effect that England may pull out of the football World Cup in response to the incident, were probably to be expected. He more recently agreed with a Labour MP that President Putin would look to draw prestige from the upcoming tournament in a manner akin to Hitler’s use of the 1936 Olympiad for propaganda purposes.

Many others have been equally intemperate and ill-measured. Once the specific substance involved had been formally identified, the defence secretary Gavin Williamson told Russia that it should ‘go away and shut up’. His more junior security minister, Ben Wallace, then appeared on Newsnight to announce to the Russians that the UK was ‘coming to get you’.

When asked why the government had only given the Russians 24 hours to address the available evidence, rather than the 10 days recommended in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the government asserted that the Russian reaction – to not respond to British demands – would have remained the same anyway. Lazy, self-fulfilling presumptions, inflammatory language and barroom banter appear to be the order of the day.

Then there’s the use of meaningless terminology. For instance, Novichok, we are continuously reminded by the media and prime minister alike, is a ‘military grade’ nerve agent. Are there any other types of nerve agent?

In a similarly confused and confusing vein, the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, issued precautionary advice to pub-goers and diners who may have been close to the incident to wash their clothes and other possessions, and to bag up any dry cleaning – only later being advised that these would be collected and destroyed. At the same time, she stated that she was ‘confident none of these customers or staff will have suffered harm’. Her predecessor, Sir Liam Donaldson, emerged from retirement to express surprise on national radio that, in his view, such messages from public-health officials had been so ‘slow’ to emerge and were too limited in scope.

The earlier, and more significant, outbursts by politicians had already led one former UK ambassador to Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, to advise that senior ministers should not be ‘shooting their mouths off’ over the affair. Quite. In doing so, he echoed somewhat more forthrightly the home secretary, Amber Rudd, who pointed out the need ‘to keep a cool head’ and to collect all the evidence before taking action. But that was always going to be challenging in a climate fuelled by backbench posturing and media caricatures of the ‘evil empire’. Many, it would seem, are rather keen in our age of uncertainty and insecurity to return to the Cold War with its reassuring clarity, despite the potential for mutually assured destruction.

Indeed, a head of steam has been building up against Russia for quite some time. It relates, among other matters, to its hostile views regarding homosexuality, its temerity to reject NATO and EU advances in Ukraine, its pursuit of different goals in the Syrian crisis to our own, and its alleged fixing of the US presidential election.

In response to the Salisbury poisoning, the Russian Embassy has sent tweets dismissive of the British government line. The tweets have caused the BBC and other media outlets to veer between incredulity and incomprehension for their apparent lack of due decorum and concern. But since when has British foreign policy been conducted in the Twittersphere – an arena most right-thinking adults know ought never to be taken too seriously at all? One president we all know of may conduct his affairs in that way, tweeting about the size of his button, but anyone else above the age of 12 should understand this neither to be appropriate nor useful.

The Foreign Office was once staffed by the brightest and the best the British education system had to offer. Recruited for their understanding of history, appreciation of culture and ability to speak foreign languages, its staff helped shape and deliver the UK’s national interests overseas in good times and ill for well over two centuries. They understood clearly that dinner-party opinions, short-term gains and petty politicking had no place in diplomacy, which sought to deliver long-term strategic objectives of benefit to the nation.

In recent years, such insights increasingly appear to have been forgotten. We now live in an age when senior officials and politicians on all sides and in all places think little of leaking private conversations, as happened to Theresa May recently in relation to her Brexit discussions. Elsewhere, there is talk of sidelining diplomats altogether in arranging talks with North Korea.

What all this reveals is how the United Kingdom and others have increasingly lost sight of, and are unable to articulate, their longer-term national interests in an age when the sovereign nation state has come to be viewed with disdain and suspicion. European and other partners have agreed to expel Russian diplomats over the Skripal affair. Their support may be welcome in the short term, but it is one thing to know what they collectively oppose, quite another to know what it is exactly any of them stand for.

The British people recently called upon their leaders to ‘take back control’ of their nation. It may be high time they did.

First published on spiked, 28 March 2018

Remaking Bandung, 60 years on

Introduction: This Communication Article proposes that if the Bandung Spirit is to be revived in the twenty-first century, then this will necessitate an appreciation in the first instance how different the world is today from conditions 60 years ago – both across the South but also, more particularly, in the West. The key shift may have been one from an assertive imposition of rule based on a clarity of vision and purpose, to a more insecure and reactive form of engagement that lacks direction. This latter seeks to compensate for an absence of meaning behind forms of procedural risk management. It will be the ability of the former colonies to put forward a direction that captivates all, based on transcending the past and presenting coherent human values rather than mere economic might that will determine the future. 

Bill Durodié (2016) Remaking Bandung 60 years on, Global Change, Peace & Security, 28:3, 307-315, DOI: 10.1080/14781158.2016.1193848

The spy who came in from the Cold War

The Red Army toilet-raiding realities of spying certainly exhilarated Steve Gibson, but the fall of the Berlin Wall brought doubt, too.

From the end of the Second World War through to the end of the Cold War, a little-known unit of British special forces conducted spying missions behind the Iron Curtain – that is, right from the heart of Soviet-occupied East Germany.

Called the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Group Soviet Forces of Occupation in Germany, or BRIXMIS for short, it was part of an officially sanctioned exchange of observers between the Red Army and the British Army established by the victorious Allied powers and the USSR through the Robertson-Malinin agreement in 1946. Its ostensible purpose was to improve communication and relations between them.

In addition to BRIXMIS – and their French and American counterparts in the East – the Red Army also conducted similar operations through a unit in West Germany. But, diplomatic liaison and translation duties aside, the real purpose of these units soon became clear: to find out what each other was up to by heading out into those areas where they had been specifically told not to go.

My friend and former UK Defence Academy colleague Steve Gibson led many of these ‘tours’ just as the Cold War was coming to an end. Live and Let Spy is his gripping recollection of these episodes. Although originally published in 1997 as The Last Mission: Behind the Iron Curtain, it has now been republished and augmented some 15 years later with a significant additional chapter written with the hindsight gained during his subsequent academic career.

Much of the espionage involved gathering evidence about the weaponry available to the Red Army. Accordingly, it typically required lying in wait on a bridge over a railway line at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of a forest in winter. With temperatures dipping to around minus-30 degrees celsius, the objective was to photograph all the kit that passed by on a train underneath. Alternatively, they might record the rate of fire from Russian guns from the safety of their locked vehicle in the sweltering 40 degree heat of summer.

Sent back to the Defence Intelligence Staff in Whitehall, this information allowed specialists to determine troop and equipment levels, as well as whether a new bolt on a gun or aerial on a tank might allow it to fire or communicate further than previously estimated – and if so, whether this would necessitate the complete re-evaluation of NATO’s Cold War battle plans.

Of course, the operations required meticulous planning to identify suitably concealed observation posts, as well as efficient access and escape routes. This planning was usually conducted during the day. For those so disposed, there are sufficient ‘tradecraft’ details here to sustain interest. For me, however, the real gem is the lesson identified early in the book – to be as conspicuous as possible by waving at everyone.

This waving tactic disoriented many into believing that the Mercedes G-Class (Geländewagen) passing by with three individuals in army fatigues in it was legitimate. And even if observers suspected something, the fact that nearby children would invariably wave back – raising the possibility that those inside were known to them – would add further confusion or delay. Those who did smell a rat usually did so too late.

It was not just a jolly jaunt. Over the years, a number of tour personnel lost their lives or suffered serious injury through being shot at or having Russian tanks ram their vehicles. East German ‘narks’ were also always on the look-out for anyone in the wrong place and would report these to the relevant authorities. It is noted, though, that many local ‘Easties’ were keen to help the agents.

Given the challenging circumstances, selection and training were intense and severe. It required individuals who could think quickly on their feet and not just expect to follow rules. It also meant having the ability to complete advanced courses in Russian and German, photography and navigation in next to no time, and to memorise the look and sound of countless pieces of Soviet military equipment, as well as remain calm – yet sharp – when tired or provoked.

For anyone who imagines that spying is glamorous, or somehow akin to being in a Bond movie, they will be disabused by Gibson’s chapter on document-gathering from dumps (literally). It had been recognised for some time that, when they went on manoeuvres in East Germany, the Soviet forces were not supplied with any toilet paper. They would use whatever came to hand – a copy of Pravda, a letter from a loved one, or even their mission papers. And after they were done, it was then that Her Majesty’s specially trained and equipped Cold War warriors really came into their own…

The book is a tour de force of teeth-clenching tension that will keep most readers gripped from beginning to end. But while the first nine chapters retain the action-packed core of the original narrative, filled with the escapades of small teams of rather special individuals trying to find out what the Soviets were up to, the real substance – for those of a more political disposition – is a chapter titled ‘Reflections’.

As a professor of political science at the University of Warwick, Robert Aldrich, notes in the new foreword, Gibson is now clearly of the mind that ‘much of what [he] was led to believe [during the Cold War], and some of what he was told, was simply wrong!’

It is testimony to the author’s strength of character that – unlike others – he neither chose to dwell in the past nor fell prone to the ‘invention of illness’. This latter problem, he himself notes, affected many of his one-time colleagues once their personal and moral frameworks disintegrated with the end of the old, Cold War world order.

Gibson’s resolute clearsightedness is to be admired. So despite having been caught up in the exhilaration of it all as a young man, despite devoting the prime of his life to the East-West conflict, he refuses to lie to himself. ‘The Cold War’, he notes, ‘was a giant historical cul-de-sac where all enlightened efforts at producing a good society were suspended’.

Aldrich astutely summarises a key argument of Live and Let Spy: ‘while Cold War warriors fought a tyrannical and ruthless version of Communism abroad, they remained ignorant of – and lost – an ideological battle at home’. He then adds accusingly: ‘Western politicians now offer a watered-down version of the interfering, intolerant, controlling and authoritarian government that they were initially set against rather than anything freer.’

In this, he takes his lead from Gibson, who rails against the erosion of ‘moral values, community spirit and sense of purpose’ that now pervades Western political elites. They are ‘pessimistic and misanthropic’, Gibson argues, while ‘suffering from an acute lack of confidence in their own projects’. This lack of authority, this social pessimism, they now effectively impose on others through a ‘moralising intervention into every aspect of private life’. But while the description of this new period will, no doubt, connect with many, Gibson – possibly by trying to cover too much, including passing references to Aristotle, Kant and Bentham for good measure – fails to provide a convincing explanation of why this all came about.

Taking his lead from the BBC documentary film producer Adam Curtis, Gibson identifies how the computer modelling of behaviour – and even more bizarrely, of intentions – came to dominate an intelligence world increasingly devoid of purpose or principle. But, as he himself notes, the intelligence community’s embrace of behaviour modelling is just as likely to be an expression of a broader ‘loss of faith in humans’ as the driver of social processes. Today, that loss of faith – and an obsession with risk management – comes to be expressed through the failure to put eyes and ears on the ground, as Gibson’s once were (a job for which he was awarded an MBE), and thereby a failure to verify theory through practice.

In addition, this final chapter makes three significant and unique contributions to improving our understanding and application of intelligence.

Firstly, he argues that the most useful role of intelligence today is to understand the context correctly, without which ‘purpose is equally misguided’. Secondly, and drawing on his most important academic contribution, Gibson notes that, ‘the use of single-source intelligence-reporting drawn from individuals selected principally for their willingness to share secrets…is not the best way to analyse contemporary challenges’, as the illusions about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ ably demonstrated.

Whether these new challenges are, as he suggests, those so-called non-traditional security threats, such as climate change, energy supply and food provision, is open to debate. Possibly, it is the ‘dismissal of free will’ and ‘decline into mediocrity’ that he identifies elsewhere that are the real problems. And it is these problems that have turned the essentially technical issues of climate change or food provision into all-consuming sources of uncertainty and insecurity.

Finally, and significantly for one who has made the pursuit of freedom and autonomy central to his existence, Gibson notes the loss of any sense of fun in a politically correct world without an ‘enlightened purposeful ideology around which to cohere’. (This comes from a man who knows something about fun having, in his youth, gatecrashed an international beauty pageant pretending to be Miss Austria’s personal bodyguard.)

Advocates of the ‘purposeless pragmatism’ and ‘bureaucratic regulation’ he now views as the real barrier to achieving ‘prosperity and progress for all’ would no doubt disapprove of Gibson’s youthful antics. It is unlikely, for instance, that they would appreciate the photographs of naked lovers taken from over one kilometre away that he and his colleagues once sent back to Ministry of Defence analysts to show that their equipment was working and that they were maintaining their skills. But, he notes, it is precisely intolerance towards the criticism – and in this case, the mockery – of widely held beliefs that precludes the effective determination of the truth.

Richard Aldrich concludes how ‘Gibson reflects that it takes the passage of time to recognise that one is misled by power’. For those who feel that after the fact is too late and who still hope to shape history rather than merely be carried along by it, it is only through a constantly evolving analysis of present circumstances that such historical cul-de-sacs can avoided.

This book – while not pretending to be any more than a personal memoir of some hitherto less disclosed aspects of the Cold War – serves to remind us of how far we have come since. After it all ended, Gibson concludes that ‘the somewhat hasty, undignified and testy disintegration of the Mission was intrinsically due to the absence of mission itself’.

This may well explain why – as was revealed from Kremlin minutes released some 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down – Western leaders were so keen at the time to remind the Soviet Union’s then-president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that they really did not want a re-unified Germany. Despite their pro-freedom stance and rhetoric, a unified Germany would, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security’.

Indeed, the Cold War may well have been the last time that Britain and the other Western powers could even pretend to have had a clear and positive sense of mission.

First published on spiked, 30 March 2012

Reconciling growing energy demand with climate change management


More than two billion people in India and China are only now emerging from a life of drudgery and abject poverty.’ A billion more across sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia look set to join them over the next decades. This should be a cause for celebration. Instead, much of the contemporary discussion relating to energy needs and climate change portray these trends as a major problem.

The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was hailed in advance as reflecting an ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ on the assumed problem of a link between carbon emissions and climate change, as well as on what needed to be done about it. But instead of agreement there was discord between the developed and the developing nations. The former argued that the latter should monitor and restrain their growth as they view with a growing sense of alarm the possibility of every Indian and Chinese person expecting Western lifestyles. They pointed to China now being the second largest producer of carbon emissions on earth.

From the perspective of the developing countries, however, as expressed by the Indian premier, Manmohan Singh, their growth and development is to meet internal needs and demands, as well as simply to catch up with the West. Their view is that the advanced capitalist countries had the benefit of industrialising first – thereby releasing into the atmosphere the carbon that is now considered to be a problem. Accordingly, it should be for those countries to lead the way in cutting back on emissions. And anyway, in terms of per capita emissions, it is these developed Western countries that remain the single largest polluters.

It appears, then, that the debate over how to meet growing energy demands and manage climate change has reached an impasse. It is difficult to see how, within the current framework, the different perspectives of developed and developing countries can ever be reconciled or resolved.

Reconciling Growing Energy Demand with Climate Change Management, Global Change, Peace & Security, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp.271-282, June 2011