Playing Chinese Whispers with a Megaphone

These days, a press conference at the White House is cringe TV. President Trump greeting world leaders may leave unfortunate viewers squirming in front of the screen. It’s an experience simultaneously entertaining and unpleasant.

“When the American president takes someone by the hand, he looks more like someone trying to shake off a piece of chewing gum stuck between his fingers than someone greeting another person”.  Giphy

One thing that already has generated countless internet memes and analyses among the Twitterati is Trump’s handshake. When the American president takes someone by the hand, he looks more like someone trying to shake off a piece of chewing gum stuck between his fingers than someone greeting another person.

After trying to wring the hand off his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, and later squeezing the life out of the hand extended by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Trump suddenly refused to shake Angela Merkel’s hand during her visit to the Oval office. The press were calling for a handshake. Merkel was left puzzled and somewhat perplexed when she realized that the American president had no plans even to look in her direction. It could have been a Monty Python sketch, but these days it’s life imitating art.

Perhaps what contributes to our obsession with these peculiar incidents is the clear contrast with the sophisticated and professorial demeanour of Trump’s predecessor, who seldom said or did anything diplomatically incorrect, and who often charmed the press and his audience with his quick replies and sense of humour. There is, however, a real danger that all the hullabaloo created by stuff like the bizarre handshakes ends up diverting attention from the truly significant consequences of the fact that the White House is occupied by people who seemingly couldn’t care less about diplomacy.

Undoubtedly, there are cases where traditional diplomacy has helped to cover up problematic situations, cases where it has created a smokescreen and smoothed over fundamental disagreements, where plain speaking would have been preferable. The role model for plain speaking, in a classic example from fictional political science, is obviously the scene in the film Love Actually where the prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, tells the American president (admittedly mainly because the president has made a pass at an assistant Hugh Grant’s character has his eye on) that the time is past when the United States can bully the United Kingdom as it pleases. But there is a reason why we have to turn to Hollywood to find this kind of moment. In reality, the world of diplomacy is one where the members of the United Nations give, say, Saudi Arabia – one of the world’s more authoritarian and discriminatory regimes – a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

Even though traditional diplomacy may sometimes cover up problems, we currently face major global challenges, and international diplomacy has an incredibly important role to play in the coming months and years. At the same time, this is the age of populism, and populism is in many ways the antithesis of diplomacy.

Concepts such as consensus, compromise, knowledge and cultural sensitivity are central to diplomacy. Populism, in contrast, is founded on a fundamental mistrust of “elites”, and not least a fondness for simple narratives about what underlies often highly complex series of events. Populists promise simple solutions to problems that are often extremely complex. If diplomacy can be described as a game of Chinese whispers, then the favoured tool of the populist is a megaphone.

No doubt Angela Merkel lost little sleep about Trump not wanting to take her hand, but what about all the really important challenges that are facing us? For example, what about the relationship between the United States and Iran?

The agreement signed in June 2015 between the United States and Iran was a turning point in the relationship between the two countries. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, diplomatic relations between them had been in the deep freeze. Every minor thing was interpreted in the most negative way possible, by both parties. When the agreement was signed, it represented the culmination of several years of patient, finely-tuned diplomacy. Small steps behind closed doors. The agreement the parties finally reached was certainly not perfect, but it was still in everyone’s best interests. Most analysts concur that the agreement significantly impeded Iran’s progress in developing a nuclear-weapons capability.

Donald Trump, however, has little positive to say about the agreement, or about the work that went into achieving it. In fact, he thinks it is “the worst deal in history”. Since January 2017, the tone adopted by the Trump administration towards Iran has been hard, patronizing and anything but diplomatic.

Recent weeks have shown how rapidly years of diplomacy can unravel. Over years of negotiations, the Americans and the Iranians had managed to establish some channels for dialogue that gave the countries’ respective foreign ministers the opportunity to communicate directly about any disagreements that arose, rather than letting situations escalate unnecessarily by quarrelling in the full glare of the world’s media. But it appears that these channels are no longer functioning. Once again there’s a loud crackle on the line. Dialogue has been abandoned in favour of monologue, and Chinese whispers have been replaced by megaphones. In situations like there is a real danger that even minor incidents can trigger really major crises.

  • This text was first posted in Norwegian in Dagsavisen 21 March 2017: ‘Hviskeleken med megafon‘.
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
Share this: