Negotiating towards disaster

by ammophila

No this is not your Editor writing.  He has left me in charge of the place while he takes a summer holiday.  He claimed he has been invited to join a presidential team charged with devising new combinations of countries and organisations (not necessarily real, now or ever) that can be made ready in case of need to allege their existence, presented together with supporting aerial photographs and forged documents to persuade troublesome populations around the world that there is a new and even more threatening axis-of-evil about to bombard them (‘with just 45 minutes warning’ is apparently the timespan to be asserted).   That is, if attempts at détente with whatever axis-of-evil is currently the on-duty axis-of-evil do not succeed in failing, which involves much less effort.  (It’s nearly always more comfortable dealing with a familiar long-term enemy.)  Actually I don’t think I believe a word of his story, because I met some good chaps in a bar down at the harbour, and they told me every year he takes his Lamborghini off to France or Italy for a couple of weeks in the summer for a holiday.  He said nothing about posting before he left.   I’m taking that as his agreement for me to have a go myself, though in fact the first item is something a reader in Fiji sent in which I found when I went through the post.  Edward D.L.H.

  1. The Theresa mystery 2. The Gulf mystery  3. Career advice 4. Prize competition  5.Counterclassicism

If he sticks to his schedule – a bit fussy about stuff like that – the next regular posting will be 1/8/2017


Some have unkindly, and inaccurately, described Theresa May as Hillary Clinton translated into British.  Theresa got where she did by her own efforts, not significantly aided by serried banks of supporters, and she did get to the top job.  But she is a paradigm example of the outstanding lieutenant who should not have been promoted  captain.  Given a post (Minister of the Interior) where cunning politicians like to see an able and efficient rival, since there is a good chance its demands may leave them exhausted, she held it for six years and still succeeded to the top job.  She also was not afraid to speak truth to the dangerous, the police and the elderly grandees of her own party.  But Theresa’s efficiency is her weakness.  She identifies issues and their parameters, the problems and their solutions, and systematically works out the ways to deal with them.  Efficiency, in this mode, is what in junior posts is described as ticking boxes.  To tick a box appropriately you have to identify it, and that identification tends to fill up the foreground of the attention, blocking the chance of taking into account other circumstances that might be related, might be important. and might change.  This kind of efficiency is the enemy of the imagination of the gifted and successful leader.  In the case of the holder of a demanding post it also inevitably leads to a risky dependence on outlines and options and information and position papers passed upwards from offices which individually will very probably have less competence and less complete awareness of what is needed.  The procedures for supplying that material will soon enough become standard and by that fact will be invested with a spurious aura of reliability and authority, even when the material is the outcome of an overworked inexperienced subordinate team.  And what will the result be when the time comes to take the sum of this prodigious labour and to ask others from an opposing camp to accept the carefully measured and firmly based conclusions of one’s own side?  Will one meet them with a mind ready to hear different views and values and to recognise aspects of the situation that had not shown themselves before, a mind able at once to see a way to build a stronger structure by combining the familiar with the new?  Or will that strenuous preparation of meticulous plans to cover every factor foreseen have led to unquestioning trust in one’s own side’s right to stay true to its decisions, adherence to its predetermined principles and to insistence that one’s own position is the only one possible, led in fact to the last step on the path to failure?   (The Hon. J. Q. de H., Suva.)

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E.D.L.H writes.  A chum of mine  who is still in the diplomacy racket thinks the trouble heating up in the Persian Gulf (apologies to my Arab friends but I grew up with that name constantly in my ears and it’s hard to change long term habits) could have a very simple origin.  Anybody notice a couple of odd things about it?  Things had been going along there tickety-boo for years, even if some were getting a bit cheesed off about all the attention being given to Qatar.  Then suddenly three states suddenly made seriously heavy noises in the direction of Qatar (plus Egypt which gets a lot of money from the Gulf), telling them they’d got to shut down the Turkish army base there (odd that they didn’t mention the much larger US base, but that fits my chum’s theory like a glove), tug the forelock to the leaders of the Arab world which they made very clear did not include Turkey, blow raspberries or medium-range missiles at Iran, and shut down Al Jazeera.  Now when did all this start?  Just about three weeks ago.  And what happened a week or two before that?  Donald Trump’s successful visit to Saudi Arabia, with pomp, friendship, and massive contractual benefits.  Most of the world by now is familiar with our friend Donald’s impulsive generosity towards those he sees as his friends, and also familiar with his free-ranging eloquence.  The theory is that there was a certain amount of misunderstanding in the parleys that took place (by no means at all the first such occasion when leaders of the Arab world have met westerners expounding their views), and that the Saudi side may have got the impression that they were going to get US support from there on in, whatever they might set their hand to.  What better opportunity could they find to take those they see as uppity Qataris down a peg or three?  And the Saudis may have assumed it would be un-American to cancel a contract as big as that one even if some untoward incident, such as nuclear war should intervene.

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Opinion piece (anon.)  Careers advice centres seem slow in adapting to the modern world.  When did you last hear of a twenty-something being adviced (that is apparently how now-generation professionals in that line of business should put it) about how to get himself or herself onto the books of a functioning international organisation.  But it’s a high premium goal.  Once in, a good chance of a first class life-style for decades.  Generous salary and very generous expenses/’compensation’ schemes.  Very little work required apart from the production of reports and statistics and mission statements and  draft programmes in sufficient quantity to ensure that those who receive them will not attempt to read the stuff.  Moreoever there will be plenty of competent assistants and secretaries to deal with whatever has to be done in the office.  Downside?  Not much, though attendance at meetings can become a drawback if not treated with the right level of insouciant contempt, which of course must never be directed overtly at those through whose ranks you hope to rise to become a Vice-President Europe, or Regional Director Southeast Asia.   Ideal work environment, since any self-respecting government will facilitate large and luxurious headquarters for any right-sounding international organisation that decides to base itself in their country.   Largely stress-free schedules unless you choose to input the stress yourself (see again remark about assistants and secretaries), and first-class air travel every time you jet off for a study tour or congress. For the energetic and imaginative there could be great advantages (though correspondingly also risks) in developing a brand-new international organisation of your own in co-operation with the right sort of individuals in the state where it is to be based, but of course you must make sure first that the organisation does not already exist.  (Their number is very great.)  Naturally it must claim to promote something which is going to cost little by comparison with the annual budget of the average government, but at the same time look good when the leader goes along to give his annual speech at the UN.   Anyone for a World Index of Cross-Border Navigation Rights, or an Asian Commission on Dental Health of Domestic Pets, or an International Double-Migration Advisory Panel?

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One thing which I certainly share with our Editor even though I have the wrong nationality and, for the past few years, the wrong habitat too, is British politics and public life, endless source of wonder at human credulity and incompetence.  A single example: London has recently decided to remove the ‘speed bumps’ built into suburban roads, on the grounds that drivers’ reactions to them increase air pollution and thereby impose a cost in life expectancy.  (Why do they think the ‘speed bumps’ near schools, for example, were put there in the first place?) But  the Editor’s approach to that strange society seems to have  been rather po-faced.  I’m going to set up a prize competition.  A bottle of Château du Tertre for the best article to fit the following heading:  ‘Is George Osborne an obnoxious git?’  Answers (typed please) on not more than 4 sheets of A4 paper to this office by 7/7/17 (E.D.L.H.)

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Counterclassicism:  A striking piece of evidence that time will not ‘always tell’, or at least that some bits of truth may have to wait longer than the whole existence of the human race before being revealed:  Virgil built up a solid reputation as a major poet by (a) writing a lot of stuff; (b) using it, as well as other opportunities, to fawn on the emperor who liked that, and who could have Virgil neutralised at the drop of a handkerchief; (c) exercising an eye for picking out the sort of ideas that well-off and well-connected Romans liked to hear; (d) having a fairly good verbal memory and a good grounding in the rules needed for writing Latin hexameters (though he got that part wrong in places); (e) sharing a belief popular throughout recorded history that pompous or antique verbiage is ipso facto poetic; and (f) quite remarkably little talent for imagination, visual description, using words and syntax for achieving interesting aesthetic effects, and for any other qualities that can raise a claim for a true poet.  Just take an unprejudiced look at his work, Georgics just as much as the Aeneid, strip away the respectful aura enveloping it for millennia.  How can the reputation survive an honest unbiassed assessment?

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