Former British Diplomat discusses ‘Is C20th Diplomacy Dead? The Case of the Middle East’

Former British Diplomat, Sir John Jenkins, was joined by Professor Yossi Mekelberg, at Regent’s University London, to discuss his work in the Middle East and his opinions on diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. 

With his work in the British diplomatic service spanning over 35 years, Sir John Jenkins began his career in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1980 where he served in Kuwait, Kuala Lumpur and Abu Dhabi. He has also been appointed as an Ambassador for countries including Burma, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Up until January 2015, he was the British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia. Since January 2015, Sir John Jenkins became the Executive Director of the Middle East branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Sir John Jenkins addressed the question of whether diplomacy is dead in the C20th which he describes as “a question he has been asking himself in various forms for quite a long time.” He began working in the Foreign Office just after The Lancaster House Conference was staged on the future of what was at the time Rhodesia, which later became Zimbabwe – the last great act of decolonisation. He stated how at the time those seemed to be “and still seem to be, classic examples of what I think of as C20th diplomacy”.

There is talk about the Foreign Office, what it is for, whether it is underpowered – deliberate or not, and whether it has any role in the new world. Speaking of Brexit and how responsibilities have been distributed around Whitehall, he says it’s “perhaps a sign that something fundamental has changed”. 

On his early days in the Foreign Office, Jenkins described it as “a place where classic diplomatic patterns were standard practice”. A lot of their business running Britain’s external relations was conducted in bi-lateral ways, which would have been familiar to diplomats in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and so forth. However, he “does not think that is the case now”.  Jenkins believes something has changed profoundly - he isn’t sure entirely why or what has changed, but it is fundamental.

Sir John Jenkins spent two years in Iraq, working alongside the Foreign Secretary at the time, David Miliband. In 2009, the two spent time in New York where they worked on a ceasefire in Gaza. He describes how even then he felt there was a sense they were seeing “the hollowing out of diplomacy as what was really important was happening somewhere else – it was happening on the ground”. 

Having spent nearly two years in Iraq, Jenkins spoke of the 2010 elections in London, and how it “was almost impossible,” to get people interested and doing something about it, highlighting his belief of disconnect. Iraq was a key foreign national security issue for countries such as the UK and USA, and he thinks one of the reasons people did not put their efforts into this was because Iraq had become “domestically toxic”. 

His time in Libya continued in much the same way. Jenkins arrived in Libya in May 2011, shortly after the Libyan Revolution had started, where he stayed until November 2011, around two weeks after Gaddafi was killed. He spoke of how once this happened, “any sense of diplomatic cohesion fell apart”. Jenkins believes it illustrates a more profound point that what we have seen in the years since 2011, is essentially the securitisation of a large part of Western foreign policies because these are enterprises driven by apparently military imperatives and securitised imperatives. He thinks this “leaves very little space in the repertoire for traditional diplomatic endeavours”. 

Speaking of how, traditionally, diplomats and foreign policies of Western countries would seek to work with regimes as they were, rather than replacing them - dealing with the world as it is rather than the world as one would like it, Jenkins believes “the tension is still there, I think it has been disabled. Whether this will change or not is the big question”. He stated, as a consequence of this, we have “fewer people who know what they are talking about when it comes to difficult issues in difficult countries, in difficult languages”. 

To a certain extent, Jenkins believes it also reflects the way foreign policy has become entirely subordinate in domestic policy. This, partnered with securitisation has meant that “space for traditional diplomatic diplomacy has been very significantly narrowed down,” using the US foreign policy establishment as an example, which is heavily securitised, where generals and ex-heads of the CIA in charge of foreign policy, believing that so much of it is driven through military presence on the ground. 

Amongst all of this, something which has struck Sir John Jenkins is the role of the UN. Jenkins believes people had a tendency to hide behind the UN representative system by saying they “support the UN in its effort to solve this particular conflict”. What would traditionally have been part of their foreign policy, traditionally part of their bi lateral effort, had now been delegated to the UN. These were delegated at a time where the UN couldn’t achieve very much. Jenkins discussed how if you look at what is happening practically in Syria, “it is material force that is making things move. If there is a solution it will be because the great powers of the region will make it work, it won’t be about the UN”. 

Jenkins spoke of how it is important to look at who is making things happen in the region. Using Iran as an example, he is of the opinion that Iran has, since the 1980s, had an extremely hybridised way of managing its external affairs, believing the most important Iranian in Iraq is Qasem Soleimani, who seems to be everywhere, “making things happen,” through intimidation and inducement. Jenkins states how “none of this is what you would traditionally call diplomacy but it is highly effective”. 

This may be something that is regional and how the West and the US interact with other regions. Touching upon Russia, Jenkins talked about the people they use to promote their interests in the region, including military forces and traditional Russian diplomacy. Jenkins thinks Russia may be an exception in this context as it is “more at ease in swimming in this very turbulent sea of what the Middle East has become”. This may have something to do with the lack of sustained expertise in the West or they find it more difficult to cope with disorder. With a shift in domestic politics in the West, which can be seen through Brexit, with Trump, and in France, Jenkins thinks something has changed in the domestic politics which makes it more difficult to conduct diplomacy in the way we used to. 

He posed the question: is this a new phase or will it become the new norm, believing himself that it may be the new norm and whatever happens with Brexit, it provides an opportunity to think hard about what our place in this new emerging world order might be, which involves thinking about what diplomacy does.