THE very first of my letters this morning was a blurb for the Bible in Basic! I put it under my saucer, and then reflected that (a) tea is an insipid drink, (b) everything changes, including taste. Palmerston only discovered at 80 his ideal petit déjeuner, chops and a bottle of port. His taste may have been reflected in his diplomacy. The profession has passed from the flamboyant to basic, and beyond -- into billingsgate.

The general decline, in this century, of artificial manners is rather worse than interesting; and in no sphere has the downward curve been so steep as in diplomacy. I began my job 47 years ago, and it was a fairly gentlemanly one on the surface. "The rapine underneath" was there, but it was relatively war in lace. Some conventions and ostensible courtesies were preserved.

Occasionally someone exploded in uniform and in dubious French. (The Americans in their frigid dress-clothes were mostly immune from even these ebullitions.) Sometimes one ran into quite a bit of dirt. But life slid along between the clashes and flounderings.

Remnants of the jargon long remained embedded in our language. Thus, when war came, an Ambassador "asked for his passports" (in the plural). In fact he had but one, from which he was never parted. I recently saw the old touch taken literally. In the film life of President Wilson the German Ambassador visited the White House at midnight, I think, to "ask for his passports." Author and audience perhaps thought that the President kept them somewhere. I even think that he produced them. The episode recalled a dead world.

Nowadays our diplomatists are booted around incontinent. The tone adopted to and about western diplomatic and consular representatives of all grades by all governments of the Iron Curtain is on the same level as the vituperations of their press. It is the style of an aggressive drunk. Buffon said that "style is the man himself;" but it is, alas, more than that. This is the style of a creed and an era.

In the days when politeness was a tradition, and tradition counted, demands for the recall of diplomatists were unknown save in rare cases of extreme provocation or impropriety. (The expulsion of Lord Sackville from the United States was not really deserved.) Now removal of Ambassadors or Chargés d'Affaires is continually demanded on the flimsiest pretext, and subordinates are simply thrown out in 48 hours. (I have often urged that we should all retaliate more formidably; Communist missions are much more useful to them than ours in Totalitaria are to us.) The excuse for this insolence is usually some stale and fantastic taradiddle on the theme of espionage, which is worked to death like much else by the Cominformants. The simplest conversation with a local citizen is sufficient to start the insanity, which invariably ends in manifold liquidations.

Here it should be stated parenthetically as a quite small cause of disrespect that Ambassadors have been multiplied beyond sense or recognition to gratify amour propre. Before 1914 only the Great Powers had Ambassadors, and these had both rank and power. Now they are increasingly mere mouthpieces; they have lost stature, and braided lightweights have not gained it.

Diplomacy would, however, have changed even without this minor metamorphosis. It is a commonplace that the Iron Curtain exists not only to prevent its inmates from knowing anything of the outside world, but also to bar all understanding from unwelcome but inevitable intruders, which is the totalitarian conception of even the most diplomatic infidel. Here we get nearer to the real causes of the decline in diplomacy during the second quarter of the twentieth century. For, until the First German War at least, diplomatists who knew well the peoples and languages of the countries where they were posted were thought to be an asset to both parties. They were always useful in maintaining good relations; they were often exceedingly popular, and the governments to which they were accredited were loath to let them go. Indeed foreign requests for prolongations of their appointments were sometimes embarrassing. Sometimes they -- for instance Herrick -- acquired the popularity without acquiring the tongue.

The past put a premium on courtesy. Wherever they went -- mainly without let or hindrance -- sane diplomatists tried to absorb as much as possible for their real purpose--peace, which they much enjoyed. Contrast this with the real policy of Totalitaria, which is the deepening and widening of ignorance. There is a deliberate aim to get rid of western diplomatists who know the language or nature of the country where they are stationed. There are many cases where this has been the sole reason for expulsion. The change is fundamental.

Here again I must diverge for a moment to complete the picture, and to add in fairness that often where a government had evil intentions its diplomatic representatives were kept in ignorance, the better to play their parts; or sometimes, knowing, they protested. There were bad men in the business, like Holstein, but the novelesque Machiavellis were the exception, not the rule. To the same order of ideas belongs the dramatized cliché of the midnineteenth century that "a diplomatist is an honest man paid to lie by his country." With the advent of Nazism and Communism, alike state conspiracies, most of their representatives were involved.

Thus we come to the main cause for the decline of diplomacy; and it will only be fully apparent when we look at its operation from the other end -- that is, the composition, activities and purposes of the Communist staffs in foreign capitals. This is a matter to which I have amply drawn attention in the House of Lords, in the hope of making the democracies realize the total nature of the change before it is too late.

The change resides in this. The old diplomacy mainly existed to maintain good international relations. When it failed its job was done, and it packed up -- "asked for its passports," or more prosaically took a train -- for then war had come in spite and not because of it in most instances. Enough official papers from the last century are now available to prove the truth of this assertion. Take, for example, the desperate efforts made to deter Germany from the last two of her five wars. In 1914 both Lichnowsky and Mensdorff did what little they could to milden their evil governments. Broadly speaking, the real charge that can be made against the old diplomacy is that, though sometimes tough or provocative, it was mostly too suave and honeyed on the part of the intending aggressor, too patient and conciliatory on the part of the aggressed. The second tendency issued in appeasement.

Nowadays the diplomacy of an increasing part of the world is thoughtfully calculated to create and maintain bad relations. This, of course, is done in no mere Schadenfreude or spirit of spite. Bad relations with western democracies and capitalist countries are an article of faith, an accepted condition for the survival of Totalitaria. The successful Communist statesman is therefore he who ensures the permanence and intensity of this condition. So the missions of the Cominform are largely stocked with persons who make no pretense of practising diplomacy as previously defined, but are employed solely for hostile propaganda, sabotage, subversion and espionage. I have plenty of evidence and illustration for which I have no space here, and which indeed are unnecessary to demonstrate so notorious a truism.

To revert again to the old diplomacy, espionage was not usually practised from embassies, though they were often the victims of it. They were generally kept apart from such compromising activities -- at least by the cautious or respectable Powers. An occasional Military Attaché was mentioned in a scandal like the Dreyfus case. The diplomatic body was, however, practically never involved in such hullabaloos as those now fabricated by ubiquitous secret police disguised in the combinations and permutations of infinite initials. Erstwhile spy-stories rarely attained publicity; when they did there was something in them, but gentlemen in knee-breeches and decorations were seldom implicated. (Of legitimate information they naturally obtained as much as possible.) Sardou's famous play, "Les Pattes de Mouche," often acted in Britain and the United States under the title of "Diplomacy," was a joke in the profession. (Abel Hermant's "La Carrière" was great fun.) Communist diplomatic missions, on the contrary, are everywhere up to the eyes in spying, and "make no bones" about it, though they protest loudly and pro forma when detected.

Espionage, however, is only the beginning of the mischief. Sabotage is an even surer way of ensuring the ideal of bad relations, because it is more widely felt. Totalitarian diplomacy now practises two kinds of sabotage, both of which are directed by its missions. The first, of course, is technical preparation for the event of war. The second is the "softening" or undermining of the countries with which war is contemplated. It is essential for the Soviet "Day" that these should first be economically weakened or ruined. The most favored methods are the "unofficial" and "rolling" strikes; but there are many other means of fomenting political disloyalty through industrial disaffection. The details of the technique do not concern us here; the point is that they are a function of the new diplomacy. The old might well turn in its grave. By these openly flaunted means a maximum of resentment is attained by Soviet diplomacy and its satellites. It all sounds like madness, but there is a tireless method in it.

The next activity is more insidious and equally novel, though its advent has been more gradual. It is openly to persuade as many people as possible, in the country whose hospitality is accepted, to hate and revile their own land. This is by far the best way to ensure bad relations. It is achieved partly by Communist press and radio from without, but also by local agencies for publicity (which take orders and subsidies from the Cominform through Communist embassies and legations), and finally by forming and financing "Friendship Societies" to cover the knaves who recruit the fools.

All this leads logically to the next step in the decline. Under the old school, immunity was limited to the diplomatic staff. There were considerable doubts whether it even extended to the consular personnel. Certainly no one would ever have thought of extending the claim to any other body. Such a course would have been impossible, and anyhow it would not have paid, for it would have lowered the status of the greatly self-esteeming plenipotentiaries.

With the vicious extension of the province of diplomacy has come a corresponding exaggeration of the claim for immunity. When all sorts of rogues are part of the machinery, all sorts of devices must be thought up to cover them. The process began in the greatly overstaffed Communist trade agencies--thin concealment indeed, seeing the small trade done by them. Now it has reached the press agencies, and has just produced a cause célèbre, which may find its place in international law, if any such thing is preserved in the future -- a doubtful hypothesis.

The Soviet Government keeps Tass agencies everywhere for disseminating propaganda. Hitherto these have enjoyed no more privilege than any other undiplomatic body. But recently the London office of Tass brought a foul charge against a most worthy and distinguished exile. He tried to bring a libel action, and Tass at once bolted for cover. It produced to the British court a certificate from the Soviet Ambassador affirming that the news agency is an organ of the Soviet Government. The British court felt bound to accept the certificate. By this trick the agency has hitherto avoided prosecution. I say "hitherto," for I do not mean to let the decision stand unchallenged, and shall attack it when Parliament reassembles. I have already obtained from the Lord Chancellor a public admission that the claim is wholly unprecedented. Just think of the consequences were such a pretension conceded! Any foreign fount of malevolence would then be a law unto itself; there would be no conceivable bound to privilege, which would need only a small further stretch to cast its mantle over espionage as well. Even the most disreputable gangsters would thus be an official part of the new diplomacy. It is typical of the times that such a monstrosity as this Ambassadorial testimony should have been put forward at all. It must be brushed aside, and that gesture also will be symptomatic of a growing disregard for envoys.

Of old, as aforesaid, we diplomatists lived together in apparent comity for enjoyable lapses of time. Even in periods of friction there was some semblance of esprit de corps. We were rival practitioners of the same honorable trade. All this is changed. Nowadays these accumulated and exploited elements of discord amount to a state of permanent bad temper. I sometimes think that the degradation of the language of diplomacy is even more sinister than the debasement of its performance. There is a smell of the jungle about these dense growths of words, which smother old conceptions like voluble creepers.

Diplomacy has passed through every phase in its short life, for it only began in the last few centuries, and grew up late. It started with covenants secretly arrived at, less because anyone was ashamed of their contents than because these were of no interest to an illiterate and uninfluential public. The old methods have proved to be no more obnoxious than the new. Similarly, the balance of power, after having been first an ideal and then a punch-bag, is now being practised again and not mentioned by name -- which is perhaps sensible, seeing that "human notions are few, not far between."

In the twentieth century, however, President Wilson had a brain-wave. He dreamed of "open diplomacy," and of "open covenants openly arrived at." That really sounded like something. Only after unhappy experience was it discovered that preliminary negotiation cannot profitably be conducted in the open. This glimpse of the obvious was generously assisted by the well-informed activities of the press and by the embarrassing antics of national propaganda and self-advertisement. Wilson was sagely crying for the moon. All right, said some, let us compound for open covenants secretly arrived at. Alas, great chunks of humanity were morally indisposed even to this check on their way to the abyss. The Nazis and the Communists in their amours begat a clutch of secret treaties much worse than any that had gone before.

The world of optimists, or even meliorists, thought again, and tended to content itself with a diplomacy which could produce decent treaties "any old how." In consequence it got some rather indecent ones after much indecent bickering. The Allies, still so-called, concluded -- a verb as inept as the noun -- the treaties with Italy and the other ex-satellites, which contained many grave errors and stood no chance of observance, as I pointed out at the time. We have since discovered that the new diplomacy affords no possibility of concluding a German treaty at all; and this is just as well, when we consider the total perfidy of Totalitaria. It is one of history's little jokes that the authors of the Treaty of Versailles were blamed for drafting it in six months. We may be sorry for the Austrians, but even if their desire for a treaty be fulfilled, it will also be an unjust one, which would compromise the little country's prospect of economic survival, and even of territorial integrity. King Log being withdrawn, King Stork may return. No treaty is certainly better than a bad one. I understand this to have been the view of the American representative. I certainly concur in it. I have no wish to see Austria either ruined or reinvaded. In any case even a good treaty would not be kept by the Soviets. The futility of treaties is, however, another matter, which would require a chapter, or even a book, to itself. I will not dwell on it here, beyond observing that all endeavor of diplomacy in treaty-making is stultified by the habitual treaty-breaking of modern despotism.

We have reached the paradox that the decline of diplomacy has synchronized with the increasing equipment of its exponents. The great Ambassadors of the nineteenth century were sometimes not particularly clever men; sometimes they were not even particularly well educated, and owed their positions to favor. I saw at close quarters some who survived into the twentieth. Few of them would have had the least chance of withstanding an examination in any modern sense; but they did their work with authority, partly because there was no organized attempt to prevent them. In the period preceding theirs, an Ambassador's authority was even greater: he sometimes initiated policy and enjoyed considerable latitude, owing to lack of communications. As these improved, Ambassadorial status dwindled to that of mere executant of a policy decided not even in Foreign Offices but in Cabinets.

In complete contrast with a school as extinct as the dodo, our young men today are trained, perhaps overtrained, for a vanishing future, and tested and accoutred with all specialized ingenuity, some of it -- in our case -- sometimes a little silly. "Too clever by half," my Victorian nurse used to say. Their intellectual attainments greatly, and rightly, exceed those deemed essential in the zenith of diplomacy when the wheels of procedure crunched over the gravel, not always easy going but good enough for carriage folk. Now the surface is made for speed, but the road is usually blocked. Simultaneously the traffic has increased. The staffs of missions have been multiplied tenfold. And all this apparatus has been brought into play in an era which offers less hope for it. The negotiators of the Austrian treaty re-formed, dissolved, returned, mulled over their texts, till they knew them and each other by heart. Nothing happened year after year. Such treaties as have been landed lie instantly in fragments, and all protests are vain. These goings-on would have been deemed impossible in an age less efficient and more affable.

Diplomacy, with all its failings -- it had many because it was far too much a class affair, and power politics are never pretty -- was an instrument of civilization. It is being paralyzed, but only in common with other previously accepted amenities. It was one of the many veils in which we had sought to soften the outlines of the real harshness of human nature and existence. Now veils have gone out of fashion. I have "done" many conferences in my life, but never went into one without some hope of a fairly quick result. No one could say the same today. Results are often not expected, and often not even desirable, while the technique of negotiation is equally often transformed into a brawling match.

A gallant and pernickety veteran, who had risen to a colonelcy in the First War Against the Germans, immediately volunteered for the Second, and was duly invalided out. Describing his experiences in his club, he said: "My dear fellow, you really can't think what it's like this time! The smell . . . the noise . . . and . . . the people!" The comment is less applicable to the battlefield than to the conference chamber, for all its newfangled facilities of earphones and automatic translations.

It may be said that this applies only to the representatives of half mankind. There is no reason why the other half should not behave itself. Part of our species is being conducted by sedulous apes back to the treetops, where it cannot exist; but the rest of Homo sapiens can live up to its lightly assumed title. That is perfectly true. And it isn't -- not perfectly. We cannot get away from "the noise . . . and the people" of the Iron Curtain leaders so long as we have to meet them in the United Nations or in any more of these shy-making Big Fours -- the Apotheosis of Avoirdupois. The pace of a troop was proverbially regulated by the slowest horse; the tone of a conference is set by its noisiest delegation. Diplomacy could flourish only so long as there was a loose, tacit and general agreement to behave more or less like gentlemen. There was no snobbery in the notion -- only an instinctive recognition of our own limitations. The code was quite vague, and we never used the term "gentlemen's agreement" until it had become anathema to use the word gentleman in any other sense. It survived for a while like an appendix in the diplomatic body. From the moment when the behavior of rowdies became a constant feature, the old body was plainly moribund -- for good or evil. We may hope for "somehow good," but the adverse balance is thus far incontestable.

One kind of old diplomacy did cling on until the end of the war; but it was the dubious sort known as personal. From distant days to the present, Very Important Persons have kept up intimate and important correspondences. Then it was time to go, and they mostly took their personal archives with them, salving their public consciences by underlining the word Private in the top left-hand corner. Some valuable material vanished in this way. Only a man as unearthy as Edward Grey kept and left his "private" correspondence in its official place. There is no positive harm in getting off the record, unless the exchanges become unduly secretive, as they sometimes do. Subordinates may then err through ignorance of vital passages between superiors. In general we may say that it is natural for the great to be on epistolary terms -- within limits.

Unhappily, and mechanically, those limits extend themselves. From having their private post offices, the great pass easily to having their private postmen. Thus a rival Foreign Office was run by Lloyd George: it consisted of Lord Lothian. As liaison between Curzon and Lloyd George I had the uneasy task of trying both to contend and coöperate with it. Very Important Persons comprehensibly like to count on a reliable body of assent. They mean to pursue a policy: why weaken themselves by doubts and contradictions? The term yes-men is unnecessarily harsh -- indeed unfair -- because most henchmen are sincerely fascinated by their chiefs. Thus Chamberlain too had his supporter, Sir Horace Wilson, and the Foreign Office was again overshadowed. As Chief Diplomatic Adviser I saw Chamberlain only thrice in three years, and never once alone. What could be more understandable? He knew that I disagreed with his views. Unhappily neither Lothian nor Wilson had experience of Europe. Nor, for that matter, had Harry Hopkins. Yet it seemed as natural to his patron that he should be sent to cope with Stalin as it seemed natural to Chamberlain that Halifax should go to Berlin and Berchtesgaden under the amateurish cover of a hunting exhibition.

The V.I.P.'s often love to get rid of experts (which was easier of yore, when there weren't many anyway) and to indulge in a little -- which becomes a lot -- of diplomacy "on their own." I fully understand the taste, but -- all passion spent -- condemn it because it is apt to be attended by favoritism and incompetence. There is something restricted and restraining about an expert, which makes him look narrow to the wide-eyed; and since

"les oreilles des grands Sont souvent de grandes oreilles,"

he is sometimes compelled, if he has any guts, to adopt the governess touch, which is unfair to him. There is something at once humble and superior about an expert -- a trying combination. Consequently some antagonism may arise on both sides. But I do comprehend the recurrent itch of the Big Boys (Fours or better) to give rein to their untrammelled inspirations; and it was good entertainment when one day at the Peace Conference M. Clemenceau flared up, and threw out all his own experts plus everyone else's. A little personal diplomacy was impending. Arthur Balfour's chief interest in Lloyd George -- and a fascinating one too -- was wondering, in his own words, what the Little Man would do next.

In modern times personal diplomacy was much favored by both Churchill and Roosevelt, who loved to carry on negotiations free from "interference." This predilection was facilitated, and in part necessitated, by war; but such courses are always apt to go too far and to produce errors which might be avoided, given better opportunities for briefing. When it came to personal diplomacy with Stalin, the results were more unfortunate, and to East Europe ruinous. The deals at the expense of Poland and China were as immoral as anything in the ages preceding Ostensible Enlightenment, and were only put over by the weight of unparalleled authority. I do not suppose that there have been many further temptations to personal diplomacy with the Kremlin.

The practice is an essay in omniscience, and it is only sometimes successful, because everyone needs advice. Nemo sapit omnibus horis was translated by Mr. Carter of "The Dolly Dialogues:" "Everyone has been in love at least once." He should have added, "in love with himself." There is nothing new in a tendency which has long roots, but it has grown considerably as the century wears on -- perhaps the right expression.

Another modern habit greatly increasing of late is "popular diplomacy." Of course there is really no such thing, just as there is no "popular democracy." There are either democracy and diplomacy without epithets or there are not. In this case the device is an attempt to bypass the governments concerned by appealing over their heads to their people. This has developed into a pernicious usage, and some may point to the fact that the United States virtually started it in the First World War. The answer is that it would have come about anyhow. President Wilson hoped to curtail hostilities by addressing himself to the German people. Most commentators greatly overestimate the effect of this legitimate manœuvre in wartime. I am not among them. The Germans fought both their great wars to the bitter end. In any case when Wilson later attempted the same tactics with the Italians, the results were admittedly disastrous.

Since then the Totalitarians, in complete control of all their means of communication, have taken over and insensately developed the method. I have already enumerated the nefarious uses for which Communist missions really exist. For true diplomatic considerations they might as well not be there, and we of the democracies might almost as well have no representation in Moscow, though there are a few faint arguments for maintaining it in satellite countries. Communist radio is Communist diplomacy, and it has defeated its own ends. While the bellowings go crescendo, the fruits are in marked diminuendo, for no Soviet spokesman seems to have a middle register.

The method is already past its peak, but it has forced itself back upon the democracies by making them resume and improve Wilson's initiative. In the ungraceful German metaphor, we have to do a bit of "howling with the wolves." Here also the effect is small, because so few of the enslaved peoples are able to hear the B.B.C. or the Voice of America owing to jamming and the shortage of receivers. Still we rightly plug along in this duplicate diplomacy; my only comment is that we do not exploit it with sufficient punch and virility. We may as well "make the best of a bad job."

"Everything flows," though not to the pacific. We have lost the belief in automatic progress, and diplomacy is for the nonce among the casualties, through no fault of genuine democracy. It outlasted the parallel practitioners of the League, and could well have coexisted with the United Nations, had they not suffered from trichinosis. It has only wilted under Communist hot air. It may come to its own again in modern dress; indeed it has never fallen into disuse among civilized peoples. But, in common with other advantageous growths, such as Justice, it can never regain worldwide acceptance, so long as the New Barbarians hold sway. We had better make up our minds to that, and conduct ourselves accordingly.

Harold Nicolson calls the life of his father, Lord Carnock, "a study in the Old Diplomacy." There was something to be said for it. Some will say: "Not much." Having experienced both old and new I reply: "More than can be said for its successor."

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  • LORD VANSITTART, Permanent Under-Secretary of State in the British Foreign Office, 1930-38; Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the Foreign Secretary, 1938-41
  • More By Lord Vansittart