Truth, Not Diplomacy

The successful conclusion of negotiations is what counts in foreign affairs, not the mere perception of them

Opinion | Karen Kneissl | April 2009

From 1999 until 2002, the Swiss Embassy was at the center of Berlin society in the newly restored capital of Germany. Its distinguished Ambassador, Thomas Borer-Fielding and his eccentric wife Shawne Fielding, former Miss Texas, brought a wind of change, close observed by the media, to the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Before his appointment, Borer had successfully won his spurs as head of the taskforce ‘Schweiz – Zweiter Weltkrieg’ (Switzerland –World War II), negotiating unclaimed Jewish assets in Swiss banks.

In Berlin, he proclaimed his understanding of how to be a diplomat in terms of public diplomacy. In Borer’s view, this meant more openness and less discretion.

Swiss-style public diplomacy reached new heights in Berlin. Receptions turned into parties that all of Berlin was raving about. The Borer-Fieldings were ever-present in the media; until their comfortable relationship with the media came to an abrupt end.

A feigned love affair and Border-Fielding’s inept reaction to the scandal led to his resignation. Evidently, there is no partnership between the media and diplomacy, and Borer had to learn the hard way.

Diplomacy as Means of Damage Control?

Today, Switzerland seems ever more willing to give in to the demands to cut back on banking secrecy, especially given the pressure from Berlin. And now, Austria’s Finance Minister Josef Pröll and his counterpart in Luxembourg have made essentially the same announcements: All three countries would be willing to lift their reservations on the standards for the transfer of tax information set by the OECD, willing to provide information to foreign authorities about foreign investors suspected of tax offenses. Switzerland feels unfairly treated, trapped in the ‘vise of the G20.’

For Switzerland and Austria, the timing is particularly awkward; the Swiss financial markets have yet to overcome the UBS scandal. Vienna still hopes to survive the feared credit crunch in Central and Eastern Europe, while Paris and Berlin lend their support.

Now Borer is back with a call for more open diplomacy to exercise damage control. This communication strategy is aimed at influencing parliamentary opinion, so that journalists as well as those making decisions in education and the economy could be seen as a form of propaganda.

In this context, the term ‘diplomacy’ is inappropriate, that is, if you define diplomacy as a dialogue, negotiations, and the convergence of the positions of two states. After all, it is the successful conclusion of negotiations that counts in foreign affairs, not mere perception.

Austrian and Swiss citizens sometimes wonder what they need this kind of diplomacy for. In the negotiations with Berlin and Brussels, Austria and Switzerland equally have failed. So-called ‘event diplomacy’ is pointless when defending national interests. But in the case of Germany, these are determining tax revenues and draining all of Europe’s tax oases.

For a long time Austria, like Switzerland, countered pressure from Berlin and from the OECD more often with stubbornness than factual arguments. Thanks to diplomatic creativity as well as mutual interests among the European states – in this case Luxembourg and Belgium in particular – the OECD’s official warnings were evaded. But still, the hour of truth approaches some day.

Public diplomacy only works when diplomacy represents policies that fall within legal conventions. The United States has had to realize that as well. Karen Hughes, President George W. Bush’s former election campaign manager, was appointed head of marketing for ‘Public Diplomacy’ in 2005, with a mission to improve the image of the United States. The keyword was communication. Diplomats stationed around the world were encouraged to make regular television appearances, keep a clear focus on their target group, use new media outlets and write blogs.

Two years after her appointment, Hughes resigned. She had realized that even the best financed PR campaign could not replace the reality of U.S. politics in the Middle East. Consequently, the Obama Administration has aimed for a new credibility and is trying for a change of direction in foreign policy. This may enable more substance in public diplomacy.

Embassies should be more than info offices 

Corporate communication runs aground on a lack of transparency. The same holds true for international finance: If there is nothing to be communicated, then there is little diplomats can do. Evidently, embassies have to be more than government information offices.

In short, diplomacy means negotiating, rooted in the wish for a rapprochement of different views while saving the faces of all involved. In this case, some may have wished for more discretion and less publicity.


Karin Kneissl was employed in Austria’s Foreign Service until 1998.  Since, she works as a freelance journalist and as an assistant lecturer. In May her new book Diplomatie und Krisen (Diplomacy and Crises) will be published by the Viennese publishing house Der Apfel

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    the vienna review April 2009