💬 The Q & A Edition
We answer your geopolitical questions, including that time we embarrassed ourselves in the line of duty
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In other news, Germany held its election on Sunday bringing Angela Merkel’s long reign as Chancellor to a close. Accordingly, we can think of no finer meme to bring stage one of International Intrigue to a close:
As promised, this week we bring you a very special Q & A edition. We received ~25 questions via email and Twitter, so we could only pick some of them to answer.
What is the biggest mistake in foreign policy in the 21st century?
What’s the significance of expelling an ambassador?
What’s your most embarrassing moment as a diplomat?
So without further ado, let’s get to answering!
Q: It’s never been clear to me what UN Week actually is… does it achieve anything, do countries do any of the things they agreed to?
👩 Helen: ICYMI, the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) took place in New York City last week.
UNGA - aka the annual pilgrimage of international heads of states - is a fixed week in the calendar ensuring world leaders can all get together in the same place to discuss important matters of global governance. That means that everybody and their dog wants an invite (unless, of course, you’re stuck coordinating the visits of these said heads of states).
But does UNGA still matter in a world where multilateralism is becoming as uncool as a millennial with a side part? (dis me 😓)
Well, if you think the UN still matters, then UNGA still matters. It is the main ‘deliberative, policymaking, and representative’ body of the UN, or in normal language: a series of meetings in which all countries can present and then vote on ideas for how to govern the globe.
The only catch is that, unlike the UN Security Council’s resolutions (which require a whole separate explainer), UNGA’s resolutions are not really enforceable. This means there’s no way to ensure countries abide by the agreements - think of them as ‘strong suggestions’ rather than ‘do this or else’.
Nonetheless, UNGA is important as it gives the rest of us a chance to hear what’s on the minds of world leaders, even if it’s pie in the sky stuff. This year’s highlights included:
Climate change as a key focus. China made a promise to end investments in coal-powered plants outside of China.
Ramping up vaccine production and ensuring its equal distribution got a lot of airtime this year (perhaps UNGA 2022 will include irl wining and dining).
South Korea flexed its superstars BTS, who performed as part of a UNICEF campaign to end bullying. With >1 million viewers, the K-Pop stars smashed some UN records (and again cemented the supremacy of South Korea’s pop diplomacy)
Q: What is the biggest mistake in foreign policy in the 21st century?
👩 Helen: I don't know if this is strictly 'foreign policy', but I think it’s the West’s assumption that China's impressive and rapid economic growth would result in China becoming a democracy.
It’s easy to ridicule that assumption - how can anyone think more McDonalds would equal more openness and political freedoms!? - but it was a nearly universal belief in the early 2000s.
With hindsight its clear that this was always a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese history, culture, and politics, and perhaps a lazy assumption that everyone in the world wants what the US wants.
👨 John: I'm going to cheat and name two:
The Forever Wars. As horrific and shocking as 9/11 was, very little about the world changed on that day. The two wars launched in response - motivated as much by shock, fear, and revenge as clear-eyed foreign policy - were what changed the world.
Of course, the US and its allies had to respond to the atrocities, but the robust opposition to the invasions at the time, both within the US and around the world, tells you something about how avoidable this error was.
Xi Jinping's decision to move China towards a more assertive style of diplomacy. I think China is wrong to believe that the US is in decline, and as we've written many times, I'm not optimistic about the future of US-China relations.
Q: The internet was supposed to make information free and easy, and democratise the world, but now it looks like we'll end up with lots of national internets. What went wrong?
👨 John: I love this question because I ask it myself all the time. Problem is, I don't know the answer.
But as luck would have it, one of my favourite analysts, Ben Thompson, wrote about this last week (apologies to Aditi if this is what prompted the question and I'm telling you things you already know!).
Thompson quoted President Bill Clinton speaking in 2000:
We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China….
Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet. (Chuckles.) Good luck! (Laughter.) That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall.
The Clinton Administration thought about censoring information as if it was like stopping leaflets from being passed between citizens.
But what if you could control the point of creation, aka the printing presses?
Crudely put, for I am not a technical person, the printing presses of the Chinese internet are the undersea cables that connect China to the world, and the Chinese Communist Party very much controls those.
China's success in regulating the internet has shown the rest of the world how to do it and countries like Russia and Turkey are copying them, leading to walled off, national internets.
So it isn't so much a question of “what went wrong?”, as “why did we ignore thousands of years of new technologies being co-opted by powerful institutions for their own purposes”?
Or put more concisely, “why did we think that this time was different?”.
If you look closely, you can see this mistake being made again right now with crypto technology. Evangelists predict that crypto will bring down governments, put central banks out of business, and democratise [insert latest fad].
There’s no doubt that crypto has the potential to do those things, just as the internet had the potential to make information free and open. Sadly, my bet will always be on powerful people figuring out clever ways to make new technology work in their interests.
Q: Hello! Could you explain the significance of a country withdrawing its diplomats or expelling another country's diplomats from its own territory? I've never really understood the impact of this step in foreign relations beyond symbolism.
👨John: Let's start by separating the two examples above because they're different in important ways:
A sending state withdrawing its ambassador
You'll usually see this announced as "we are recalling our ambassador for consultations". That's precisely what the French did two weeks ago to signal their intense displeasure at the announcement of the AUKUS defence partnership.
In these situations, the ambassador makes a big show of leaving, and tries to manufacture a local media event to draw attention to the aggravating issue. But is it just symbolism?
These days, the answer is probably yes, particularly if the two countries involved are usually friends. But many of the now seemingly absurd diplomatic practices emerged from once-genuine need.
For example, presenting diplomatic credentials began in the 1300s in Northern Italy as a way to prove that a new ambassador actually had the right to represent his or her country. And it’s still an important custom today despite being practically redundant.
Similarly, in the days where communication between embassy and capital took weeks or months, and travel between them even longer, recalling an ambassador had practical as well as symbolic purposes.
Recalling an ambassador for consultations was exactly that - complex discussions about an urgent situation that needed to be conducted in person. And due to the cost and time of recalling an ambassador, this was only done in the gravest of situations, so it also often served as a symbolic representation of diplomatic displeasure.
Now in the age of internet encryption and plane travel, the practical benefit of recalling an ambassador is negligible, but the political, symbolic message remains.
And it happens all the time - Google: ‘recalls ambassador’, and you’ll see just about every country has recalled an ambassador from somewhere in the relatively recent past. That’s as good a clue as any that the practice these days is all bark no bite.
For all the consultants out there, I made a 2 x 2 to demonstrate the seriousness vs symbolism of recalling an ambassador. The top right quadrant is the least serious with the least practical benefit, the bottom left the most serious with significant practical benefit.
The receiving state declaring a diplomat 'persona non grata'
'Persona non grata' or 'person not welcome' is how the receiving state revokes a diplomat’s diplomatic immunity. While recalling an ambassador will always attract the media like bugs to a light, declaring a diplomat 'persona non grata' is far more serious in terms of actual practicalities.
You've probably seen this play out in spy films - a spy posing as a diplomat gets caught doing something nefarious, but all the host country can do is give the spy '24 hours to leave the country'.
Seems like pretty weak sauce for being caught spying, but diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Conventions means that the diplomat/spy cannot be arrested.
And yeah, this stuff really does happen and increasingly frequently too. In 2017, Russia and the US went tit for tat declaring ~60 diplomats and suspected spies persona non grata, giving them 48 hours to leave.
The practical effect of declaring diplomats 'persona non grata' can be far more serious than 'recalling an ambassador', because unlike the recalled ambassador, the expelled diplomat must leave immediately and never return.
This means that all the work of the expelled diplomat is left unfinished. In the case of the expelled spy, their ‘assets’ are often unaware of what has happened, leaving the asset in grave danger of being discovered themselves.
With all that said, you'll only hear about a diplomat being declared ‘persona non grata’ when one of the governments involved wants the public to know. If a country has caught a spy, it's far more likely that the whole thing will be kept very quiet.
After all, almost every nation has spies and if I catch your spy today, you’ll probably catch mine tomorrow, so let’s just act like the whole thing never happened.
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Q: You guys don't write all that much about climate change, why? The geopolitics of climate change might be the most important issue we face today.
We’re thrilled to introduce Intrigue Media’s first full-time employee Valentina. She hails from Milan, one of the world’s great cities, so she will naturally bring some class and culture to this whole endeavour. Valentina will be writing our daily newsletter.
👩🦱 Valentina: Because we’ve got climate anxiety, that’s why.
In all seriousness, we have written a little bit about climate politics, including this explainer on COP26 (the UN’s climate change conference). COP26 kicks off next month and there are plenty of climate related stories we’re keeping our eye on, for example:
🌊 Real-life Atlantis: Sea levels are rising in the Pacific Ocean and are threatening to submerge whole islands. Some have asked the Australian Government to create a new visa category for ‘Climate Refugees’.
🛢️ Bumpy Energy Transition: While the world has a looong way to go before weaning itself off of fossil fuels entirely, the demand for fossils fuels is expected to shrink. What’ll happen to economies such as Venezuela, the UAE, or Russia who rely heavily on fossil fuels?
🧊 When life gives you… ice: The ice caps are melting, which is bad news for everybody apart from shipping companies. Thinning sea ice means the Northern Sea Route might become a major trade route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, which conveniently travels through international waters (did you know that being in international waters doesn’t actually give you a free pass to commit crimes? Buzzkill).
As the climate crisis increasingly dominates the international agenda, we should expect national interests and climate change goals to converge:
A failure by US leaders to tackle climate change will have geopolitical consequences not only because of its effect on the environment but also because it undermines America’s global leadership.
Europe’s ‘green revolution’ will help to reduce carbon emissions and at the same time reduce its reliance on Russian gas.
So, we agree - the geopolitics of climate change are increasingly important, primarily because they’re aligning with national interests. Repeat after me: ‘The national interests, chico. They never lie’. Who knew Scarface was a geopolitics expert?
Q: What’s the most embarrassing moment you experienced as a diplomat?
👨 John: I've actually elaborated on this in a twitter thread earlier this year. Basically it involves me somewhere in the interior of China giving remarks in Mandarin, misunderstanding a question from a local official, and making a tit of myself by mistranslating that he wanted me to give him cigarettes and booze.
👩 Helen: I had been invited to meet the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a formal ceremony to welcome our new ambassador. Each person was required to walk up and shake the president's hand, then walk away.
And yet somehow, as I got up to the front, I decided that in addition to shaking his hand I would do a full-on near-90 degrees bow, to which he responded in kind. It was an awkward moment for us both.
His aides later asked whether that was part of the protocol - it was not (it only got worse from here 👇).
Q: Can you do an explainer on Lebanon please? Especially how it’s currently and historically affected by Syria, Iran, and Israel?
One year on from the blast that shook Beirut in August 2020 (truly an annus horribilis), Lebanon is still in a downward political and economic spiral:
The committee investigating the blast is yet to make any firm conclusions
Its politicians can’t form a new government
The Lebanese currency has depreciated ~90%
Inflation is at 101%
There’s also a severe energy shortage
But things weren’t always this glum.
Lebanon’s rich history includes empires from your favourite textbook such as the Phoenicians, Romans, and Ottomans. After WWI, Lebanon (and Syria) came under the ‘mandate’ of France, and Beirut was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ (though turns out this title was fairly liberally distributed).
To understand the complexity of governing Lebanon, you’ve got to understand the country’s ‘confessionalist’ government structure. This gives the state’s main religious sects (e.g. Shia, Sunni, Maronite Christian) apportioned and specific political powers.
So, if you thought a two-party system was difficult for consensus-building, try throwing in hundreds of years of religious grudges too.
Lebanon, Syria, and Iran
Things are complicated between Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. The three are historically linked by their Shiite ruling elites, and their militaries have become increasingly intertwined thanks to the now decade-long Syrian Civil War.
Hezbollah - Lebanon’s Shia Islamist political party and militant group (and a US-designated terrorist group) - fought alongside the Syrian Assad regime to defeat the country’s opposition groups.
These days, Hezbollah is widely seen as an overseas extension of the Iranian Government, frequently doing Iran’s bidding when it comes to their shared foe, Israel.
Lebanon and Israel (aka "down south” to the Lebanese)
Speaking of Israel – there’s probably no worse bad blood than between these two (and for a region like the Middle East where feuds are aplenty, that’s saying something.) The two share a violent military history, but manage to coexist now thanks to an UN-monitored but very frosty ceasefire.
There’s still plenty of conflict, including most recently the 2006 Lebanon War. In fact, during my time in Israel, almost every meeting I attended with top Israeli security officials involved forecasting what the next big war would look like.
Q: What do diplomats talk about at after-work drinks on a Friday?
👩 Helen: I mean, I’d be lying if I said that my Friday night work drinks as a diplomat exclusively involved high-brow, intellectual debates about the state of the world.
No, my chats centred on the important stuff, namely, which embassies hosted the best national day functions with the most delicious food.
(In case you are wondering, this was consistently Japan and Italy, with the US usually… underwhelming guests with its spread of Domino’s Pizza and KFC.)
Jokes aside, many diplomats did use this time to catch up on the important ‘goss’ around town. Diplomats love gossip as much as the next person, in fact probably more because it’s quite literally in the job description.
A casual boozy post work chat for me might have included getting hot takes on Israel’s local politics, recent developments in trade negotiations, or any other juicy morsels to report back to capital.
After all, diplomats are supposed to be the home country’s eyes and ears on the host country’s ground.
Q: With almost 200 countries in the world, why do we only hear about the foreign policies of a handful? Is it because their size/GDP means their policies don't affect enough of the world? Is it that there is so much going on that there's just no oxygen left for say… Liechtenstein? Is there anything smaller countries do that affects my daily, American life?
👨 John: "Why don't we hear about the foreign policy of country x?" is really asking "why doesn't the media cover the foreign policy of country x?", to which there are many, many answers. Here are a just a few:
🤓 The foreign policy wonk answer
The easy, flippant response is: who cares about Liechtenstein? Ultimately, everything in geopolitics is about power.
Using the example in your question Zak, Liechtenstein's tiny population (~40,000), land mass (~160km2), and national GDP (~$5.3 billion), mean that any decision it makes is pretty inconsequential in global terms.
If Germany announces a change in foreign policy, it might affect hundreds of industries, change global trade, disrupt huge alliances, and change the wealth and fortunes of millions of people all across the world.
If Liechtenstein's government announces a new trade deal with Turkey for example, then sure, Klaus the only rug importer in Liechtenstein is going to be thrilled, but no one in Turkey or anywhere else is going to get too excited.
👀 The humans-love-to-rubberneck answer
But if the answer is purely about power and money, why do we hear so much about Palestine, Haiti, or even individual US states?
I don't know the answer, but I do know that I'm far more interested in why that car on the side of the road is on fire than why all the others are driving peacefully towards their destination.
Homogeneous, peaceful, well-run countries tend to be boring to us. Would you read an article about Liechtenstein's decision to work more closely with its neighbours *check notes* Austria and Switzerland?
😖 The 'everything is so complex' answer
And finally, to your last question, you bet there are plenty of things that smaller countries do that affect your life in America (or any other country). For example:
A new tax law in The Philippines might affect your retirement savings
Flooding at a Siberian palladium mine could mean your new Tesla is 18 months delayed and 50% more expensive
In a globalised world, pretty much every national event has the potential to affect every other country. Perhaps we don't hear more about these 'little' events because there are just so many of them, every day, and their impact on our lives is so unpredictable.
After all, "Small, complex, obscure thing happens in Country You Need to Google; hundreds of consequences are possible, only time will tell", isn't a headline that'll get you clicking.
But, "Biden refers to Australian PM as 'that fella down under' giving clear proof he's senile and Australia is a joke", might.
Q: Do you think the foreign policy establishment will reconsider its intervention-first mindset? If yes, what foreign policy ideology will replace it? If no, what do you fear will be the US’ next foreign intervention?
👩 Helen: Overall, yes, I think that states are now more reluctant to overtly intervene in the affairs of others.
That said, the intervention by one state in the affairs of another will never stop. After all, states have long meddled politically and/or economically in each other’s affairs for a variety of reasons, including:
gaining better access to resources
sanctioning unwanted behaviour
or trying to influence another country’s decisions to their own benefit
While the methods or ‘tradecraft’ of this have changed over the years, the essence of these interventions will remain the same.
One tricky type of foreign intervention is based on the doctrine of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, or R2P. This concept says that all governments have the responsibility to protect their own citizens from grave human rights abuses like genocide or crimes against humanity, but if or when they fail to do so, the international community has a responsibility to ‘intervene’.
Great in theory, but the execution is hampered by the real world politics of international relations (e.g. the Rwandan Massacre in 1994).
I think with the way the world is trending away from multilateralism, R2P will become a less prominent reason for intervention, with the recent failure to intervene in Yemen being a good example.
Of course, there are also unilateral military interventions such as Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, China’s moves to build military installations in the South China Sea, and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Seen in that light, foreign interventions are as old as the concept of nation states itself, and unlikely to be replaced.
And as for where the US’ next foreign intervention will be, my money is on Mexico: have you seen how cheap oceanfront land is in Oaxaca?
🙏 Thanks for reading. We hope you enjoyed this special Q & A edition. And a special thanks to everyone who submitted a question.
😢 Correction from last week: we erroneously said that France had recalled its ambassador to Australia for the first time. It was, in fact, the second time.
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