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Drumroll please...The Madeleine Award goes to...a magnificent bluff!

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27 January 2011 09:23

Trumpets! Flashing lights! Spotlight on the microphone! Here is the envelope with the four contenders for our annual Madeleine Award, honouring the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs. The Award is named to honour Madeleine Albright's invention of brooch diplomacy — sending messages to foreign friends and foes via the image of the jewelry on her lapel.

Last year's winner was the Maldives Government, for holding a scuba-diving Cabinet meeting under water; a tribute to the ability of the little power to mobilise a bit of symbolism to make a big point about an international issue. Perhaps galvanized by that win for the little guy, this year's Madeleine final is monopolised by much heftier players: Israel, the US, China and a great diplomat. Proof, indeed, that anyone can try for a Madeleine: it's all in the imagination and the execution.

The first contender is Israel, for some inspired dabbling in the diplomacy of insult and embarrassment. Israel's effort started with its deputy Foreign Minister calling in Turkey's ambassador to deliver a diplomatic dressing down that was more clumsy than clinical. The deputy Foreign Minister...

...was caught on camera instructing the Israeli TV news crew covering the event to make sure that its footage captured the fact that (the Ambassador) had been deliberately seated on a chair lower than that of his Israeli counterpart, that only the Israeli flag was on the table (without the Turkish one, as would be the norm at a diplomatic photo op)...

To back up this effort, Israel later went after a much bigger target, snubbing US Vice-President Joe Biden. As the Veep's plane touched down in Israel as part of the effort to get peace talks going, Israel announced plans for 1600 new Jewish homes in east Jerusalem. The Haaretz headline called it 'the slap heard around the world'.

The etiquette war, though, was only getting into its stride. The Biden backlash began with the Vice President turning up 90 minutes late for a dinner with Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But the real US snub-upmanship came when Netanyahu headed off to Washington two weeks later for talks with Obama.

When it wants to, the US can do protocol-induced pain with the stuffiest of monarchies, and Bibi got both barrels. Obama set out to do over the Israeli PM and did it in slices. No dinner after the White House meeting, no statement and not even a photograph of the two leaders together. Take that. The Haaretz judgement was that the Israeli leader left 'America disgraced, isolated, and altogether weaker'.

See what some well placed stunts and signaling can do' Israel and the US were both strong individual contenders and could even have won a joint Madeleine.

The third nomination gets in because you can't write about international affairs without a China reference these days, and China nearly out-did Israel with an eye-catching announcement that just happened to coincide with a VIP touch-down. The US-China military relationship has hovered between icy and frigid throughout 2010, so time to turn the tide with an early new year visit to Beijing by the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates. And what better welcome than a jet test: the first flight of China's new stealth fighter.

The Gates team briefed that, when asked about the sudden burst of publicity for the long-secret J-20, 'President Hu Jintao and other civilian leaders gave their American visitors the impression that they were unaware that the test had been conducted only hours before they received Mr Gates at the Great Hall of the People.' Or as Gates happily told reporters later while taking in the grandeur of the Great Wall: 'The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test.' Memo to the PLA: The point about symbolism, much less stunts, is that you need to be clear about who the message is aimed at.

Israel, China and the US all get marks for excellent efforts, but we are pleased to announce that the annual Madeleine Award this time goes to a diplomat for a masterful swifty that might just have secured peace. The winner is the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Here is Jonathan Alter's remembrance of Holbrooke, and a bit of business that might just have secured the Dayton peace agreement.

My own favorite memory of him dates from the 1990s, when he famously tongue-lashed Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. I was with him the night in 1995 when he returned to New York from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, after brokering a peace agreement between warring factions in Bosnia. This was the greatest American diplomatic triumph in years (and arguably hasn’t been equaled since). Holbrooke was practically carried into an International Rescue Committee banquet on a litter. Huzzahs all around. I wanted to know the secret of the breakthrough. He explained to me in the car over to Nightline how, after the talks broke down, he instructed the US delegates to leave their luggage curbside so that the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats would think the US was departing. That would have meant a humiliating defeat for all sides. The brilliant bluff worked and the parties returned to the table.

Curbside = kaput. Bags bluff = Breakdown. Brilliant, indeed. Toast that man as a worthy winner of the Madeleine Award.

Photo by Flickr user jason.kuffer.

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