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The Madeleine Award goes to...

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21 December 2009 09:43

We proudly announce the inaugural Madeleine Award for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.

This annual prize is named after Madeleine Albright, in honour of her penchant for sending diplomatic messages via the brooches worn on her left lapel. Albright wore a golden brooch of a coiled snake to talk to the Iraqis, crabs and turtle brooches to symbolise the slow pace of Middle East talks, a huge wasp to needle Yasser Arafat, and a sun pin to support South Korea's sunshine policy. The former US Secretary of State and Ambassador to the UN has chronicled it all in her book: 'Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box'.

In her honour, we call for nominations for the most inspired, outrageous or loopy use of a stunt or symbol to make a foreign relations point in 2009. We'll announce the winner on 15 January. So cast your mind back over the year and give us your favourite moment.

An example of a Madeleine-winning performance from long ago was the outbreak of the diplomatic version of an arms race in embassy row in New Delhi. Australia's high commissioner to India in the mid-70s, Bruce Grant, noticed that major embassies got into an escalating contest to fly the biggest flag on the tallest flagpole: 'The Americans, British, Chinese and Russians…seem to be engaged in a flag-waving contest, with flags of greater than regulation size and poles of greater than regulation height, while the Australian flag, strictly to size, can scarcely be seen for the compound trees.'

As the representative of a robust middle power, Bruce wrote to Canberra asking for some cash so he could join the flag race. However, he recounts, 'our investigations took so long that by the time the money was available for a new pole our enthusiasm had run out.'

As the home of the Oscars and other such showbiz baubles, the Americans have some advantages in the Madeleine game. Take, for instance, the former Defence and State Department official, Richard Armitage. One part of any interchange with Armitage is the import of his jokes. When the Philippines was negotiating with Armitage over the future of the US bases, Manila quickly deduced the importance of analysing jests as well as position papers.

Armitage's judgement on George W Bush is conveyed in the joke he tells about the Pope stranded by floods in St. Peter's Square. The Pope declines offers of help from two passing boats and a helicopter with the words, 'I have faith — God will save me.' The next scene takes place in heaven. The Pope is remonstrating with the Almighty, to which God replies: 'My son, I sent two boats and a helicopter. Faith alone is not enough!' Mark that as a succinct Armitage judgement on the faith-based decision-making of George W Bush.

Anyone can play for a Madeleine, as North Korea has shown. Using a nuclear explosion to send a signal is too serious a ploy for this award. But I like the story told by an international bureaucrat who said he always had a good idea of the tone and temperature of the coming meeting as his car arrived at the meeting. His North Korean interlocutor would be standing on the steps to greet the car. If the North Korean was at the top of the steps, a bad day was in prospect. If the he was near to the bottom of the steps, more harmony was in prospect.

The world of 2009 awaits judgement. Who was wackiest in their attempt to be On Message? The winner is…?

Photo by Flickr user talkradionews, used under a Creative Commons license.

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