When diplomacy isn’t enough

For the leader of one Southeast Asian country, meeting Obama is worth $24 million, it would seem.

The Malaysian opposition has unearthed a $24m bill that the Malaysian government paid to PR firm APCO for its services for a year, for which the government points to Prime Minister Najib’s meeting with Obama as part of his Nuclear Security summit as money well spent (among other things, of course).

The main thrust of the opposition criticism is that the PR firm’s close relationship with Israel provided a source for the Government’s new ‘let’s-all-be-happy-and-love-one-another’ unity campaign (this relationship is contentious because Malaysia does not recognize Israel). Putting this aside, I’m not quite sure which one is the best bit of the government’s response to laugh or cry at. That the bill was justified to undo the damage caused by 28 years of US-baiting by the previous two Prime Ministers (conveniently shifting the blame, and assuming that a public relations campaign is going to fix that), or that if APCO is the consultancy of choice for dictators and despots, that means that it is “bloody good” and worth the spending.

You couldn’t make it up.

The bigger question in my mind is about the nature of international diplomacy today. Like the rise of private military contractors off doing their own thing in Iraq or Africa, how far-fetched is it to think of privatized diplomacy?

Why would you need rather expensive embassies if you could hire a PR firm to host the glitzy receptions and meet government officials, all on your behalf? If you can subcontract visa processing to a third party, why can’t the more political functions of trade lobbying or security cooperation be passed on to private firms too? Just provide the instructions from the capital. In fact, PR companies probably already circulate pretty widely (and profitably) in the conduct of international affairs to burnish images and wine and dine legislators. But this, alas, is the side that we never see.

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5 thoughts on “When diplomacy isn’t enough

  1. Nick L says:

    I’ve actually met someone who worked for a PR firm that had Russia on its books as a client. I think what you suggest is perfectly plausible. The international system isn’t going to be replaced with a global system any time soon, but there may be a merger between the activities of private and public actors, as you see in the criminalisation of some states (Equatorial Guinea, North Korea).

  2. Nick Chan says:

    I’m sure it pays well, although having written this might diminish my chances of getting this sort of job.

    But you’re right too in that the relationship can also be reversed in private actors essentially taking over the state itself (rather than the state contracting out functions to the private entity, as is the case here with Malaysia) – the Taliban and Afghanistan coming to mind.

  3. Rob says:

    I think that in trivial matters it may well be possible to adopt such an approach. But you have to think about matters of loyalty. If the only carrot you can give is money then what’s to stop the people your negotiating with giving bribes to that private diplomat?

    Rob (www.thebigqs.co.uk)

  4. Nick Chan says:

    In this sort of rather extreme situation, then the private actor that is carrying out the diplomatic function on behalf of a state is essentially a mercenary – so yes, open to being offered a higher offer to compromise the position that the actor has been mandated to deliver on is a real risk.

    But in more than a one-shot situation – i.e. repeated interactions – being able to fulfil the mandate generates credibility, and if they want to carry on in the business of private diplomacy, betraying their original position isn’t going to win much repeat or future business.

  5. Rob says:

    True. But nonetheless the risk exists, and although the risk also exists for state employees it is far smaller.

    And then of course there’s the media. How do you keep a ‘mercenary’ diplomat from leaking things to the press for a little extra money on the side? Who’s to prove it was them?

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