segunda-feira, 12 de setembro de 2016

The rude truth of modern politics

The rude truth of modern politics
The age of diplomacy is ending. Personal insults are becoming the norm in affairs of state’

Simon Kuper
September 8, 2016
by: Simon Kuper

After Neville Chamberlain appeased Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, the British security agency MI5 decided the prime minister was too trusting of the German leader. So it wrote a report informing him that Hitler privately called him an Arschloch (arsehole). To make sure Chamberlain wouldn’t miss the word, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax underlined it three times in red pencil. Chamberlain was duly shocked: he didn’t expect to be insulted by foreign leaders.

Nowadays he would have to get used to it. Last week alone, Barack Obama was left to climb out of the belly of his plane by unwelcoming Chinese officials in Hangzhou, and got referred to as a “son of a whore” by Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte. The age of diplomacy is ending. Possibly for the first time, personal insults are becoming the norm in affairs of state.

Historically, leaders of countries went to great lengths not to upset each other. Even Hitler was rarely insulted in public. The official US psychological assessment, which diagnosed him as sexually “a full-fledged masochist” and “incapable of consummating the sexual act in a normal fashion”, was published in 1943 only in a confidential government document.

During the cold war, both sides worried that a personal insult could end up igniting the world. In 1959, after US vice-president Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev quarrelled about American kitchens, Khrushchev said emolliently: “I hope I have not insulted you.” Nixon replied: “I have been insulted by experts. Everything we say is in good humour. Always speak frankly.”

But Nixon himself spoke frankly about foreign leaders only in private. Here he is with his national security adviser Henry Kissinger in 1971, analysing a recent visit from India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Kissinger: “Well, the Indians are bastards anyway … While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted too … ”

Nixon: “We really slobbered over the old witch.”

For most of modern history, diplomatic insults were rare and usually accidental, as when US president George HW Bush vomited into the Japanese prime minister’s lap, or when Fiji’s prime minister Voreqe Bainimarama ignored the outstretched hand of his diminutive Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and greeted two much taller Russian aides instead. Bainimarama had simply failed to recognise the man whom American diplomats privately described as “Robin” to Vladimir Putin’s “Batman”.

In recent years, private insults have increasingly leaked. It’s only thanks to a freedom of information act that we know about a Pentagon study of 2008, which concluded, after watching hours of footage of Putin, “that the Russian president carries a neurological abnormality … identified by leading neuroscientists as Asperger syndrome, an autistic disorder which affects all of his decisions”.

Sometimes, inconvenient live microphones broadcast private insults to the world, as with this exchange about Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011:

French president Nicolas Sarkozy: “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar.”

Obama: “You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

But until about a year ago, even while popular anger at politicians grew, diplomacy remained the only sphere where a national leader could reasonably expect not to be insulted. That’s now over.

Donald Trump tends to insult foreign countries rather than their individual leaders, possibly because he doesn’t know who they are, though he did say Angela Merkel was “ruining Germany”. But countless foreign politicians have insulted Trump. Even Pope Francis said: “A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian.” If Trump gets his tiny hands on the nuclear suitcase, Vatican beware.

 … British MPs alone have variously called Trump “an idiot”, “a buffoon”, “a wazzock” and “the orange prince of American self-publicity”, while the UK’s new foreign secretary Boris Johnson, currently the global standard for diplomatic insults, said last December, during an argument about big-city crime: “The only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.”

Bipartisan to a fault, Johnson also compared Hillary Clinton to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”. True, all that happened before he took office. But it’s notable that Britain’s prime minister Theresa May chose him as her country’s chief diplomat regardless.

When today’s politicians insult foreign rivals, they know what they are doing. They don’t mean war. Rather, the message to voters is: “I’m an authentic plain-speaker who will trample on foreigners’ feelings and fight for my own country’s interests in a zero-sum game.” It’s the rhetorical accompaniment to the chipping away at international co-operation through policies such as Brexit and the coming abandonment of the transatlantic trade deal TTIP.

National leaders are figuring out that in this new rude era, they need thicker skins. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently dropped about 2,000 lawsuits against people who had insulted him. Now just wait till President Trump gives him a nickname.; Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustration by Luis Grañena

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