Turtle Bay

The bluff that saved Dayton: The Madeleine Award for best diplomatic stunt goes to Richard Holbrooke

The Interpreter blog at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney, Australia-based foreign policy think tank, today announced its four finalists for the Madeleine Award, which recognizes foreign policy practitioners’ “use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.” The award, which Turtle Bay wrote about earlier this week, honors Madeleine Albright’s use of the ...

The Interpreter blog at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney, Australia-based foreign policy think tank, today announced its four finalists for the Madeleine Award, which recognizes foreign policy practitioners’ “use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs.” The award, which Turtle Bay wrote about earlier this week, honors Madeleine Albright’s use of the brooch to send political messages to enemies and allies.

This year’s winner is the late Richard C. Holbrooke, Albright’s principal partner and rival for influence in President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team. In a conversation with writer Jonathan Alter, Holbrooke employed a ruse in Dayton, Ohio to break a deadlock in landmark peace talks among the key Balkan leaders. “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,” Alter wrote. “That would have meant a humiliating defeat for all sides. The brilliant bluff worked and the parties returned to the table.”

The top runner-ups include Israel and the United States. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, apparently sought to humiliate Turkey’s ambassador during an official meeting by seating him in a chair that sat lower than his own and placed an Israeli, but not Turkish, flag on the table. The prank roiled Israel and Turkey relations and forced Ayalon to issue and apology. “Israel later went after a much bigger target, snubbing US Vice President Joe Biden,” wrote Graeme Dobell, the creator of the Madeleine Award. “As the Veep’s plane touched down in Israel as part of the effort to get peace talks going, Israel announced plans for the 1600 new Jewish homes in east Jerusalem. The Haaretz headline called it `the slap heard around the world.”

Not to be outdone, the Obama administration demonstrated its own ability to inflict “protocol induced pain” by snubbing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on repeated occasions. “The Biden backlash began with the Vice President turning up 90 minutes late for a dinner” with Netanyahu,” Dobell writes. “But the real US snub-upmanship came when Netanyahu headed off to Washington two weeks later for talks with Obama….No dinner after the White House meeting, no statement and not even a photograph of the two leaders together. Take that. The Haaretz judgment was that the Israeli leader left ‘America disgraced, isolated, and altogether weaker’.

China’s armed forces also made its way on to the top list by stealth. With U.S.-China military relations chilled, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates set off to China to try to warm things up. “And what better welcome than a jet test: the first flight of China’s new stealth fighter,” Dobell writes. “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,” Dobell writes. “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.”

Which is why China, apparently, remains a runner-up.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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