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Their man in Moscow

This morning I listened to the US Ambassador speak to the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow. In 15 years abroad, I have found American diplomats to be consistently more impressive than our own. Ambassador William J. Burns was no exception. Like every American diplomat I have met he gave the lie to European stereotypes of his countrymen.

His modesty was disarming. He reminded us that John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States, was the country’s first Ambassador to Russia and then added “...the quality of US ambassadors has clearly gone straight downhill since then”.

He adjured his audience of, mainly, US businessmen to remember that, in the midst of our "differences”, there are many things that make it important we work together with Russia. He was generous in his praise, pointing out that Russia has enjoyed 7% average growth in GDP for 7 consecutive years; that foreign direct investment has trebled in 3 years and that the number of people living below the official poverty line has halved in 10 years. He pointed out that this year Russian GDP will pass $1 trillion and that it is predicted to pass $2 trillion by 2010.

But he gave his opinion forthrightly on the issues that divide the US and Russia. So much so that I could not quote him here without breaking my rule about commenting on Russian politics. Beneath the calm impression created by his carefully-chosen words, was a steely and impressive honesty.

The typical British diplomat would not sell his own grandmother. Quite the contrary, he gives the impression that the negotiations over price would be far too wearisome. He is a man whose grandmother is yours for the asking; who would hand her over freely with an insouciant, if rather world-weary, smile.

Of course, our diplomats (whatever Margaret Thatcher may have thought) do not represent the Foreign Office as an independent power. They prosper in their own careers, like all others in public service, by pleasing their political masters. Their cynicism is at the heart of our political culture at home. Our diplomats, like their political masters, are grandmother-brokers to a man.

We read a lot in the blogosphere about British “values”. They are under attack, apparently, from all sides. Listening to the people our Foreign Office sends abroad, you would be hard pressed to know that we have any; certainly you would never discern what they are.

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