Well, the news today has been led by Iran. At the Pittsburgh G20 summit, we’ve had Irish-American leader Fionnbarra “Barack” O’Bama, with Brown on one side of him and Sarko on the other, indulging in some serious sabre-rattling. Taken alongside Netanyahu’s apocalyptic tubthumping at the UN, it’s all horribly reminiscent of the runup to the Iraq war, and I’m just waiting for the sexed-up dossier proving that not only has Iran nukes, but it could launch them at Britain in 45 minutes. A few thoughts occur. One is to wonder if the Russians have ratted out the Iranians as a quid pro quo for not having a deployment of US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Another is to wonder how this is going down with those two well-known allies of democracy, the pro-Iranian government of Iraq and the pro-Iranian government of Afghanistan. Finally, it strikes me that this is probably not a good time for Ahmadinejad to start winding the Jews up with his hilarious stand-up routine on the Holocaust.
There are some pertinent thoughts on Iran from Commander Huber, but there’s something about the visuals of first the UN General Assembly and then the G20 that’s struck me. If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, currently the Catholic Church is touring the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux around Britain. The holy remains were just in Liverpool, where 15,000 people turned out for the event. What struck me was the slightly disrespectful, almost sniggering tone on some of the BBC coverage. I should make it clear that praying over saints’ remains is not my thing, but there was an odd little disconnect between the Life of Brian treatment being given to the plebs in Liverpool, and the high diplomacy in the States.
Firstly, there was O’Bama’s failure to have sufficient face time with Gordon Brown at the UN. The British press pack went buck mad over this, which may have something to do with a herd mentality when it comes to Brown’s woes, but there’s also the aspect that Chris flagged up:
The papers report that Brown’s requests to meet Barack Obama one-to-one have been rebuffed. What they don’t answer is the question: what was the policy issue that Brown believed could be solved only by facetime, rather than by the sort of emails and phone calls that occur all the time between Downing Street and the White House?
They don’t answer this because there was no such issue.Brown wants a one-on-one with Obama not because it’s necessary for policy purposes, but because it’s a legitimation ritual. A meeting would send the signal: “I’m a global statesman, not a mere politician like Cameron or Osborne; I’m addressing big global issues.”
The same is, of course, true of the upcoming G20 summit. All the substantive business this does – insofar as there is any – can be, and has been, done behind the scenes. The facetime, and the photo opportunities, are ceremonies intended to elevate the individual politicians in their own, and voters’ minds…
Rituals such as G20 summits, and “bilaterials”, are part of the effort to win this allegiance, to shore up a mystique of high office.
Mystique is not wrong, but it’s not merely a question of Brown gaining prestige by his proximity to the Emperor. This is one of those areas where diplomatic ritual comes to resemble a ritual of another sort. Maybe you saw David Miliband pushing his way through the throng, so as to thrust his hand at a somewhat bemused O’Bama, who hesitantly took the proffered hand while seemingly being unsure of exactly who Millipede was. You know what it reminded me of? Supplicants in ancient Rome seeking to touch the hem of the Emperor’s toga.
Perhaps even miraculous cures will start being reported from those who have shaken the hand of the New Messiah. So, in place of Catholic superstition we have something rather reminiscent of Roman superstition. The folks involved in the latter, of course, all like to think of themselves as modern and progressive, but that don’t sound much like progress to me.