BSR: Behind the diplomatic veil – dynamics of international trips and conferences

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President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s recent trip to Glasgow for COP26 generated a lot of interest, excitement, and controversy. It presents a teaching moment regarding the dynamics of such international engagements in statecraft and international relations. Having traversed that terrain before, it’s a good opportunity to peep behind the veil of international diplomacy to see what really goes on during these trips and conferences. This might help us to have a more informed debate about the success or failure of the latest trip. The government might also draw some lessons.

Global conferences present both formal and informal opportunities for engagement and networking between and among leaders and their delegations. While the conferences are formal events, there are usually peppered with opportunities for informal interaction. These can be cocktail parties during the conferences and dinner where leaders can engage in small talk outside the constraints of formal spaces where protocol and bureaucracy often impede engagement.

Informal Diplomacy

These spaces present opportunities for informal diplomatic engagements which might break the ice and lead to more formal engagements. If you are desperate to meet someone, but you have found the formal channels closed, you might grab a chance to drop in a word in a more relaxed and cordial environment. This might lay the ground for more formal engagements in the future. President Mnangagwa is desperate for re-engagement with the West, and he thought it was a chance to doorstep Western leaders. When he returned home, he told his supporters at the airport that he managed to put in a word to President Joe Biden and claimed that the US President responded positively. We have no way of determining the veracity of this claim. But it is easy to misread politeness. Whether the claimed promise for a call was genuine will be seen by the outcomes.

However, imagining that there is a difference between the US embassy in Harare and President Biden as stated in the state newspaper, The Herald is a case of seriously misreading the situation. President Biden will listen to the US embassy before he listens to the Zimbabwean leader. It’s futile for President Mnangagwa to try to win over the Americans by playing divide and rule between the US embassy and their President. He needs to get the embassy on his side because it is what it reports to Washington DC that is taken seriously and informs its policy. He must look at how the British Ambassador to the UK has been announcing their engagements with the Zambians to appreciate that the local embassy is a critical cog in the re-engagement process, not an enemy. He enjoyed similar support when Catriona Laing was the UK Ambassador to Zimbabwe before he blew his opportunity. It’s counter-productive to claim success in re-engagement with the US while attacking its representatives in Harare.       

Bilateral engagements

An organized team will use such events to arrange bilateral engagements with critical figures on the side-lines of the conference. Making these arrangements is the job of the advance team of the delegation. These semi-formal side-bar meetings are likely to yield more dividends than the small talk at cocktail events. Getting them is not easy because everyone has a busy schedule so if you are not considered important enough, those you want to engage bilaterally will decline the invitations. 

A picture of President Mnangagwa sitting with Baroness Scotland, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth indicates that he managed to secure a bilateral with a key figure. But it does not say much because Zimbabwe’s application has been in limbo for a while now. The Commonwealth Election Observer Group issued a critical report 3 years ago whose recommendations are yet to be implemented. Unless there are proper reforms, a photo opportunity with Baroness Scotland was just her being courteous to a guest desperate for attention. In any event, Zimbabwe’s ability to re-join is not up to her but the member states that operate on consensus. 

Another bilateral meeting with the President of the Council of the European Union was hailed as a success in the re-engagement process. But it is likely to be another case of form getting more hype over substance. The EU has long been in a dialogue process with Zimbabwe as the body tries to persuade the country to implement reforms. In any event, the key qualification by the EU President is the same: implementation of democratic reforms, something that the Mnangagwa administration still fails to do. The Minister of Finance announced an investment conference at which President Mnangagwa was only able to present virtually, even though he was in Glasgow. At least one of the guests was candid when he criticized the inconsistent and misguided currency policies. Whether Ncube and his team take those comments seriously is another matter, but they are not new – Zimbabweans have been saying the same things for a long time.

By contrast, our neighbour, Zambia appears to have been more organized, strategic, and purposeful in their engagements during the trip to Glasgow. Not only were they humble – but President Hakainde Hichilema also came with a small delegation on a commercial flight, befitting the humility of a man who is trying to seek a moratorium from creditors after his country was left heavily in debt by the previous administration. Our delegation on the other hand came on an expensive private jet, with a huge delegation in tow. President Hichilema made his way to London where among other engagements he met creditors and visited the London Metal Exchange, a key platform considering Zambia’s interests in mining and metals. He met with potential investors who in his words he “encouraged” to consider investing in Zambia.

The UK Ambassador to Zambia tweeted a picture with the Zambian Foreign Affairs Minister at No. 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British Prime Minister announcing that they had signed an agreement. The Zambian delegation had a solid plan for their principal. The climate conference provided an opportunity from which they are more likely to reap dividends for their country compared to our delegation which was more interested in party political propaganda. That is why every trip needs a serious planning team that is focused on substantive results, not gimmicks and propaganda.

If President Mnangagwa had gotten anywhere within a 5-mile radius of Downing Street, he would be forgiven for believing that his efforts at re-engagement were bearing fruit, not a fist bump and a smile which every leader got from the hosts as a matter of courtesy. Of course, President Hichilema currently enjoys the limelight after a successful election and peaceful transition. But he must make hay while the sun shines. The honeymoon will not last forever. He only must look at his Zimbabwean counterpart who just three years ago was the star of the show at Davos at the World Economic Forum at Davos which he attended just weeks after toppling President Robert Mugabe who was much reviled in the West. Everyone wanted to meet Mnangagwa. The world media wanted to talk to him. But he exhausted the goodwill within a few months and a shoddy election. Now even those who had given him the benefit of the doubt are no longer interested. He has been reduced to making vacuous and embarrassing claims to crowds of bussed supporters.

Advocacy

International conferences also offer opportunities for advocacy. You can construct your speech to communicate the messages that you consider relevant to your interests. In our case, Mugabe was adept at taking advantage of international conferences to push his message, whether it was about land, sanctions, or broader issues concerning global governance such as the equal representation of African states on the United Nations Security Council. During the height of the land revolution and the political crises associated with it, Mugabe used an international conference to launch a tirade against the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. We will come back to this issue of advocacy when we discuss President Mnangagwa’s points of advocacy and how they might have been handled. If Mnangagwa wanted to make re-engagement his main advocacy point, then the handling of his trip was abysmal and diluted the message. It doesn’t help that his communications team is out of its depth.

Grabbing the opportunity to shine

For smart and strategic leaders, international conferences are an opportunity to shine and demonstrate leadership and thereby grab the attention of key stakeholders. The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley emerged as one of the main stars of COP26, outshining leaders of bigger states with her candid, eloquent, and thoughtful speech concerning the hazards of climate change on the poor and vulnerable. She did not veer from the theme of the conference but constructed her message so that it reflected broader issues of inequality and inequity in global governance. It was so powerful that it drew the attention of everyone. Putting on a great performance is important because even people who might not have taken notice of you will be compelled to do so. It will not be hard for her to knock on doors that were previously remote. In fact, she is more likely to be the one with a queue at her door.

By contrast, President Mnangagwa’s speech was bland and attracted attention for the wrong reasons. To be sure, he was not the only leader to speak to an empty auditorium, but the fact that this was highlighted made for bad optics on his part. His communications team did little to douse the negative publicity. This was made worse by those images of supporters pushing trolley-loads of whisky and beer. A better performance on the stage and off it would have presented the image of a leader who is competent and deserving of more attention. For a man seeking attention and validation, that is the kind of performance that President Mnangagwa needed to make to turn the heads of doubters. Then, you won’t have to rely on vain propaganda and comical claims.

Global governance

Conferences also offer opportunities to participate in global governance. All too often, global governance is dominated by the great powers of the world. The rich and powerful get together under the G8 and sometimes extend an invitation to a chosen few under the broad G20, but they are still exclusionary. Conferences present an opportunity for smaller states to be heard. Again, the case of the Barbadian Prime Minister is an excellent illustration of how a small state can shine on the global stage. She took her opportunity and used it well, an example that could be emulated by peers who are desperate to be taken seriously.   

The dynamics of high-profile foreign trips

The logistics of attending global conferences are complex and sensitive and this is only a broad description. First, you must be invited. You don’t just pitch up. UN events are for all members, so everyone is generally invited. What would be special is if a state is not invited. That is why President Mugabe continued to attend the UNGA held each year at the UN General Headquarters despite being banned from visiting the US. However, he could not attend the US-Africa Summit because that is a US event to which it has the liberty to choose who comes. Interestingly, none of his peers stood with him. They religiously attended without him despite cheering him on when he made his anti-Western speeches, another example that states only ever look after their interests.

There are several critical teams involved in such trips.

Advance team

First, there is an advance team which as the name suggests travels in advance of the principal and his main delegation. Their job is to prepare for the principal’s visit to the foreign country. They liaise with the host state and conference organizers to know what they expect. They seek airline clearances and book accommodation for the principal and his delegation. They also make transport arrangements, which include hiring chauffeur-driven vehicles to and from the airport and for use during the visit. The security detail also organizes the safety and security of the principal in liaison with the host security system. This team works closely with the embassy in the foreign country because the staff has critical local knowledge. The advance team will also organize meetings for the principal, making sure he meets with persons that will advance his agenda.

Communications team

The second is the communications team. The job of this team is to make sure that the right messages regarding the principal’s trip are communicated to the public and other stakeholders. This includes preparing press statements describing the purpose of the trip and updating the media and public with highlights of the trip. Unfortunately, our government’s communicators seem to be obsessed with party-related propaganda which dilutes the proper purpose of such a trip which ought to be national.

Critically, the communications team organizes media engagements for the principal. International conferences are usually awash with media houses, both big and small from all over the world. They want to interview the big names who are often inundated with requests for interviews. If your person is not popular enough you may have to solicit interviews. But you do not have to accept all interviews. Sometimes you may have to decline because some media houses might be hostile.

The communications team must also be prepared to handle crises. There are times when things go wrong, and scandals erupt which threaten to derail and dilute the purpose of the trip and the communications team must carry out a salvage mission. As we shall see later in this article, instead of putting out fires, President Mnangagwa’s communications team was busy adding fuel to them, causing embarrassment in the process.

Advisory team

There is also the advisory team which together with the communications team must prepare the principal for both bilateral meetings and media engagements. The advisory team includes political and economic advisors. Their job is to ensure the principal is sufficiently prepared for his meetings, interviews, and other engagements. Letting a principal into a meeting unprepared will only lead to disaster and embarrassment. They must carry out research and prepare briefs for the principal. They must anticipate potential pitfalls and help him to navigate around them. Once he is in the interview he is on his own and there is not much you can do to prevent gaffes except hold your breath and hope for the best. If it is an interview, it’s important to know the interview host, his interviewing style and to anticipate the kind of things that he is likely to ask. It is also this team that oversees and advises speechwriters so that they capture and communicate the right messages.

The weakness of the delegation is that it was extremely light on climate change scientists and advocates but heavy on men of the cloth. It is hardly surprising that the President’s performance was hugely unremarkable because not enough was invested in the people whose expertise mattered for the conference. This is quite unfortunate because climate change is a serious issue in Zimbabwe and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa where millions who have contributed less to emissions are the ones bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change. Including rural farmers, women and young people who are hard-hit by these changes would have made a great impact than taking 8 men of the cloth to the gathering. In this regard, a better continental approach would have helped but it requires leadership.   

Embassy staff

The embassy staff plays an important if understated role in all this. They are the ones who are familiar with the land that is foreign to the principal and his delegation. They have local contacts and understand the local cultural and political nuances. Their advice is critical to avoid pitfalls. In my experience, most staff at our embassies are professional, whatever their political allegiances. They understand that their job is first and foremost to the state and they do their best under limited circumstances. When I worked and travelled with Tsvangirai, I usually found their professionalism and cordiality to be generally impressive. That is not to say I am naïve to the fact that some were also carrying out important assignments to monitor us and report on who we were meeting and what was being discussed. The problem is that the embassy staff are under-appreciated and under-compensated. Ironically, they receive their fellow guests from home whose pockets are heavy with per diems while they get nothing of substance. 

Security and Protocol

There is also naturally the security team that ensures the safety and security of the principal and his delegation. The host state also provides security details depending on the seniority of the principal. Therefore, the principal’s security and the host state’s security work together for this purpose. Another understated but important team is the team that handles protocol. These people are close to the principal and cater to his professional and sometimes personal needs. They liaise with the host state’s protocol team and make sure that the principal navigates the official channels with the decorum that befits the office. This is a position of trust as the principal is dependent on the professionalism and discretion of the people who handle his protocol.

Along with the close security details, the protocol people are, to use one of my favourite metaphors, the water-carriers of the delegation: their job is to serve the principal at all costs, even at their personal expense. There is a reason why Mugabe spent so many years with Munyaradzi Kajese as his head of protocol. He is probably one of the few people, apart from his close security details, who are familiar with Mugabe’s secrets and if he were to write a book it would be a bestseller. There is also a team of aides who do everything from carrying the principal’s briefcase to taking notes and ensuring that he or she is always in the right place.

Why do delegations get so bloated?

All this means the delegation must be carefully chosen. Each person on the delegation must have a role. It’s no place for hangers-on. Unfortunately, the political economy of the civil service means that international trips are seen as a cash cow by staff. This is because each member of the delegation gets a handsome allowance. What they get in a single international trip lasting a few days will often outstrip their annual earnings as public servants. The funds are generally meant to cater for accommodation, food, and other needs and it’s paid in foreign currency. That is why such trips are coveted and a place on the delegation is seen as having hit the jackpot. 

It is also a huge opportunity for patronage and abuse because those who have the authority to choose members of the delegation have immense power over subordinates. The opportunity of a foreign trip is the difference between a decent life and living in perennial penury. There are problems when the same people are chosen for international delegations while others are always excluded. This gives rise to tensions in the civil service because some benefit more than others. But it also means the chosen ones become beholden to those who select the delegations. And predatory bosses might use their leverage to extract sexual favours from their subordinates in return for a place on the delegation. The fact that there are no complainants does not mean such abuses do not happen. It may be that no one complaints out of fear of losing opportunities or the usual reasons why victims of sexual abuse are cowered into silence. 

Knowing the poverty, they face back home; members of delegations deploy various strategies to make savings when they go on foreign trips. They might cancel their pre-arranged hotel accommodation in hotels and move into cheaper lodgings. Another savings technique is for multiple people to book and share one room. The advent of services like Airbnb presents cheaper alternatives as large groups can book a house and share. Needless to say, the advance team is the group that reaps most of the economic dividends because they travel early and spend more days away and per diems are paid at a daily rate. But the major problem is that there will be several people who have no reason to be on the delegation. That is why delegations end up being inflated. The trips are seen as an opportunity for lowly paid staff to make up for their poor wages.    

How Mnangagwa’s message got diluted

As we have already observed, although this was a climate change event, President Mnangagwa was keen to emphasize the message of re-engagement. For him, it mattered that he was going to the United Kingdom, a country to which his predecessor had been banned from travelling. Although everyone was invited to COP26, Mnangagwa wanted to emphasize its political significance in the context of re-engagement. He wanted his supporters to see it as a success in the re-engagement process. Despite regular anti-Western rhetoric from his party and government, it was apparent that he placed a lot of value in photo opportunities with Western leaders. However, the social media messages went overboard and sounded overly desperate for recognition and validation.

More significantly, the message of successful re-engagement was diluted by the antics of overzealous supporters and his communications team. Before Mnangagwa arrived, his supporters had already embarrassed him when they shared social media images buying and pushing trolleys of copious amounts of alcohol. Some of his people recruited Scottish teenagers to wear T-shirts emblazoned with his image and presidential campaign message. They seem to have hired Scottish buskers to play instruments chanting pro-Mnangagwa political messages. These images were carried in British media, making a mockery of Mnangagwa and the country.

The message of re-engagement was lost in the frenzy of promoting Mnangagwa as a presidential candidate in 2023. If he wanted to be taken seriously, the entire charade was deeply embarrassing. His communications team did not help matters by retweeting and promoting those amateurish and provincial messages. Instead of emphasizing re-engagement, it presented Mnangagwa as a parochial and provincial leader whose pre-occupation is political supremacy among rivals at home.

Conclusion

International trips are expensive, especially at the VIP level. The process that I have described here is only very basic. But you have seen the teams that are involved and their functions. You have also seen how and why the delegations get bloated. The political economy of those who are involved in these trips is no small matter. That is why such trips are not only coveted but numerous. You may remember a time before the pandemic when the presidents travelled incessantly around the world even for events to which they might have dispatched ministers or assigned ambassadors to attend. This is not just a Zimbabwean problem. Fellow Africans and citizens of other countries might relate.

This is not to say these trips are always pointless. I have given various reasons why it might be strategic to be at those conferences from networking, informal diplomacy, advocacy, and taking part in global governance. However, to yield the necessary dividends, you must be organized. There must be a plan. There must be a competent team and a developmental vision. It should not be about political point-scoring against political rivals in local politics. A major trip can be spoiled by a few scandals because it is those scandals that make the headlines, drowning the principal’s message in whisky and beer.

Instead of returning home to take stock of the gains and losses of the trip, the President went on a propaganda spree. Bussing crowds to the airport is probably designed as a political statement to rivals, both internal and external. But you cannot solve deep-seated problems such as we have in Zimbabwe through propaganda and gimmicks. Propaganda and gimmicks expire and like fish, after a few days, they soon emit a bad smell. What our long-standing structural problems require is strategic and thoughtful leadership.

The golden rule is that you must work to solve things that are within your control. Once that is achieved, everything else follows. The world leaders whose attention our government covets will not be turned by propaganda. The things that will make them turn their heads and listen are simple and do not require a lot of money. Be tolerant towards and respect your political opponents; Stop political violence against political opponents; Respect the principle of fair play; Uphold the independence of institutions; Stop corruption and draconian measures and finally, allow citizens to express themselves. Once you achieve even a quarter of these things, you might earn respect and attention from peers.

The problem is not just the people in the current regime are keen to hype its propaganda, but also that they believe the lies they tell. They have created such a vast and deep cesspool of lies and fabrications that they are now drowning in it, and they are taking their principal down with them. To lie to others is bad enough, but to believe your lies is tragic.  

WaMagaisa

wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk 

wamagaisa@kent.ac.uk