Students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’ have been tasked with comparing medieval and modern diplomatic practices and writing the results up as a blog post. In the first instalment James Smith examines the knotty problem of diplomatic meetings.
In 1949, Mao Zedong went to meet with Joseph Stalin in Moscow, to ensure Soviet economic and military support for China. Similarly, in 1093, Malcolm III of Scots humbly travelled to Gloucester to see William II of England, in hope of encouraging the English king to fulfil their prior agreement. In both cases the more powerful leader, whose support was being requested, chose to act coolly. Neither Stalin nor William II met their guests upon arrival, nor were the guests allowed to speak with their hosts when they desired, and were extensively ignored. Using these and comparative examples, I will demonstrate why ‘ignoring tactics’ were continually practiced at diplomatic meetings and the danger of utilising them.
Superior leaders pursued ignoring tactics to demonstrate power over inferior ones. Mao’s two week isolation in a dacha, unable to leave or meet with Stalin as he requested, caused observers, such as Khrushchev, to claim the Chinese leader was being treated like a prisoner ‘sitting behind lock and key’. Mao himself interpreted this as poor hospitality, shouting insults at Soviet visitors and declaring his intention to go home early. Likewise John of Worcester’s account shows that Malcolm III was also unhappy about being ignored and that the situation was similarly interpreted, as the two medieval rulers ‘separated without any agreement’. Thus by ignoring inferior leaders, superior ones demonstrate their dominance, since the inferior is clearly at their beck and call, and can be greeted or dispatched whenever they see fit. This attitude is not just rooted in diplomacy but is evident in popular culture and our everyday lives. In the recent Bond film Spectre, upon arriving at the villain’s base James Bond is welcomed, offered a drink and sent to a bedroom, before the villain allows the confrontation to take place. Likewise we all recall being sent to the head teacher’s office as children and being forced to wait outside until we were called in. Therefore a desire to display power is behind ignoring tactics.
However, if overused, ignoring tactics can cause problems for the user. For example Stalin’s actions clearly soured Mao’s view of the Soviets. In 1958 he took revenge by forcing Stalin’s successor Khrushchev, who could not swim, to join him in his pool whilst on a visit to China. Swimming was a great skill of Mao’s, and the comparison between his skilful strokes and Khrushchev’s use of an inflatable aid was not lost on the witnesses, such as Mao’s physician Dr Li who described him as an ‘Emperor’ receiving tribute from a ‘barbarian’. Similarly following his humiliation Malcolm III responded by invading William II’s realm. Consequently the danger of employing ignoring tactics is that excessive use can cause the victim to take revenge against you, which may result in your own humiliation. Thus the practice is inherently risky.
Therefore dominant diplomatic parties throughout history have used ignoring tactics to demonstrate their power. However, if practiced excessively the user might find themselves the victim of some act of revenge. My advice: Learn to swim.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in Douglas D C, Greenaway G W (eds.), English Historical Documents II: c.1042-1189 (London, 1968)
The Annals of Roger de Hoveden, in Riley H T (eds.), The Annals of Roger de Hovedene compromising the History of England and of other countries in Europe, volume II (London, 1997)
The Chronicle of John of Worcester, in McGurk P (ed.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester Vol.3, the annals from 1067 to 1140 (Oxford, 1998)
Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China, in Cheng Pei-Kai, Lestz M, Spence J D (eds.), The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection (London, 1999)
Bailey P J, China in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1988)
Heinzig D, The Soviet Union and Communist China: 1945-1950: The Arduous Road to the Alliance (London, 2004), p. 269
Hsü I C Y, The Rise of Modern China (Oxford, 2000)
Taubman W, Khrushchev: The Man: His Era (2005, London)