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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Similarly to last weekend, I shall use this blog to record things that caught my attention this week. I shall begin, however, with Napoleon meeting Pope Pius VII in 1804.

Napoleon greeted the pontiff in the forest near Fontainebleau. Napoleon had arrived on horseback and dressed in riding gear. As the pope's carriage pulled to a stop, Napoleon deliberately waited at a distance. The pope, wearing white silk shoes and other finery, stepped out of his carriage into the mud. Napoleon remained on horseback, forcing the pope to dirty his shoes walking across to meet him. After the pair embraced, Napoleon's carriage, which had been waiting out of sight, drew up into the clearing to collect the pair. Napoleon had asserted his superiority.

This anecdote from long ago encapsulates the diplomatic peacockery involved when leaders try to assert their power. There is a lot of political and diplomatic signalling going on in the world right now. Some of it subtle, and some of it less so.

Russia's nuclear exercises

Vladimir Putin had his inauguration ceremony following the recent presidential election. The UK, US and many EU states boycotted the event, although the French ambassador was in attendance; thus, there was no united front from the EU.

In the opulent Grand Kremlin Palace, Putin delivered a largely unremarkable speech. There were the obligatory references to 'western aggression' and working towards a 'multipolar world'. Putin insisted Russia is willing to talk to any partner on equal terms. The last clause is the rub, as always: Russia wants to be treated as America's equal; it doesn't want to negotiate on 'equal' terms with Ukraine since that would undermine its claim to a sphere of influence or Putin's evident belief that Ukraine isn't a 'proper' state because Ukrainians and Russians are – so he says – really one people 'artificially divided' by outside interference.

A couple of days earlier, Russia announced military drills involving its tactical nuclear forces. Putin explained the drills as a response to 'provocative statements' from Emmanuel Macron and Lord David Cameron (see my previous post for a summary of their comments). The Kremlin had already summoned the British and French ambassadors in protest. As nuclear signalling goes, there's not much room for misinterpretation in the drills; Putin has ordered these exercises to intimidate certain NATO members.

Two additional details reinforced the heavy–handedness of Russia's signalling. First, Putin handed an official advisory role to Sergey Karaganov, the political scientist who caused a stir last summer by advocating a 'pre–emptive nuclear strike' to 'put the fear of hell' into the US and NATO. Secondly, the drills were accompanied by the vitriolic tongue of former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. On X he wrote about 'the choir of irresponsible bastards from among Western elites calling for sending their troops to the non–existent [Ukraine] is expanding... none of them will be able to hide either on Capitol Hill, or in the Élysée Palace, or in Downing Street 10. It will be a global catastrophe... something that the present–day infantile morons in power in the west don't want to comprehend.' There is little room for doubt what that catastrophe entails.

Indeed, on Thursday, Russians watched their country's intercontinental ballistic missiles roll across Red Square during the annual Victory Day parade. A few years ago it might have felt like an antwacky display of pomp and circumstance. In the current climate it embodies cold war menace. Mind, the parade did look a little threadbare since much of Russia's military hardware is deployed in or near Ukraine.

China's prowess

Xi Jinping's visit to Europe showed off the subtler artistry of politics and diplomacy. He began in France where Emmanuel Macron lay on a charm offensive. As well as a state banquet in the grandiose surroundings of the Élysée Palace, Macron took Xi to the Pyrenees where the French leader spent some of his summers in childhood. Macron intended to create an air of informality and intimacy; you don't invite just anyone to places close to your heart. The president's team presented the visit to the Pyrenees as a deliberate 'breaking with protocol' to ease frank but cordial discussions. In fact, it might be another breaking with protocol that was more significant.

It was reported that the Chinese delegation subtly breached protocol by having the car carrying Xi pull up at the entrance across the courtyard instead of in front of the Élysée steps where Macron waited to greet his guest. An innocent mistake? Or perhaps the Chinese delegation had in mind Napoleon's meeting with the pope 220 years earlier. Macron, like Pius VII, was compelled to the gentle humiliation of walking over to his interlocutor. Such slights, if that is what it was, carry weight; Xi displayed his power by making Macron go out to his car.

Macron's critics think he is treading the same path with Xi that he trod with Putin in the past. They think him naïve and bemoan the way Macron handled the visit. The hard truth is that it was Xi's other meetings during his visit to Europe that seemed more significant.

The Chinese premiere went on to Serbia, where he marked the 25 year anniversary of NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In an article penned for a Serbian newspaper, Xi spoke of the 'flagrant' bombing as part of the 'shared memory' of Serbians and Chinese people. The two states signed a range of agreements and spoke of lifting their partnership to a new level. I'll leave it to experts on Serbian politics to comment authoritatively on how much substance there is in the agreements, but I can't help but feel the visit to Serbia carried more weight in Xi's mind than the one to France.

In Budapest, meanwhile, Xi and Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban spoke of increasing trade and investment ties. Xi said that the two states had established 'an all–weather comprehensive and strategic partnership'. The language matters. Only Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus have been endowed with such a status by Chinese diplomacy before now. Xi published an oped in a Hungarian newspaper praising the bilateral relationship; he described the relationship as being 'at its best in history'.

In Belgrade and Budapest, the Chinese leader had plenty to crow about. Xi's trip to France looks like little more than a detour.

On motives

It is easy to dismiss the reported Chinese breach of protocol in Paris as an accident or insignificant. The Chinese leader's foreign trips are extremely carefully choreographed, however, and so I think it would be a mistake to play it down too quickly.

That is not to gainsay the ever–present possibility of overinterpreting things. Diplomats seem to be especially good at that. An almost certainly apocryphal story from the Congress of Vienna illustrates the point. As Europe's diplomats negotiated at the end of the Napoleonic wars, the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich was given the news that the Russian ambassador had died. Metternich exclaimed: 'What may have been his motive?'

Thank you for reading! Why not show your appreciation by buying me a coffee?

Cover image: Detail from Horace Vernet's painting, Napoleon inspecting the Imperial Guard before the Battle of Jena. Public domain.

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