Jack Straw: the accidental diplomat
Is shaking hands with someone you disagree with unethical?
This question was posed after UK foreign secretary Jack Straw pressed the flesh with Zimbabwe's prime minister Robert Mugabe in New York yesterday. Straw said it was an accident. 'I was sort of being pushed towards shaking hands with somebody as a matter of courtesy, and then it transpired it was President Mugabe. But the fact that there is serious disagreement between Zimbabwe and the UK does not mean we should be discourteous or rude.'
Yet the incident was seized upon by Straw's Tory opposite number, Michael Ancram. 'Whether this was by clumsy accident or ill-judged design, he has sent a powerful message of support to Mugabe, which will have shocked all those who seek the restoration of democracy and the rule of law to Zimbabwe', said Ancram.
In fact the handshake represents nothing, except perhaps an unusual outbreak of diplomacy. In recent years, international affairs have been dominated by petulant outbursts rather than sophisticated manoevuring. The track record of Straw, and his predecessor Robin Cook, has been one of intemperate comments and cack-handed errors. As for shaking hands with a 'tyrant' - well, that's what diplomats are supposed to do. 'Diplomacy is the art of letting someone have your own way', noted the Italian diplomat and author Danielle Vare. Britain had little difficulty dealing with Hitler prior to the Second World War, and representatives of the 'free world' have had no problem doing the same with regimes of all persuasions before and since.
How ironic that when politics is slated for being little more than spin and photo opportunities, so much weight has been given to a handshake with no such intended connotations. Surely there are more pressing problems with Britain's foreign policy for us to get a grip on and criticise?
Straw justifies Mugabe handshake, BBC News, 28 September 2004