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News and Current Affairs
Go to the Listen Again page
Tuesday 8:00-8:40pm, 20 August - 17 September
Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, Pervez Musharraf, Kofi Annan, Shimon Peres

In an essay originally published in the World Service Magazine, Edward Stourton looks at the diplomatic Jigsaw put together in the wake of September 11th.

The Diplomatic Jigsaw

"People imagine", says one of the British Prime Minister's closest advisers, "that because you are in the government you have these incredible ways of finding out what is happening. The truth is we were listening to the radio." He was describing the frantic journey the prime minister and his team made back to Downing Street from a conference they had been attending in the chaotic hours immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September.

Halfway across the world in Manhattan itself the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations was feeling even more isolated; "communications between New York and my capital Beijing were cut off for five hours", he remembered. Richard Haass, the State Department's long term policy strategist who would soon become a pivotal figure in American policy on Afghanistan, was in Dublin. He was trying to ease the troubled progress of the Good Friday Agreement - which brought a measure of peace to Northern Ireland - and was caught by the closure of airspace over North America. "I couldn't get anywhere", he says, "Like every other passenger I was stranded". The hawkish Undersecretary of State at the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, was negotiating with the Russians in Moscow and had to take out his frustration by writing memos to his boss Donald Rumsfeld until he could get back to Washington.

While they all fought valiantly to bring their skills to bear on the crisis, a revolution was unfolding - and it was one of those rare phenomena which really do seem to have been an impersonal force of history. By the time the diplomats and the politicians had recovered the use of the phones and flights they use to shape our lives the world had changed forever. Within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center everyone knew that nothing would ever be quite the same again. The question that has dominated politics and diplomacy ever since is "what does the revolution mean?", and that is the question we have sought to address in this series.

It has been a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle in the old fashioned way - without looking at the picture on the box. You put the pieces together painstakingly, using colour and shape as guides, and all of a sudden they coalesce into recognisable images; as more and more of such images emerge from the abstract patterns, you begin to make out the bigger picture.

This puzzle now has a degree of clarity I could never have imagined when we began. That is largely because so many of those who played critical roles in the aftermath of September the 11th have been willing to talk to us. In twenty years of broadcast journalism I have never encountered anything like it; leaders from Kofi Annan at the UN to President Musharraf in Islamabad, foreign policy veterans from Shimon Peres in Israel to Richard Armitage in Washington, normally discreet "eminences grises" from Chancellor Schroeder's Michael Steiner to Tony Blair's Alastair Campbell - all falling over themselves to mark the first draft of this extraordinary moment of history with a distinctive stroke of the pen.

The first and most immediately striking image to emerge - bulking large in the foreground of the jigsaw - is the unanimity of international opinion in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. We take it for granted now that it was natural for the world to offer America its support, but at the time there were real doubts about the way that many nations would react. Russia, with its longstanding interest in Afghanistan and the thin skin of a superpower recently relegated down the league table of international power, looked an awkward ally. The leadership of much of the Muslim world had to consider the anger of the "Arab Street" in response to any aggressive American action. Beijing's leaders famously love the long game, and must surely have evaluated events in the light of their strategic ambition to challenge American supremacy. And the Europeans have shown often enough in the past how squeamish they become when America reaches for its holster.

But all those so-called diplomatic certainties proved to be the currency of a defunct diplomatic economy. At the United Nations the Security Council combined in record time to push through a resolution with gave America what she wanted. "In normal UN circumstances", says Britain's UN ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock, "you would expect there to be careful examination of a text like that, which might seem to open up legal precedent". But it went through on the nod - "By the standards of this house", Kofi Annan commented in characteristically judicious tone, "it was surprising".

And to everyone's amazement General Musharraf commited Pakistan to support American action against the Taliban within 48 hours of the attacks in New York - acquiescing to a series of demands for support which the number two at the American State Department, Richard Armitage, described as the "keys to the kingdom". "The decision on a matter of principle", General Musharraf told us, "was that we should join the coalition".

The general did however add that his decision was "basically in our national interest". It was a candid admission of the driving fact behind much of the immediate support that America enjoyed. In the Middle East Yasser Arafat gave blood for the victims of the attacks. It was an attempt to distance the Palestinian cause from the terrorism of Osama bin Laden, and a shrewd recognition of a reality that President Bush articulated in his address to Congress a week later; in the world after September the 11th you were either with or against" the world's only superpower.

Arafat's favoured negotiating partner on the Israeli side, Shimon Peres, illuminates the same insight with an engaging anecdote about the Shanghai Summit, when the world's leaders were persuaded to don elegant and colourful silk Chinese jackets; "I saw the meeting headed by Jiang Zemin, the President of China, Bush the President of the United States and Putin the President of Russia; I told President Bush 'You've developed really silky relations'. He thought I am saying 'silly relations' so he says 'Why, did I look silly?'. So I say, 'No, Mr President, 'you look silky'. But it is not that all of them fall in love with President Bush - all of them feel in the same camp".

Many nations quickly worked out that being in the same camp as the Americans was not only more comfortable - it was also a position that could be exploited to advance specific agendas. For the Russians it proved a way of muting Western criticism about the war in Chechnya; "we noticed more understanding about this" says the Russian UN ambassador Sergei Lavrov. For Pakistan there was the promise of American help with its acute economic problems. For the German government America's need for help from its allies offered an opportunity to address the Germany's deep rooted anxiety about the deployment of its armed forces overseas. "War", says Chancellor Schroeder's former foreign policy adviser Michael Steiner, "is not popular in German...but I think people have understood that in these circumstance it was unavoidable." For Britain the war on terrorism has proved a unique opportunity to reassert the value of the "special relationship" with America, and for Ariel Sharon's government in Israel a serendipitous justification of its tough policy towards Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

The revolution's losers have been those international bodies known by their acronyms - the UN, the EU, and Nato, the alphabet soup of international diplomacy.

The United Nations has been forced to confront its limitations; Kofi Annan made it clear to us that the idea that the UN could mount a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan was dismissed almost before it was considered. And the resolutions passed by the Security Council have all been designed to support rather than influence an international policy which is fundamentally American. The contrast with the Gulf crisis of the early 1990s is striking; the days when Washington sought to cloak each step towards war in the respectability of a UN Security Council Resolution are long since gone.

The European Union's envoys travelled the world in the aftermath of September 11th, but their activity looked more like a search for a role than anything else. With nothing to offer in military terms, the EU was reduced to tweaking its aid policy toward countries like Pakistan to support America's objectives, in the hope that it could demonstrate its relevance.

Nato's energetic General Secretary George Robertson was immediately alive to the implications of September 11th. He told us that the idea of invoking Article V of NATO's constitution - which covers collective self defence, and therefore required all NATO members to offer the United States help - came from him rather than the Americans. But the campaign in Afghanistan was fought and won principally with American technology and manpower, and although forces from individual Nato countries may have been used in the course of the fighting the overwhelming lesson was a demonstration of America's absolute military supremacy.

This is only a first draft of history and there are still holes in the jigsaw puzzle - there are some significant players we need to talk to before this series is broadcast. But it is increasingly apparent that the defining quality of the picture that still remains hidden on the upturned box of the puzzle is American power - blessing those who are "with us" with light, and condemning those against to diplomatic darkness.

Return to the main With Us or Against Us page
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Crossing Continents
From Our Own Correspondent
Edward Stourton
Edward Stourton was born in Lagos, Nigeria in November 1957. Educated first at Ampleforth College and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, he took a degree in English Literature before joining ITN as a graduate trainee in 1979.

He was a founder member of Channel 4 News in 1982, working as a scriptwriter but adding producer, duty home news editor and chief sub-editor to his duties.

In 1986, he was appointed Channel 4's Washington correspondent covering the final years of the Reagan presidency and the 1988 presidential campaign. He also presented special programmes on the Iran-Contra scandal.

1n 1988 Stourton joined the BBC as Paris correspondent. In 1990 he returned to ITN as diplomatic editor, and during his three years in the job he reported from Baghdad during the Gulf War, from Bosnia during the siege of Sarajevo, from Moscow in the final days of the Soviet Union and from Europe throughout the negotiations leading up to the Maastricht summit.

In 1993 he returned to the BBC to the One O'Clock News, which he presented for six years. He has also presented editions of Correspondent, Assignment and Panorama, and the phone-in programme Call Ed Stourton on Radio 4. His current affairs work for Radio 4 includes the series The Violence Files, Asia Gold and Global Shakeout. Asia Gold won the Sony Gold for current affairs in 1997.

In 1997 he presented Absolute Truth, a landmark, four-part series for BBC2 on the modern Catholic Church and wrote a book to accompany the series.

In January 1999 he joined the presentation team on the Today Programme.

He won the the Amnesty Award for best television documentary in 2001.

Earlier this year he presented the six part series In the Footsteps of St. Paul for Radio 4 and is a regular presenter of the Radio 4 religious and ethical news programme Sunday.

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