Philip Stephens: A history of the present in 250,000 cables





[Philip Stephens is associate editor of the Financial Times and a senior commentator.]

To trawl the vast cache of hitherto secret US state department cables dumped on to the web by WikiLeaks is to dip into the history of the present. Tales of diplomatic duplicity and unvarnished portraits of foreign leaders have grabbed the headlines. The big picture is one of the most powerful nations on the planet battling to hold on to its primacy.

America’s diplomats have a sharp but generally accurate pen. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is indeed feckless and vain and, in matters of foreign policy, a puppet of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nicolas Sarkozy is described as thin-skinned and arrogant; I have heard French diplomats say worse. Germany’s Angela Merkel cannot complain at the observation that she is not the most creative of leaders.

I would guess that Dmitry Medvedev is less than thrilled to find himself cast, albeit in a diplomatic cable written in 2008, as Robin to Mr Putin’s Batman. These days, Mr Medvedev makes a point of telling visitors that he is in sole charge of Russia’s foreign policy. The balance does seem to have shifted a bit. That said, I doubt many Russians would quarrel with the US assessment.

Given his sabotage of US efforts to restart the Middle East peace process, Benjamin Netanyahu gets off lightly. Israel’s prime minister is said to be elegant and charming, but loath to keep his promises. Slights on David Cameron relayed from London have ruffled feathers in Downing Street, but Britain’s prime minister can hardly claim to have emerged since as a towering figure on the world stage. As for unbecoming behaviour by a member of Britain’s royal family, what’s new?..


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