Brendan O'Neill writes:
Is David Cameron the world’s worst diplomat? His massive falling-out with the Chinese suggests he may well be. Britain does big business with China, and is keen to do more, and is politically friendly with China, which is sensible given that vast nation’s expanding global clout.
Yet Cameron seems happy to jeopardise all that for a photo op with Tibet’s spiritual leader and thorn in Beijing’s side, the Dalai Lama. Cameron has made himself persona non grata in Chinese political circles, and has potentially imperilled millions of pounds worth of Chinese investment in Britain, all for a snap of himself cosying up to every Western liberal’s favourite giggling monk. Has there ever been a PM so incapable of taking the long view and so hooked on making a fleeting PR splash over tactfully pursuing Britain’s best economic and national interests?
The Cam-China bust-up exposes the extreme short-termism of the spin-obsessed Cameron clique. Diplomacy, the art of managing international relations, requires thoughtfulness, discretion, tact and favour, yet the clumsy Cameron bunch, more schooled in spin-doctoring than statesmanship, have none of those skills. So despite repeated requests from the Chinese not to meet with the Dalai Lama – whom Beijing views, rightly or wrongly, as a threat to its national security – Cameron went ahead and met with him anyway, at St Paul’s Cathedral in May last year.
And now China is giving Cam the cold shoulder. Plans for Cameron to visit China have been put on hold. The Chinese have made veiled threats about withholding humungous amounts of investment in Britain. I hope Cameron thinks his half-hour hangout with a man who makes Deepak Chopra seem profound by comparison was worth this possible refreezing of Anglo-Sino relations.
Some will say it’s good that Cameron is sticking it to the Chinaman, signalling his preference for Tibetan human rights over Chinese cash by rebelliously meeting with the Dalai Lama. Do me a favour. That’s like sending a fly to take down a hippopotamus. Britain is hilariously insignificant in the international scheme of things, particularly vis-a-vis China.
Even if Cameron did make a conscious decision to have a subtle pop at China’s human rights record by chinwagging with the Dalai Lama (which I think is a far too generous reading of his Lama love-in publicity stunt), the fact that he and his minions failed to predict what the consequences of the meeting might be again speaks volumes about their extreme diplomatic immaturity.
Diplomacy is about working out what your nation needs, pursuing it in the most tactful way possible, and being always conscious of the potential side-effects of your behaviour and statements; the Cameroons, blinkered by spin, who can’t see beyond tomorrow’s newspaper headlines, much less into next year, are utterly incapable of such futurology.
The real reason Cameron met the Dalai Lama is because he likes nothing better than a photo op that demonstrates how with-it and sensitive he is. Whether he’s hanging out with huskies, hugging a hoodie, or loving a Lama, Cameron’s concern is always: “Will this get me on the front pages of tomorrow’s papers? Maybe even a nice little write-up in the usually hostile Guardian?”
For many a Western leader, rubbing shoulders with the Dalai Lama has become a short-cut to the moral highground. Being snapped in the company of this robed spouter of dimestore philosophy is the surest way to show you are Good. The Dalai Lama might be one of the daftest characters in international affairs (a humble monk who once did an advert for Apple and guest-edited Vogue), not to mention one of the most un-PC (he describes gay sex as “unnatural”), yet political bigwigs queue up to metaphorically touch his hem in the hope that some of the unquestioned adulation he enjoys in latte-sipping circles in the West will rub off on them. That is what Cameron wanted, and damn (or rather don’t even think about) the consequences.
No one has benefitted from Cameron’s chilling with the Lama. Not Cameron’s government, which is now being snubbed by a superpower. Not Britain more broadly, which could lose a key source of foreign investment. And not Tibetans, either, as it happens. The tendency of Cameron and others in the West to bow before the Dalai Lama as the unquestioned representative of everything Tibetan is actually stunting the development of a serious, grown-up Tibetan politics.
In the words of one expert on Tibetan affairs, our treatment of the Dalai Lama as Tibet's "ultimate spiritual authority" is "holding back the political process of democratisation [in Tibetan circles]”, since “the assumption that he occupies the correct moral ground from a spiritual perspective means that any challenge to his political authority may be interpreted as anti-religious”. Enraging the Chinese, patronising Tibetans, isolating Britain… it’s all in a day’s work for Cameron’s dunderheaded diplomacy.