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Alex Salmond receives a lesson from the school of foreign policy hard knocks

29 April 2014

Look: Alex Salmond’s indulgent appraisal of Vladimir Putin’s record was foolish and naive and all too revealing but let’s not lose the heid. Scotland, even an independent Scotland, is not going to be run by  McKGB and Mr Salmond’s fondness for wealthy businessmen is not really comparable to the kleptocracy that’s run Russia this century.

Still, it is a news story and a legitimate one. Tinfoil Nationalists were very upset yesterday. Salmond was being “smeared” by, er, being quoted. GQ, clearly part of the pan-Unionist BritNat propaganda media machine, had “leaked” excerpts of their interview with the First Minister to undermine, eclipse or otherwise divert attention from a speech Mr Salmond was giving in Belgium. Because, obviously. And anyway, when was the interview given? Mid-March! Before Russia annexed the Crimea! Move along, nothing to see here. No-one, after all, could have reasonably thought Mr Putin a wrong ‘un before then.

And besides, you should always remember that the British government is always worse. Always. So Twittering Nats posted photos of David Cameron alongside Putin as G8 summits and the like and so on and expected us to believe this proved anything at all. A mass outbreak of Whataboutery that was, to be fair, no more tedious than most such pandemics.

But this is the thing: foreign policy is hard. Especially when you are leader of a country expected to have a foreign policy. Hypocrisy, as I suggested yesterday, is unavoidable. We need not salute it but nor should we shrink from it. The world is not as we might wish it to be and we have little choice but to engage with it as it is, not as it might desire it.

That’s part of the burden of being in power. It is not easy. We trim and we cope and we try not to make too many mistakes or give succour to regimes too far beyond the pale. We try to impose some limits upon their excesses even as we recognise we cannot eliminate those excesses everywhere.

An ethical foreign policy is a nonsense because the world is not an ethical place. But, as Labour’s most successful Prime Minister once said, you do what you can, where you can, when you can.

Even so, diplomacy is a delicate business. There are always trade-offs and some of them even involve trade. Calculating the national interest is not always or actually an easy thing.

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So we reach an accommodation with vile regimes sometimes. Saudi Arabia, for instance. Sometimes we tacitly (or not so tacitly) aid them for fear that something even worse might replace them. At least, we assist them until they go too far or their position becomes untenable. Then it is time to switch horses. But judging when to do so, and which horse to pick, is not a simple business. Nor a clean one. And you will always be criticised. Because the balance between realism and values is not easy to find.

The thing is, Alex Salmond knows this. He has, for all the obvious reasons, very little foreign policy experience but he is, or should be, sufficiently worldly to know that expressing even qualified admiration for Vladimir Putin is an own goal and an easily-avoided one at that. Salmond doesn’t have to calculate how to respond to Russian aggression in the Ukraine while weighing that against the need for Russian assistance in other places (Iran!). He has the luxury of having no responsibility at all. David Cameron, or Barack Obama or Angela Merkel is in a rather different position. They actually have to wrestle with reality and circumstances that are not of their choosing.

Salmond has, I think, only once had to make a choice between interest and values. Or rather, since the choice is rarely as clear as that, only once has he had to weigh economic interest against a useful but largely pointless gesture. And he chose trade, not human rights.

In 2012 the Dalai Lama visited Scotland. It was not, obviously, a government-sponsored trip. Nevertheless, Tibet’s most prominent exile was received at the Scottish parliament and opposition leaders – and human rights activists – urged the First Minister to meet the Dalai Lama.

This put Salmond in an awkward position. He has been a keen booster of trade and education links with China. He values his relationship with the Chinese and thinks Scotland has gained more than just a couple of panda bears from it. He is probably right. Everyone wants to hop aboard the Chinese economic express. No-one really wants to make too much of China’s execrable human rights record. No-one really wants to dwell on the fact China’s government is, in many respects, a rotten, rancid, repellant thing. There is too much money at stake.

So Salmond decided to avoid the Dalai Lama. Nothing to do with him even though it is hard to think of many other winners of the Nobel Peace Prize whom Salmond would wish to avoid. Such encounters are usually good for a decent photo and nice, standing-boosting pieces of fluff in the papers.

Not this time. The Chinese government – via their ambassador to the UK – pressed Salmond on whether he would meet the Dalai Lama. They received the assurances they sought. This was a private, pastoral visit and there’d be no photo-op to jeopardise cosy relations between Edinburgh and Beijing.

Would meeting the Dalai Lama threaten Chinese investment in Scotland? A Scottish government spokesman did not know but assured us that “We do what is appropriate for the benefit of the Scottish people”. In other words: Beijing spank.

Not particularly honourable, perhaps, but not especially discreditable either. Trade, investment and jobs vs a meeting that would annoy China and do nothing at all to assist Tibet. Or anyone else.

That’s the way of the world. Given the test, Salmond placed realism before idealism. Which is fine.

But it is a reminder that we could cope with a little less sanctimony from the First Minister (and from his swarm of followers) and a little more humility. No-one is purer than pure. At least no-one who matters, even a little. These are not easy waters to navigate and striking a balance – of tone as well as action – is a tricky business.

So I wouldn’t say Salmond flunked his China test. You might be disappointed by his choice but you couldn’t really complain it was unreasonable. It was politics and a rare foray for a Scottish minister into the real world where real choices have real consequences.

The Putin stuff, by contrast is notable chiefly because there was no interest at stake and nothing to be gained from flinty realism. An actual, honest-to-goodness gaffe in other words. And a modestly revealing one too.


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Show comments
  • Christian Wright

    Ah, Massie at his duplicitous best. Affecting sneering contempt for the naivety of the First Minister and his sin of articulating a mature and nuanced, realpolitik assessment of Putin in GQ magazine.

    Alex, unless he’s dumber than rocks, well knows Salmond’s sketch was accurate. He is cynically parroting the Unionist party line because . . . well, because that’s what a loyal pet jock propagandist does.

    Look at this bit of flimflam and misdirection:

    “So Twittering Nats posted photos of David Cameron alongside Putin as G8 summits and … expected us to believe this proved anything at all. ”

    No, that’s not what they did, Alex. What the the “Twittering Nats” actually did, was to present dispositive evidence from UK diplomatic cables that Cameron had pressured a total of 34 foreign powers to publically demean Scots and their ability to govern themselves.[1]

    There was particular additional corroboration with respect to Russia and Putin from the Kremlin’s in-house mouthpiece, TASS. It revealed that Cameron had “pleaded” with Putin to knife Scotland.[2]

    Massie, along with the rest of the Tory chattering class simply chose to suppress this for it exposed their own hypocrisy and that of the Dear Leader, Cameron.

    They and Labour’s Luvvies (the Tories on the left hand side), conveniently also chose to wink out of existence George Robertson’s invitation to Vlad the Invader, the Hammer of the Ukraine, to join NATO (no seriously, he did that).[3]

    This invitation issued as Putin goosestepped his way to anschluss with Crimea.

    The only factor keeping this corrupt Unionist dog and pony show from collapsing under the own weight of its own blazing contradictions, is the serried ranks of the Fourth Estate which keep a North Korea like stranglehold on the truth, when it comes to matters constitutional and Scottish, and the person of the First Minister.

    You know, at moments like this, the less charitable will often compare this irredeemably corrupt chattering class to rodents. I will not follow them down that path.

    The comparison is unfair and wholly inaccurate, for there are some things you just can’t get a rat to do.


  • Gwangi

    I don’t like Salmond and have never trusted him. It’s amazing so many of the Scottish people are too dim to see through him; maybe it is because his ego is so enormous it gets in the way.
    But really, what is the SNP and the Independence campaign without him? The Scots are really being asked to vote for one man. But even if they adore him, if he becomes the Scottish junta and then fades away or does a Donald Dewer, who will then be ruler of all Scots? No-one seems to be asking that question. No-one has a clue about the answer.
    Be careful what you wish for an what you vote for.

    • dougthedug

      if he becomes the Scottish junta and then fades away or does a Donald Dewer, who will then be ruler of all Scots?

      “Ruler of all Scots.” Sounds a bit Game of Throneish.

      If Alex Salmond is elected as Prime Minister of Scotland in the first general election after a successful independence referendum then after he stands down the next Prime Minister will be the one elected at the next Scottish general election.

      Fairly clear I would have thought.

      • Gwangi

        Yes, but those who vote yes are voting for Alec Salmond mostly; without him, the SNP is full of mediocrities as far as I can tell. Imagine if Salmond suddenly got ill. Who would have his appeal to the Yes camp?
        Maybe if we remind Alec Salmond that whisky was in fact first created in Wales, not Scotland, he’d have a funny turn and collapse. Then it’s be 70% NO overnight I am sure.

        • Maidmarrion

          You really shouldn’t believe anything you read in the papers – least of all about the independence referendum , the SNP , Alex Salmond .
          And do please point out the ” less than mediocrities” of the other parties – go on name names , I am truly interested in whom you think has a brain and a wee bit gravitas.

    • Maidmarrion

      And tell me who do you like?
      Fan of Camerons ? Osbornes? Milibands? Farage? Balls? Clegg? Any of them?
      You find them trustworthy?
      Their egos just wee wormy things?
      Do you find the electorate ” too dim” to see the foreign policy of Washington is imposed on Westminster?
      Do you find the electorate” too dim” to see through the ” we’re all in this together ” austerity drive?
      Looked at any of the above ” all within the rules” expenses claims?

  • Kennybhoy

    Best thing you have written in some time Maister M…

  • Dafydd Williams

    Another snide article only underlines the growing desperation of those who want to hold Scotland back.

    • Wessex Man

      No one who I know wants to ‘hold Scotland back’, where do you get these notions? Call me Dave is desperate not to be the PM when the UK broke up and Miliband and Clegg are desperate not to lose their Scottish MPs. It’s only the Westiminster Village which wants to hold on to the Union.

  • abystander

    I agree with every word Salmond said about Putin.

    Are we supposed to pretend Putin cares tuppence about the UK’s position on anything at all?

  • JPJ2

    Is Alex Massie STILL pretending to be undecided about whether he favours Yes or No-or was that just more guff like this ridiculous article?

  • allymax bruce

    “So I wouldn’t say Salmond flunked his China test. … It was politics and a rare foray for a Scottish minister
    into the real world where real choices have real consequences.” Yeh, £2 billion worth to Scotland! First Minister Alex’ salmond’s trip to China added another £2 billion of trade from Scotland to China.

    “The Putin stuff, by contrast is notable chiefly because there was no interest at stake and nothing to be gained” Don’t be so sure; Alex’ Salmond is a consumate politician; he has more irons in the fire than auld Tam Morris ever had.

    • Wessex Man

      Hur hur hur hur yawn!

  • AtMyDeskToday


  • Denis_Cooper

    There’s a much more important foreign relations problem for Salmond to solve:
    he needs to obtain written assurances from 28 national governments that they would be willing to amend the EU treaties so that Scotland could be fast-tracked
    into the EU as a new member state in its own sovereign right, rather being in the
    EU by virtue of being part of the UK as at present.

    We can assume that one, the UK, would readily supply him with that assurance,
    but another, Spain, would not be so co-operative, while there would be various
    and in many cases unpredictable reactions from the other 26 governments.

    • Bo Williams

      “We can assume that one, the UK, would readily supply him with that assurance.”

      A heck of an assumption considering Salmond is talking about walking away from his share of the UK debt and throwing the nuclear deterrent out on to the street.

      Salmond’s position will never be stronger than now. If Scotland votes No he will be at the mercy of Westminster as he pleads for more powers and if Scotland votes Yes he will still be at the mercy of Westminster as he tries to negotiate a favourable separation deal for Scotland.

      However, after a no vote not many in England will be overly keen to make life easy for him. He really will be entering the world of international politics.

      • Denis_Cooper

        Despite all that, Cameron would want to keep Scotland in the EU,
        or at least in the EU Single Market, because he wouldn’t want trade between Scotland and the continuing UK to be interrupted or impeded.

        • Bo Williams

          I think Salmond has a lot more to lose than Cameron when it comes to trade between Scotland & England. Once Scotland votes Yes Cameron will hold all the cards in the negotiations. He will have no reason to offer anything other than a fair settlement. The only problem is, the way Salmond is shouting his mouth off he doesn’t understand the meaning of the word fair. This is going to get nasty.

          • Denis_Cooper

            You’re right that per capita Scotland has a lot more to lose than the rest of the UK. Exports to the rest of the UK account for about a third of Scottish GDP, and although in terms of value exports from the rest of the UK to Scotland are about the same or perhaps greater they make up a much smaller fraction of the GDP of the rest of the UK. Plus other chunks of Scottish GDP depend on exports to other EU countries or to third countries under EU trade deals. Nevertheless Cameron would still want to avoid putting at risk the 3% or so of GDP in the continuing UK that does depend on exports to Scotland; and he would not want to see the economy of Scotland collapse, as after all we share the island and a meltdown in Scotland would inevitably have an impact on the rest of the UK. So I’m pretty sure that he would be pleading for the necessary EU treaty changes, and I guess that in the end he would get them, but at a price extracted by other member state governments for their agreement.

            • Inverted Meniscus

              Good analysis. Cameron or whoever should leverage that position in Europe to screw Salmond down hard on such matters as transition costs etc. They should be exclusively for the account of the Scottish taxpayers whose choice might initiate this process.

              • Gwangi

                The EU will do all it can to stop Scotland voting YES to full independence, in order to stop the hundreds of other regions with independence movements doing the same – in the end we’d end up with city states if this came to its natural conclusion. And what’s to stop Shetland declaring independence? They are more Norse than Scots. An independent Scotland would not be an EU member automatically and would not be able to use the pound either; it could have a Scottish pound which would devalue against Sterling within hours.
                Of course, the Scottish money now used is not real money or legal tender, just an IOU. Every bank that issues it must have the same amount in Sterling in stock. Most Scots do not realise they use play money and so absurdly think their Bank of Scotland is a match for the Bank of England (which bailed out RBS to the tune of billions of course).

                • Inverted Meniscus

                  Agreed. Now prepare for an onslaught of abuse from the SNP cybernats for telling the truth.

    • flippit

      Yes and he threatened them yesterday with banning their boats form Scottish waters it they don’t play ball. He takes the same approach he does with the uk government in terms of getting what he wants. I bet the Europeans thought he was a scream, if they bothered at all. I wonder how many silently deleted him from memory, ‘too much trouble’

    • asalord
      • Denis_Cooper

        Nothing new there, apart from his own wishful thinking, and he would have no hand in the decision of the EU member state governments on how to proceed in the unfortunate event of a “yes” vote.

  • dougthedug

    Give it a rest Alistair, the only ones getting excited about Alex Salmond’s comments about Putin are the British media. Salmond saying, “I don’t approve of a range of Russian actions”, isn’t world shattering stuff and the Bruges speech is over so you don’t have to run the spoiler anymore.

    You’re trying to make a three course media meal out of boiling water and and old boot and you’ve even had to throw the Dali Lama in to try and sweeten the very, very thin brew.

    • Inverted Meniscus

      And yet here you are frothing at the mouth and making sure you are top of the thread to address this trivial matter.

      • dougthedug

        Easy lad, easy. It’s only a Massie article.

        • Wessex Man

          Being thar it’s only a Masie article, you would have thought that you would do him the honour af calling him Alex and not Alistar.

          Alex Salmond really should learn to think before thinking or acting, he does have a record of this sort of thing.

          • dougthedug

            “Being thar it’s only a Masie article”

            Sorry Alex. Everyone makes mistakes.

      • Andrew MacGregor

        Yep. Very trivial.

        • asalord

          From The Scotsman 28/4/14:

          “Russian state news agency Itar-Tass had last week reported an anonymous source in David Cameron’s office saying that Britain were seeking support from Russia on the Scottish
          independence debate and pulling troops out of Afghanistan. These claims were reported by the Sunday Herald.

          The original report, issued on Hogmanay, said: “Great Britain is extremely interested in the support of Russia, as holder of the G8 presidency, in two vital areas in 2014: the Afghan pull-out and the Scottish independence referendum.”

          • Andrew MacGregor

            That’s even more trivial. As was Blair kettling and hiding Human Rights protestors when the Chinese Premier came. Really really trivial – of no importance at all. They weren’t made by Alex Salmond or done by him so are far less noteworthy.

          • flippit

            You overestimate your importance. No-one’s talking about Scotland. Geddit? Not Cameron, or Putin, or the EU. You’re not big enough. This is your moment in the sun, sure, but you’re not that close to it, you’ve lost perspective.

          • Kennybhoy

            Repeating yersel…

        • Wessex Man

          just hoping you would show a bit of respect to a fellow Scot but as it’s Massie carry on.

      • terregles2

        Frothing at the mouth. Slightly Hyperbolic.

    • asalord
  • Pochy

    I hope the cybernats don’t go angry.

    • Fergus Pickering

      A vain hope. They are a cross bunch.

      • dmitri the impostor

        Aye, Ferg. The bawheids willnae haud their wheesht! Ye ken whit I mean?

        ‘At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
        Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
        But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
        An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.’

        • Kitty MLB

          Are you being rude in a foreign language ?
          People get sent to the naughty step around
          here for doing that yer know.
          As anyone ever said to you: you are an imposter
          sir, reveal yourself.

          • Inverted Meniscus

            Well they don’t have Shakespeare do they?

            • Kitty MLB

              No, indeed that creative genius of the human mind was
              quintessentially English.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Nicely put.

          • Wessex Man

            I have a feeling that there are going to be some very angry posts following these when they all get up!

            • Fergus Pickering

              Into each life some rain must fall. As the great P G Wodehouse remarked ‘It is not difficult to deyect the difference betwen a ray of sunshine and a Scotsman with a grievance’.

      • Inverted Meniscus

        Your in for it now Fergus. Better put the tin hat on!

        • Kitty MLB

          There are some creatures who can create
          a squrmish in a Buddhist Temple.
          Just Saying- not suggesting anyone here would
          purposely do such a thing.

      • Percy

        Yes, it’s all “bluster and bullying from the Westminster village”…..keep it on a loop and repeat ad infinitum…..

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