A Lesson in Diplomacy

A look back at soft power in its prime.

How gifted are today's diplomats?

On February 27, 1923, Sir Horace Rumbold, Britain's high commissioner in Istanbul (a few years later Britain would reestablish diplomatic relations with Turkey, its World War I adversary, and send an ambassador to Ankara), went to Dolma Bagche Palace on the Bosphorus to meet the new caliph, former crown prince Abdulmecit Efendi, who had, in a sense, succeeded the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI (Vahdettin). The sultanate had been abolished two years before.

On March 1, Rumbold reported on the hour-long audience to his boss, the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon. The conversation, marked by lengthy silences, skirted all serious matters; indeed, politics were completely avoided. The caliph's figurehead role in the new, emerging Turkish order was unclear and tenuous; indeed, Abdulmecit, who whiled away his time composing music and painting, would soon be pensioned off and the caliphate abolished.

So Rumbold was hard-pressed to make his report interesting. He padded it with wit and elegance. He wrote of the caliph:

He had grown a beard since I last saw him, the luxuriance of which testified to the efficacy of the prayers which I understood had been offered up in the mosques for its growth. His Majestry no longer had the smart and dapper appearance which characterized him when he was Crown Prince. His dress was somewhat slovenly.

Rumbold was offered a cigarette "out of a cardboard box" by retainers "who looked in various stages of delapidation."

They discussed the smallpox epidemic then afflicting Istanbul (the caliph said he had been vaccinated twice) and the discovery of Tut-ankh Amon's tomb and whether the mummy should be removed (the caliph said embalmed mummies had also been found in Asia Minor). Rumbold remarked on the recent introduction of prohibition by the Turkish government": "I had noticed that subjects of dry states seemed to drink more than anybody else when outside their states.” (He was obliquely referring to the Turkish delegates to the recently adjourned Lausanne peace conference which he had attended.) The caliph "said that the introduction of prohibition was very necessary in the interest of the Anatolian peasant, who was addicted to drinking the vile spirits provided by the Greeks."

Rumbold, who was forced to take the initiative and end the conversation after waiting "patiently and in silence for some time for the Caliph to terminate the audience,” was left with a "depressing impression." As crown prince, Abdulmecit had been "intelligent and versatile … [if] perhaps a little wild." Now, "the shabby ceremonial of which he is the centre cannot fail to impress the observer somewhat painfully," he reported to Curzon.

Rumbold, who during the following decade represented Great Britain in Berlin and, before his removal by his appeasing superiors, was one of the loudest voices in the British establishment warning of the catastrophe Hitler would unleash on Europe, apparently had time on his hands and a frivolous literary bent. He sent Curzon a second, long, "metrical version" of his report on the audience with the caliph.

…I fear

The audience chamber struck a note

A hyper-critic might have thought

Too reminiscent of the age,

Ere [Mustapha] Kemal entered on the stage,

When sumptuous Emperors of old

Mis-spent the people's hard-won gold;

For instance, I have rarely seen

In any post where I have been

A sofa quite so large as that

Whereon this simple Caliph sat,

Or chairs so formidably gay

As mine and that of Adnan Bey …

His beard! – Your Lordship will excuse

A cogent impulse to enthuse!

A beard, that proved in every hair

The efficacy of prayer;

A beard, that should create a hum

In all the realm of beaverdom!

So white; so thick; and it appeared

To be centrifugally geared.

Whereas, his clothes – I must confess

That to a connoisseur in dress

His Majesty might seem to lack

Some subtle sense: a tie of black,

A bow, stud showing, is not quite

What Cork Street deems exactly right

To match a frocker: and if you

Wear trousers of the same sad hue,

The whole looks sombre; yet to me

It spelt once more Simplicity.

As for his boots, I felt that here

He went too far: they were a mere

Lace-ridden and amorphous mass:

In fact deplorable – I pass…

We found it just a little hard

To start …

He said the day was fine, and I

Confirmed what I could not deny.

Thenceforward it was left to me

To choose innocuous themes; and we,

With frequent pause and frequent change,

Held converse of the widest range,

Avoiding politics; I knew

That these the Caliph must eschew …

We spoke of music, painting too;

Arts which the Caliph much affects,

But now, as he explained neglects

For graver matters, state affairs,

E.g. the palace needs repairs.

Memoirs he reads, but has not yet

With Mr. Winston Churchill's met;

The book which he is reading now

Is that of Mr. Morgenthau:

He met the author once and knew

His reputation as a Jew,

But had not for himself observed

To what extent it was deserved.

[Henry Morgenthau was the US Ambassador to Constantinople during 1914-1916. In 1918 he published a memoir, "Ambassador Morgenthau's Story,” which highlighted the story of the Turkish massacre of the Armenians in 1915-1916.]

… A problem then arose. 'Twas this: