Sober rebuke for UN's tipsy dips
A diplomat's life is made up of three ingredients, said revered American statesman Adlai Stevenson: protocol, Geritol (dietary supplements), and alcohol.
Now Washington's UN ambassador for management and reform, Joseph Torsella, wants to take the latter off the list. Although the wheels of diplomacy have always been lubricated by a drop or two, he remarked dryly, “the negotiation rooms should in future be an inebriation-free-zone.”
Torsella spoke in frustration. Last week anonymously-sourced reports surfaced of vital budget talks bogged down by booze, with one haplessly drunk diplomat carted away and a note-taker for the talks so soused that he had to be replaced.
Granted, an appointment to the Fifth Committee (on budgetary and administrative matters) is the diplomatic equivalent of a root canal: some feel the need for a liquid anaesthetic.
Agonizingly long and detailed talks on the sprawling scope and allocation of the UN’s $5 billion budget take place in the committee every three years, with views of all the UN’s 193 members taken into account. Some marathon sessions last more than 16 hours a day, and continue for weeks.
But the links between protocol and alcohol are longer and stronger.
In the decades before the UN’s massive renovation, which began nearly five years ago, depleted dips retired to the Diplomats’ Lounge, where they could sink into sofas, drink and dodge annoying questions from the media. On a higher plane, the famed Diplomats’ Dining Room had a much-admired wine cellar and a ready supply of chilled champagne.
But long before the UN complex rose on the East River, elbow-bending was the envoy’s exercise of choice. To the lengthy negotiations of the war-ridden 19th century, diplomats took their own chefs and favourite tipple.
The World War II agreements the reshaped the world were fuelled by a heady mixture of vodka, scotch and cocktails, as Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Russia’s leader Joseph Stalin and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt matched each other toast for toast.
Diplomatic drinking became a stereotype, boosted by diplomatic immunity that kept envoys beyond the long arm of the law.
But in the past week, signs of a new order have surfaced at the UN, as discreetly unnamed diplomats denounced their colleagues – including Canadians – as heavy drinkers, along with. Russians and French. A 2011 report from The Canadian Press showed that in Kabul, where alcohol is officially banned, the Canadian embassy sucked up some $20,000 of liquor, wine and beer over a three year period.
Current complaints aside, it may be decades before diplomacy dries up. But if Washington has its way, future UN meetings will be running on empty.
Olivia Ward was the Star's UN correspondent from 1990-92, and has covered the world body for more than two decades, as well as conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia.