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Connivance diplomacy: Ivanka Trump at the G20 Summit

Connivance diplomacy: Ivanka Trump at the G20 Summit
20 Aug
 Klaus Dodds asks what Ivanka Trump’s awkward mingling at the G20 summit says about her father’s style of diplomacy 

The distinguished French political scientist, Bertrand Badie, coined the term ‘connivance diplomacy’ in order to muse about how states and their representatives muddle along with one another. In his view, there was evidence aplenty for something in-between outright competition and naïve co-operation. Connivance, or in French connivence or even complicité, captures well an awkwardness at the heart of diplomacy and even geopolitics; a willingness to either ‘wink away’ or ignore infringements deliberately. For the most powerful actors in the world, acts of mutual connivance, help to shore-up their advantages and privileges.

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On watching a short video clip this June, ‘connivance diplomacy’ sprang to mind as a way of making sense of what unfolded. The video in question involved Donald Trump’s daughter standing on the margin of a group of elected national leaders and senior officials including Prime Ministers May and Trudeau, President Macron and IMF director Christine Lagarde speaking at the G20 summit in Japan. Without being formally invited, Ivanka Trump moves into the circle and attempts to make a conversational gambit. Her intervention does not get very far.

While the group didn’t outright ignore or humiliate Mr Trump’s daughter (although facial expressions spoke volumes), other viewers were less charitable. US Democratic congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was scathing of the recorded intervention, noting via a tweet: ‘It may be shocking to some, but being someone’s daughter actually isn’t a career qualification’. Whatever they thought, three elected political leaders and one senior executive choose not to make any comment about her lack of qualifications and limited understanding of the topic in hand.

We might think of this as connivance diplomacy. Ivanka Trump has been allowed to insert herself into the highly choreographed world of state diplomacy. At the G20 summit, she was photographed sitting next to the host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr Trump is on the other side of his daughter. Prime Ministers May and Trudeau were in the back row of the official photograph and don’t appear to be thrilled with their respective positions. Due to her height (approximately 6ft) and positioning at this official G20 photograph, she actually obscures President Macron standing behind her.

And yet, the 20-second video footage was released by the French government. We might ask ourselves why. Was the French president’s staff doing something they could not do more straightforwardly? Were they angry that their president had been obscured by the ‘statuesque’ Ivanka? Was the video intended to be a warning to the United States and others that the president continues to use his adult daughter in an unprecedented and inappropriate manner. Or was Ivanka’s presence and socialising upsetting because modern diplomacy has been far too accustomed to simply thinking of heads of states being overwhelmingly male, their female companions being marginalised from the formal circles of geopolitics and diplomacy. Philip May, Prime Minister’s May partner, was very much a minority in the G20 spouses photograph. Melania Trump was missing.

In a curious sort of way, Mr Trump has inverted the gendered and generational dynamics of diplomacy. Since taking presidential office, Ivanka has been used repeatedly by her father as a ‘stand-in’. She attended the G20 summit meeting in 2017 and travelled to the DMZ in Korea just before the 2019 G20 summit in Japan. Ocasio-Cortez was not the only one to worry that Ivanka’s presence revealed a fundamental neglect of professional diplomatic capacity. Where was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? The video clip does not reveal whether he or any other State Department official was close by. But the real issue is surely how adult children play in these diplomatic settings. President Obama’s daughters were notably younger, and the Obamas were highly protective of their children.

During her tenure as UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark was a controversial figure. Mark Thatcher was described as an ‘adventurer’, ‘businessman’ and ‘playboy’. His most controversial moment came when the Prime Minister was negotiating an arms deal worth at least £40billion with close defence ally and oil-producing giant, Saudi Arabia. Accusations abounded that her son might have benefited from what was described as the ‘arms deal of the century’. The deal remained mired in scandal with later PM Tony Blair unwilling to proceed with a public investigation into the financing of the deal and the probity of British Aerospace. In 2016, government files addressing the business dealings of Mark Thatcher in the Middle East were still being withheld from public release.

Connivance is geopolitical. Political representatives choose when and where to protest, to speak against or to ignore. By conniving with Donald Trump, officials and political leaders the world over are helping to build the Trump brand. Could this exercise in promotion one day culminate in Ivanka running for the position of US president herself?

This was published in the August 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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