With a crisis brewing at Russia’s border with Ukraine and as Afghanistan stands at the precipice of humanitarian disaster, fifteen University of Oxford students got a sneak peek at the delicate art of diplomacy at work in London.
Over 100,000 Russian troops are stationed at the country’s border with Ukraine, raising the spectre of the largest land war breaking out in Europe since the end of the Second World War. American, British, EU and Russian officials have shuttled throughout the continent in search of an elusive solution to bring down the temperature and avert an outright war. At the same time, United Nations officials have warned that Afghanistan, under international economic isolation since the Taliban wrestled back control in August, is on the brink of a mass famine.
A delegation from Oxford’s Diplomatic Society (DipSoc) went straight to the sources and got the first-hand perspectives of British, Pakistani, and Russian diplomats shaping the narratives of these issues in London. Their itinerary included stops at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)’s headquarters in Whitehall, followed by a trip to the High Commission of Pakistan in London and a tour of the Russian Ambassador’s residence.
“As crises unfold in Ukraine and Afghanistan, we were very interested in getting different points of view on the current situations in Ukraine and Afghanistan, “ said Tiril Rahn, the founder and president of the DipSoc.
At the FCDO, UK diplomats outlined the government’s position on the dual crises unfolding. They emphasised concerns over instability and refugee flows, and reaffirmed that the UK was committed to finding a diplomatic solution to ease suffering and panic.
Later that day, the group was treated to a reception at the High Commission of Pakistan. They heard the High Commissioner of Pakistan’s thoughts on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, and they were treated to an assortment of Pakistani appetisers and pastries.
Then, they hopped on the tube for a scheduled tour of the Russian Ambassador’s residence. Russia rents the complex, a regal 19th century townhouse in Kensington, from the United Kingdom for a token £1 per year. Standing outside of the residence, the excitement was palpable, Rahn said. The delegates debated which questions to ask and speculated about how forthcoming the officials would be, given how sensitive the Ukrainian topic is. The event was under Chatham House rules, so specific details cannot be provided.
“To our surprise, they answered all of our questions! But the answers were essentially what has been out there in the media anyway,” said Rahn.
“The event really showed us how unique it is to live close to London, the world’s major diplomatic hub. While the conflict feels geographically far away, the energy in London makes the world feel quite small, with politicians and diplomats coming in and out for meetings and discussions,” Rahn added.
Oxford’s fastest growing society, the DipSoc’s membership has ballooned from three to over 700 since its founding in December 2020. The roster includes seasoned diplomats from the foreign services of tens of countries, aspiring diplomats seeking to forge connections, and others eager to learn more about and contribute to diplomacy.
“It is really special to be a student of diplomacy, because you can ask any questions you want. While real diplomats work in the interest of their country, students can be neutral actors, and broach topics that might otherwise be taboo,” said Rahn.
Image Credit: Tiril Rahn