Boxing clever

Catherine Ashton appears to be an out-fighter

Foreign policy can at times seem a lot like boxing. You have to know when to
strike, pull back, jab a little, test defences and then go for the knockout punch.
Running around the ring, however elegantly, is not enough. Nor is an impressive
Joe Frazier-like assault, which attempts to overwhelm an opponent, but
eventually runs out of steam. As she jumps into the ring, what kind of fighter
will Catherine Ashton, the EU’s new
High Representative, shape up to be – and how does she compare to her
generation of diplomatic punch-throwers?

There are different styles of boxing, much as there are different ways to
practice diplomacy. US diplomats Richard Holbrooke is the Mike Tyson of
high-level negotiators. A history of diplomatic ear-chewing and fight-ending,
knockout punches means that many would-be opponents go weak-kneed even before
the US
diplomat steps into the ring. In the late 1990s, Holbrooke got close to Serbia’s
strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, spending hours in his company only to pummel him
into submission at the right moment.  

But like Tyson, Holbrooke’s best fights may now be behind him. Up against
younger opponents, like President Hamid Karzai, whose foot speed does not allow
the US
diplomat close for his technique to work, Holbrooke struggles. Notable
out-fighters include NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former US top
diplomat James Baker.

Sweden’s Carl Bildt and Britain’s David
Miliband, on the other hand, fight more like a young Muhammed
Ali. Hyper-activity combined with quick footwork and effective jabs can tire
even the fittest of their opponents. But like other so-called out-fighters, the
Swedish diplomat still does not have the necessary strength in his punch. In
recent negotiations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he could not floor Milord Dodik, the
leader of the country’s Serb entity, despite going several rounds. The same
could probably be said of David Miliband, who has yet to score an unequivocal diplomatic

Muhammed Ali became stronger later in his career, learning to use his large
frame for more power. Similarly Bildt, now free from running EU Presidency, may
be able to focus his power while Miliband, should he succeed Gordon Brown in No
10, may finally gain the power needed to floor opponents.

Finally, there are brawlers. Such fighters stand for everything that is
brutal. Brawlers lack finesse, but make up for it in raw power, often able to
knock out an opponent with a single punch. In boxing, American legends Sonny
Liston and Rocky Marciano come to mind. In diplomacy, brawlers do not come any
better than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia, the George Foreman of
international politics. He eschews style for power and aggression. Often it
works, producing immediate results and a fearsome reputation, which he uses to
psyche out opponents. But sometimes even a single, heavy punch fails to knowout
opponents. Though the Russian leader sought to oust Georgia’s
Mikhel Shakashvili with a powerful blow, he and the Tbilisi government still stand. 

It is of
course hard to judge Ashton’s style, as she has had no
championship fights yet. Her past performance as Trade Commissioner gives clues
to how she will fight, but the jump to the High Representative’s slot is like a
boxer’s move from one weight class to another; it often requires a re-think of
style and strategy. Judging from her sparring session with the European
Parliament, however, a number of conclusions can be drawn.

First, the High Representative clearly has what boxing commentators would
call “chin”, the ability to take punches and continue fighting. This allowed
Muhammed Ali to weather Joe Frazier. Diplomatically, nobody has “chin” quite
like Hilary Clinton, who can take a pummelling but bounce back.

at her parliamentary hearing performance last Monday, the
characteristics of an out-fighter shine though. Out-fighters prefer a slower
match, with distance between themselves and their opponent. They like to move
fast, but prefer drag out the bout and often win on points, not knock-outs.
Javier Solana was a classic out-fighter. His stamina, which meant he could
round after round, for example with Iran’s nuclear negotiator, was
well-known. Baroness Ashton’s answers, and unwillingness to rush into issues
(even when they, like Yemen,
have dominated the news), indicates the patience of an out-fighter.  

A lot will depend on the High Representative’s first bouts. If she is
compelled to deal with Iran’s
nuclear programme, she will come up against a number of skilled out-fighters,
who will not shy away from using a kind of iron-in-the-glove dirtiness.
Fighters are often shaped by their first bouts, growing in confidence or
collapsing.  In a way, Lady Ashton exhibits a number of skills that are
key to any kind of boxer, namely discipline, commitment and a willingness to
train, train and train. In her focus to build Europe’s
diplomatic service, the High Representative is building the muscle she will
need to make an impact.  

It is
already clear that she may turn out to be effective, but the
High Representative will probably never be a charismatic, crowd-drawing
fighter. She lacks the chutzpah and antics of a Muhammed Ali. In her commitment
to “quiet diplomacy”, she has made a virtue of this style. But in boxing, like
in diplomacy, a bit of pizzazz and audience-pleasing can be useful. Get ready
for a technically-solid, effective, but drawn-out kind of fighting that rarely,
if ever, will end with a knockout blow. The kind of boxing that keeps a fighter
in the match, but earns a fan base that consists of fighter aficionados, not

This post was first published by Global Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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