Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:59 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:59 | SYDNEY

The third annual Madeleine Award


Graeme Dobell

6 January 2012 13:56

The American grand strategist George Kennan observed that much diplomacy is actually a form of theatre. On the international stage, nations strut, signal and stumble, seeking to win through bluster and brio rather than bribe and bash.

And stepping again into that that world of diplomatic signs and semaphores, The Interpreter announces one of our January rituals — The Madeleine Award for the use of symbol, stunt, prop, gesture or jest in international affairs. This annual prize is named after Madeleine Albright, in honour of her penchant for sending diplomatic messages via the brooches worn on her left lapel.

Albright wore a golden brooch of a coiled snake to talk to the Iraqis, crabs and turtle brooches to symbolise the slow pace of Middle East talks, a huge wasp to needle Yasser Arafat, and a sun pin to support South Korea's sunshine policy. The former US Secretary of State and Ambassador to the UN chronicled it all in her book: 'Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box'.

A classic in the genre is Albright's account of her favourite mistake: wearing a monkey brooch to a meeting with Vladimir Putin that caused the then Russian President to go ape. Others are getting with the Madeleine spirit. We happily acknowledge being out-punned by Foreign Policy's UN blog, Turtle Bay, which reported last year's prize with this headline: 'The Madeleine Awards: once more into the brooch'. 

This year we invite you to join the process of selecting this tribute to a great example of diplomatic theatre — as comedy or drama. You have a week to give us your nominations. No era is exempt: we're happy to reward great Madeleine moments from history as well as more recent performances.

To give you an idea of prize-winning performances, here are the previous two awards: a brilliant bluff by a US diplomat that helped clinch a peace deal, and a seaworthy climate change stunt, an island nation holding a cabinet meeting under the waves. Plus, here are some of the contenders from last year that didn't reach the final round.

As well as helping us select the Madeleine winner, you can also help judge our other prize: the OOPS! Award. The Madeleine and the OOPS! represent opposites. The Madeleine marks the use of symbol and signal; the OOPS! is a reward for snafu, stuff-up or cross-border misunderstanding. Here's our account of last years OOPS! contenders in the blunders genre.

To give you the flavour of what we're after in the OOPS! category, though, we step from the world of politics and diplomacy to the more precise world of science for a magnificent tribute to human error. This was more than a decade ago when the NASA Mars Climate Orbiter didn't go into orbit around Mars but instead crashed into the planet.

The reason for the crash was a mix-up between the navigational team in California and the spacecraft's operational team in Colorado. One team was using metric units to quantify the force exerted by the probe's thrusters while the other was using imperial units. Thus, data passed between the two groups were interpreted incorrectly and the craft's trajectory was wrong by 80km (50 miles). Crash, burn and OOPS! See here for The Economist's account of various OOPS! moments in space.

Back here on Earth, please send us your thoughts on who is worthy of a Madeleine and who slipped up enough to earn an OOPS!