Overlooked and over there – until this week this may have been the only kind of description of Baroness Catherine Ashton, the frequently derided EU diplomat, you’d be likely to hear. And yet, powerful men of all persuasions have now queued up to lavish praise on her for her pivotal role in delivering the first steps towards a settlement with Iran on the delicate matter of nuclear policy.
At the stimulating and entertaining event that was Secret Forum’s Sunday Papers Live at the weekend, Jon Snow of Channel 4 news alluded to how poorly she was often viewed whilst quietly getting on with complex negotiations. She has been busy brokering agreement not just between Western powers and Iran, but also in the lower-profile area of the Balkans, where her work helped ensure that Serbians took part in elections in Kosovo for the first time.
Praise for these efforts has since been echoed since in the broadsheets (e.g. here and here), with Ashton noted for her ‘emotional intelligence’ and perseverance in bringing parties together and keeping the communication going. Influencing work is often a matter of tidying up – collecting and encapsulating evidence and making sure it is seen by the right people at the right time; presenting competing agendas in such a way as to keep opposing representatives interested, and dialogue preserved. It is just as much about process, as about structures or final results – the ongoing matter of keeping everyone in touch and keeping conversations going; finding points of leverage, using the right language to keep feet in the door. It is the unsung backroom activity behind the big announcements, the hard labour behind the polished photoshoot: no wonder, one might say, that women are often good at it; un-flashy women at that.
So next time you see the leaders of the world gathered at the podium to deliver the latest headline news, remember the work it took to get them there. Chances are someone like Baroness Ashton played a part along the way: listening, learning, persuading, analysing, communicating – but rarely courting the limelight.