The Agenda: Diplomacy | Monocle

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In the public eye

Would you ever willingly sit in on a council meeting? What if you were paid to? This is roughly the question that inspired the Documenters programme, an initiative launched by Chicago’s City Bureau journalism lab in 2018 to increase awareness of local democracy by training and paying residents to take notes, live-tweet and even video-record public meetings.

The positive effects are manifold. By offering training and cash incentives, the programme encourages civic engagement while providing those out of work with an income; it also makes life easier for cash-strapped journalists too busy to sit in on every meeting. The programme has proven a success and expanded nationwide, partnering with news outlets in 11 cities. More than 2,200 documenters have been trained, covering some 5,000 meetings for an outlay of about $600,000 (€550,000).

Continental shift


The Young Italian-African Diplomatic Fellows Programme brings African diplomats aged under 35 to Rome to study international relations at the Luiss School of Government. The programme is part of an effort by Rome to win hearts and minds in Africa in 2024. It complements the €5.5bn Mattei Plan, which aims to boost economic ties with Africa in exchange for helping to control illegal immigration.

Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has staked her success on stopping immigrants crossing the Mediterranean. But many African leaders, including Moussa Faki, chair of the African Union, have criticised what some see as its neo-colonial pretensions. The Young Italian-African programme, meanwhile, is unequivocally a soft-power tool. Raffaele Marchetti, professor of international relations at Luiss, says that it will allow “fellows to exchange ideas, opinions, and enrich each other’s training”. 

Business or pleasure?

The foreign-holiday options of Russians have dwindled these past couple of years. One place is rolling out the welcome mat, however. The first post-pandemic tourists to enter North Korea were Russians, who must have enjoyed the novelty of visiting the fiefdom of a belligerent pariah who terrorises his neighbours and crushes internal dissent. Though North Korea is a niche destination, this expedition is indicative of warm relations between Pyongyang and Moscow. These other popular spots for Russians have geo-strategic subtexts too.


With about six million visits by Russians in 2023, Turkey seems an unlikely first choice – it has Nato’s second-largest military. However, since Russia attacked Ukraine in 2022, Turkey has tried to maintain a relationship: Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot still fly in both directions.

United Arab Emirates

Trade between Russia and the UAE continued to grow in the 12 months following the invasion of Ukraine and an estimated 500,000 Russians have relocated to the country. Russian tourism to Dubai in particular has been booming.


Egypt’s resorts have long been popular with Russians. The affection goes all the way to the top – in January, presidents Putin and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took part in a joint video event to inaugurate a Russian-built power unit in Egypt.

Q & A
Ingrida Simonyte
Prime minister, Lithuania


Ingrida Simonyte has been prime minister of Lithuania since 2020 and is a candidate in the country’s presidential election in May. 

Do you feel like there is still an East-West divide in how seriously Europe takes the threat posed by Russia?
There is a very different sense of the probability of something happening – of Putin trying to test Nato’s Article 5.

The Estonian intelligence service’s annual report assessed that Russia is planning for armed conflict with the West in the next decade – how do you see it?
Is there political will in Russia for confrontation with Nato? Definitely, yes. But as long as they are stuck in Ukraine, they have quite a challenge.

You hosted Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this year. What is a leader-to-leader conversation with him like?
He knows that Lithuania is doing a lot but we have limited capacities in providing, for example, jet fighters. But our role is important in terms of persuading others not to lose time in contemplation, saying they cannot provide Ukraine this or that, and then, at the end of the day, providing it but with a significant loss of Ukrainian lives.

Lithuania and the Baltic states will always live alongside Russia. Is there hope of that arrangement ever being amicable?
Russia has never rethought its past. It is a colonialist country and we were a colony of Russia for a number of years. It’s not good to have neighbours who are a permanent threat to your existence – but I don’t see it being any other way.

Cash for questions

Sasha Issenberg on a longstanding US democratic scheme that’s increasingly being abused by big spenders.

Any American already bored by their presidential choices might want to consider moving to California, where the same primary ballot that invited voters to ratify two of the same frontrunners as last time included a question over which they certainly had not been stewing over for years: “Do you support an overhaul of the state’s mental-health system that will require borrowing $6.4bn [€5.9bn] to build new treatment beds?” Proposition 1 is part of a distinctively American form of democracy known as the citizen-led initiative, through which voters can place a question on the ballot or call for a referendum on a law signed by the governor. This direct democracy has its roots in an 1888 trip to Europe by journalist and labour leader JW Sullivan, who returned smitten by the cantonal Landsgemeinde he observed in Switzerland, where every adult male citizen had the opportunity to introduce a law for consideration.

Sullivan toured the US to persuade fellow populists and progressive reformers that a “peaceful revolution” of direct democracy could be a useful counterweight that corporations, especially the nascent railroad industry, wielded through lobbyists in state capitals. South Dakota adopted the initiative in 1898 and other states – both liberal and conservative – followed. Nowhere, however, has the initiative become as central to policy-making as in California, where this autumn, alongside the presidential ballot, voters are likely to rule on matters as varied as zoning for new oil drilling and whether to establish a state institute for pandemic preparedness.

These races stand to be unusually costly. In 2020 rideshare and delivery apps Uber, Doordash and Lyft together spent $205m (€189m) to pass Proposition 22, which classifies their drivers as independent contractors under state law. The only campaigns in US history that have spent more on an election belong to presidential candidates. The need to educate citizens on matters that would otherwise be left to professional lawmakers has also produced an oddly paper-intensive corner of an increasingly digital political sphere. To qualify for the California ballot, one must collect 546,651 signatures, on petitions typically delivered to the secretary of state’s office by the truckload. Once approved, the full text of the proposals appears in a newsprint guide mailed to voters; Proposition 1 filled 68 pages of dense type. The ballot itself, which includes terse (and aggressively negotiated) summaries of the initiatives, presents its own reading assignment: in November 2022, Los Angeles voters had to navigate five pages of choices.

“Through the citizen-led initiative, voters can place a question on the ballot or call for a referendum on a law signed by the governor”

Republican politicians in conservative states, where in recent years voters have enacted left-leaning policies to raise the minimum wage and protect abortion rights, are pushing reforms that would make it harder to change state law via direct vote. Liberal critics see the converse happening in Democrat-controlled states, where corporations often have their best shot to change policy by outspending at the ballot. “A tool that was created to give citizens power is becoming a way to pass unpopular things,” says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo of the leftist Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. Both sides are forced to grapple with an irony that would have staggered Sullivan as he promoted the “Swiss model”. The mechanism is increasingly off-limits to all but the most well-funded interests: it can cost up to $10m (€9.2m), paid largely to lawyers and signature collectors, just to place a measure on the California ballot.

Issenberg is author of ‘The Lie Detectives: In Search of a Playbook for Winning Elections in the Disinformation Age’, published by Columbia Global Reports.

All systems go

In the basket: 10 km-sam Block II surface-to-air missile systems
Who’s buying: Saudi Arabia
Who’s selling: South Korea
Price: €2.95bn
Delivery date: tbc


South Korea’s defence industry is continuing its bull run. This deal alone is worth more than the country’s entire annual arms exports as recently as 2020 – and it follows a similarly hefty order for the same system from the United Arab Emirates in 2022.

The km-sam, also known as the Cheongung, is a medium-range missile pretty obviously seen by the Saudis principally as a counter to further aerial incursions from Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen.

The boon in South Korean arms exports is partly a consequence of the war in Ukraine. With many of the more established manufacturers now overstretched, South Korean kit has become valued not merely for its quality but also for the relative speed with which it can be delivered (Poland in particular has been a prodigious customer, ordering South Korean tanks, artillery and aircraft).

Ironically – indeed, outrageously – South Korea refused an earlier request for the km-sam from Ukraine, a country that could surely put it to good use. 

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