The Pope's diplomacy | Mexico's iron river

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Good morning.

To our Australian friends who are in a rolling wave of lockdowns, curfews, and travel restrictions: our thoughts are with you. As a close friend recently said to us: "the hardest thing about a seven day lockdown is the first three weeks". 

Remember, no matter where you are, the rest of Australia is right there with you. Well, not quite all of Australia...

No masks, no lockdowns, plentiful toilet paper; Perth really is two years behind the rest of the world. Turns out there are some advantages to being the most isolated major city on Earth.

On to more global matters. This week:

  1. ⛪ The Pope's diplomacy: what can the Pope teach us?

  2. 👩‍⚖️ Mexico vs Gunmakers: trying to dam the Iron River in a courtroom.

NB: We generally don’t cover super mainstream stories - you can and will read them in lots of other places. But this week we must mention the distressing news that the Taliban has essentially recaptured Afghanistan. The US and its allies appear to have hugely miscalculated the situation. For now, we hope the evacuations currently underway are successful, and for those who will remain, we hope that things aren’t as bad as we all fear. - H+J.

⛪ The Pope’s diplomacy

By John

Did you know that the Holy See has one of the oldest foreign services in the world? Or that there are 135 ambassadors to the Holy See? And did you know that the Holy See is not, as I believed: “the place where Jesus turned water into wine, or where a whale ate Jonah, or, I dunno, ask someone else - I’m not religious”.

For my sake if no one else’s, let’s start with some basics:

  • The Holy See 👉 the central government of the Catholic Church. It is responsible for governing the entire Catholic Church worldwide. There are ~1.35 billion Catholics in the world.

  • The Vatican City 👉 the sovereign territory of the Holy See. Located in the centre of Rome, the Vatican City became independent from Italy in 1929 largely because without a physical territory and resident population, the Holy See could not be a sovereign entity under international law.

  • The Pope 👉 Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina) is the head of both the Vatican City and the Holy See.

💡 Start up idea: forget about solar or wind power, find a way to turn guilt into electricity. Just think about how many renewable guilt MWh could be produced by 1.3 billion Catholics each day.

From Ferraris and Mercs to Jeeps and armoured personnel carriers, some sweet rides have ferried around the Popes. Pope John Paul II was shot in the 1973 Fiat, and the 1999 Pope Bus™ was later repurposed into a (presumably unholy) party bus in Ireland.

The Holy See’s foreign policy

All the major religions have huge influence in the world of geopolitics, but only the Holy See has a dedicated foreign service.

The Holy See has a foreign ministry (the Section for Relations with States) based in the Vatican City, and embassies (apostolic nunciatures) and ambassadors (nuncios) in 115 countries. The Holy See’s diplomats abroad enjoy the full smörgåsbord of diplomatic privileges and immunities like any other nation.

According to Britain’s former Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, there are two key characteristics of the Holy See’s diplomatic operations:

  1. Political neutrality: because the Holy See’s primary goal is pastoral care to 1.3 billion Catholics globally, the Holy See tries, though sometimes fails, to remain politically neutral. It rarely takes official political positions, or expels diplomats due to disputes with foreign countries. The Holy See prefers instead to play the role of mediator while taking a long-term view (e.g. The Pope played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the normalisation of US-Cuba relations in 2014).

  2. Top-down soft power: where traditional foreign services both advise government ministers and implement the decisions of those ministers via diplomacy, economic measures, or even military threats, the Holy See’s power comes almost solely through the words of the Pope. Therefore, the Pope’s foreign service exists primarily to advise him on what to say via Papal proclamations (or Twitter; he has 19 million followers).

A great example of how the Pope exercises his soft power is the Fratelli tutti, published last October. And no, the Fratelli tutti is not a delicious new Pope-endorsed sorbet flavour, but rather a very thorough statement (known as an encyclical) of the Pope’s foreign policy positions. Disappointing, I know.

The Holy See’s big foreign policy challenges

It’s time to address the elephant in the room...

Historic child abuse

For all the lovely chat about peace and love in the Fratelli tutti, the Holy See has also regularly used its diplomatic privileges to protect nuncios from testifying about historic child abuse allegations.

Many see that as a misuse of diplomatic immunity, not to mention immoral. Each time the Holy See uses its power to thwart investigations into historic abuse, the Pope's soft power is further diminished.

Encouragingly, Pope Francis has shown a willingness to change course - in 2019, the Holy See waved diplomatic immunity for the nuncio to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, who is facing allegations of sexual abuse.

Palette cleanser

This meme apparently offended Catholics, to which the Pope has responded: “It is so sad to see consecrated men and women who have no sense of humor”.


For much of the 20th century, the Holy See was overtly anti-communist. In 1949, Pope Pius XII was so worried that there would be no Western diplomatic opposition to the staunchly anti-religion Soviet Union that he issued the ‘Decree against Communism’, which excommunicated any Catholics who identified as communist.

But the Pope did not scare Stalin and his Red Army:

The Pope. How many divisions has he?

-Joseph Stalin, responding to Winston Churchill in 1943.

The Holy See is more deft in its diplomacy these days, generally choosing to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good (e.g. the Cuba example above). Which brings us to the Holy See’s biggest contemporary challenge…


No, China is not a real communist country. Don’t agree? Send your complaints to 

That notwithstanding, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) abhors any institution that has the power to organise people... on mass (pretty proud of that one).

Currently, China’s ~12 million Catholics must choose to follow an official CCP managed branch of the Catholic Church or to follow an illicit underground church loyal to the Holy See.

During my time in China, the CCP undertook a campaign to knock down 'illegal' churches and arrest priests. Euphemistically known as ‘being invited for tea’, hundreds of priests have been arrested, interrogated, and told to stop their work, or else.

Late last year, the Holy See extended a controversial 2018 deal with Beijing that allows the CCP to select Catholic bishops, effectively bringing the Catholic Church in China under CCP control.

Other challenges

Just some of many:

An interesting model for the future

Historians suggest that by a practice of (mostly) avoiding alignment with political parties, the Catholic Church has been able to focus on its long-term goals and ensure its continued success.

And yet, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last week made clear, most national governments continue to prioritise short-term political considerations over long-term, collective action on problems.

So, in a globalised world where people increasingly have more in common with someone on the other side of the world than the other side of the road, I wonder whether the Holy See's diplomatic model could be successfully adopted by other, non-religious interest groups.

Why couldn’t the Global Church of Climate Change (or poverty, or any other global problem), advocate for its millions of ‘followers’ worldwide through its own foreign policy and diplomatic network? Rich donors could help establish the initial bureaucracy, and scientists and activists could focus on spreading the good word that we probably need to stop boiling the planet.

It’s certainly not a perfect solution, but it's clear something needs to change. And if they could do that without living in opulent palaces, or dressing like flamboyant parrots, then so much the better.

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👩‍⚖️ Mexico vs Gunmakers

By Helen

If you’re a Mexican civilian looking to buy yourself a gun, there’s only one place in all of Mexico you can go.

The store, ominously named the ‘Directorate of Arms and Munition Sales’, is located inside a heavily-guarded, fortress-like military base on the outskirts of Mexico City. The store sells an average of 38 firearms per day to Mexican civilians.

Now, compare that number to the two million guns sold in the US in the month of January 2021 alone.

Yes, you read that right - 64,516 guns were sold per day, or if you prefer, 2,688 per hour, or 49 guns sold per minute. Now, to be fair, that figure is 80% higher than last January, but it's still only the third highest American monthly total ever.

But back to Mexico.

The ‘Iron River’

Given Mexico’s tightly regulated gun market (in place since 1971), and the leading way I constructed the introduction above, I’ll bet you can guess why Mexico has been dealing with record-levels of gun violence in recent years. 

If you said: well, according to the Mexican government, the answer is that there’s an increasing amount of military-style guns (usually AK-15s and AK-47s) being smuggled across the border from the US - that’s a bingo.

If you also used the law enforcement slang for this illegal flow of arms - The Iron River - then that’s a double bingo.

In fact, an estimated two million firearms have been smuggled into Mexico from the US over the last decade. During that same period, there have been approximately 170,000 gun-related murders in Mexico. 

I’ll let you formulate your own hypothesis as to why gun runners crossing the Rio Grande southward into Mexico with sacks full of Walmart’s finest war machinery don’t get nearly the media coverage as the flow of drugs and people going the other way, but perhaps the Mexicans should pay for that border wall after all.

So what is Mexico going to do about the ‘Iron River’?

Glad you asked. The Mexican government has decided to sue several high-profile US gun manufacturers (e.g. Colt and Glock) in an attempt to stem the tide of guns and secure a whopping US$10 billion in damages.

A hefty sum, perhaps, but the Mexican Foreign Ministry argues that the ‘cost of a human life is invaluable’.

At the very least, Mexico hopes to get the US government to pay attention and tighten lax US gun regulations, or to negotiate a bilateral agreement with Mexico aimed at reducing arms smuggling.

The legal brief

This lawsuit is actually a pretty big deal. It represents the first time a foreign government has tried to sue US gun companies in the US (Mexico has brought the lawsuit in Massachusetts, a historically puritanical state where even happy hour is illegal).

The Mexican case follows the precedent set by the families of the Sandy Hook shootings, who sued gunmaker Remington for its role in marketing weapons via product placement in violent video games (Remington last month offered US$33m to settle out of court).

Allow me to get my lawyer on and make each side’s case for them:

  • Mexico:

    Your honour, it’s as obvious as an open bathrobe that American gunmakers are complicit in facilitating arms sales to criminal groups in Mexico. They deliberately market their products to suit the preferences of drug cartels. Clearly, US gun companies have failed to responsibly restrict or even monitor arms sales.

  • Gun companies:

    Do we really need to say it again? Guns don’t kill people… and you know the rest. As long as we’re complying with US and Mexican laws, it’s really not our fault where the guns end up. In fact, we’ve got US laws that specifically protect us from being held liable for crimes committed with our guns (the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act).

Unsurprisingly, US gun lobbies have been quick to call the Mexican case ‘baseless’. They instead blame (not unreasonably) the Mexican government’s complicity in ‘rampant crime and corruption’ as the reason for the rise in illegal trade in guns.

The gun lobbies claim there is substantial evidence of dodgy arms sales on the black market by Mexican enforcement authorities, who are legally permitted to buy arms.

Amusing thought: wouldn’t it be great if Judge Judy could decide cases like this? She could just tell gunmakers to take their heads out of their asses and stop producing military weapons for civilians, and tell the Mexican government to quit with the corruption crap, and everyone could be done in time for the early bird dinner special at the Del Boca Vista golf club. Alas. 

Zoom out

The chances of a win for the Mexican government are slim - meaning this lawsuit is much more of a political move to engage the US government than an attempt to empty the pockets of US gun companies. 

Cynics might even suggest that this is a move to shift focus from Mexico’s financial troubles - US$10bn in damages would be ~0.8% of Mexico’s GDP.

But even a win for Mexico won’t do much to halt the sale and smuggling of arms from the US in the short term. There are other factors at play:

Simply put, no lawsuit, no matter how well argued, can solve Mexico’s decades-long cycle of drugs, violence, weapons, and corruption.

Actually, I take that back: if Sicario 3 turns out to be Benecio Del Toro prowling a courtroom as a brooding but brilliant lawyer determined to take revenge on US gun companies, then and only then will the Iron River stop flowing (Denis Villeneuve, slide into my DMs to hear more).

➕ Extra intrigue

A shoutout to our intern, Laura who researches and compiles Extra Intrigue every week - thanks Laura! 👏

Thanks for reading.

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