Diplomatic intercourse – ‘Bout de papier’
‘Diplomats may wish to put forward a tentative suggestion at a conference, or may be instructed by their government to make representations on a matter of great delicacy, about which their own ministry does not yet wish to take a stand. The diplomat may then choose to discuss the issue and leave a non-paper in which the matter is clarified in a non-committal way.’ Ralph Feltham, Diplomatic Handbook.
When making an appointment to discuss a matter in the ministry of foreign affairs, an ambassador, or member of his staff, can pass an informal written note (i.e. as an unofficial and personal adjunct to oral communication).
The note is prepared in a way that it bears no attribution, and cannot be claimed by either side as possessing any official status.
As Sir Ivor Roberts states in Satow’s Diplomatic Practice, ‘a bout de papier discreetly passed across the table has saved the situation in many a conference about to founder on the apparent inability of either side to move towards a mutually agreeable formula. One side let us suppose, has worked out a proposition of which it cannot possibly go on record as the proposer, but which, in the interests of cooperation, it could agree to recommend for its government’s consideration, if the other side were to advance it. The anonymous piece of paper therefore contains some such form of words as “if you felt able to propose… I should be prepared to try it on my government.” Such a classic give and take can often produce a surprisingly happy result. But if it elicits only a shake of the head, at least no word has been spoken and no bones broken. In any case the procedure must be nicely judged and depends, like most good diplomacy, on mutual confidence and respect between negotiators. It would be worse than useless if the opposing delegation were of the kind that aimed not at agreement but at scoring points for the sake of publicity… A non-paper is even less official than a bout de papier. It is defined as an off-the record or unofficial presentation of (government) policy and is used when a government does not wish formally to avow the position they have adopted or advanced in the paper but wishes to air certain ideas to see how they will be received… [This may take the form of] letters between heads of state and government sent electronically and delivered by hand of the ambassador or a member of his mission to the private office of the president or prime minister.’