Unfinished Business …

At Davos this week, individuals, companies, egos and states have collided, competed and sometimes collaborated in the battle to shape the global agenda. Speed dating for ideas geeks. Policy Vegas*. 

Much of Davos was about artificial intelligence. But I was there to promote helping the next generation of humans to think, not just the robots. Our coalition of donors, governments, businesses, universities and individuals is trying to get 1m Syrians back to school. Wherever you stand on who is to blame for the destruction of Syria, we can surely all agree on one thing – it is not the fault of these 1m children. Their fight for education is about international justice, equality, rights and opportunity. For me as a participant in years of failed diplomacy in the region, it is also unfinished business.

At Davos, business responded. We announced that over 50 companies would commit over 50m USD to the effort. These private sector leaders recognise that when business works for education, education works for business. They understand that this is about head as well as heart – fail to get a generation back into school uniform, and we risk seeing more of them in life jackets and suicide vests. We must offer Syrians more to choose from than a barrel bombing tyrant, the box office barbarity of ISIL, and the perils of a Mediterranean raft. 

Those who think these refugees are somehow different to us haven’t met any – faced with their choices, what would you do? At a Davos discussion on migration, I made the argument that the answer to the 21st century is not a bigger wall – history suggests that walls don’t last long. Some in the room, like some in the US Presidential race, disagreed. One responded that economic uncertainty meant that “we have reached the limits of our compassion”. 

Yes, Syria seems overwhelming. It is. But we have an education plan, and it is working. From Davos we move to London, where the governments of the UK, Norway and Germany are bringing together the world’s leaders on 4 February to respond to the massive humanitarian challenge. We need them to deliver the remaining finance to get the 1m back to school. 

But this is also about more than finance. To deliver the plan, we need nothing short of the disruption of the existing humanitarian model – sincere and well meaning as it is. Lack of buildings is an obstacle – could IKEA help with that? Lack of connectivity is an obstacle – can Facebook help with that? Lack of transport is an obstacle – can Uber help with that? Governments can’t deliver alone. So on 4 February, we’ll be asking not for more cash from business, but creativity. Not for platitudes, pity and concern, but solutions, engagement and action. 

Tech is a vital part of this effort. The smartphone can yet prove to be the strongest weapon in the Middle East. We need to show the people and companies already changing the tech world that this is their battle, their responsibility, their frontline. 

So, no, I don’t believe we have reached the limits of our compassion. Nor human ingenuity and creativity. A growing global coalition of the coexisters are fighting back. Please don’t wait to be asked to help.

*Grace Cassy


1. It is not dead. It was very fashionable (Roger Cohen – I’m looking at you) in 2014 to say diplomacy was finished. Yes, diplomacy failed again in 2015 to reform the international system it inherited after the Second World War, or fix Syria and Israel/Palestine. But on climate change, Ebola and Iran, international cooperation worked. So don’t pack up the diplomatic bags yet. We don’t need less diplomacy, just better diplomacy. Because the implications of diplomatic failure are more catastrophic than ever. We are the lubricant in the system as continents, states, armies and ideas rub up against each other. We are trying to find ways to distribute resources and power without fighting.
2. The dividing line of the 21st century is whether you believe that we can live together, or must live apart. Not East/West, rich/poor, Christian/Muslim, North/South. ISIL are on the wrong side of that line. So are several Republican Presidential candidates. The three cities in which I have spent most of my adult life – Paris, Beirut and Nairobi – have now all been ripped open by acts of terror. ISIL target what they call the ‘greyzone’ – places where different faiths interact. So the coexisters have to shout louder than the demagogues and the sociopaths with smartphones. Diplomats need to reconnect to this more idealistic sense of collective purpose, opportunity, optimism and idealism.
3. Those who see foreigners as fundamentally different haven’t met many. Most refugees want what we do – to educate their children and to live in security. They would not be risking everything to escape unless there was no alternative. Much of the debate is reminiscent of the Twitter spats I had two years ago in Lebanon, as it dealt with a much larger Syrian influx. ‘They want our comfort’. Well, try spending a night in a refugee camp. ‘They should go home’. Well, take a look at a photo of Homs. ‘They are dangerous’. A tiny minority, maybe. But most are women and kids, themselves fleeing terror. We didn’t blame Jewish refugees for the Nazis. We’re working to get 1m Syrians back into school in 2016 – wherever you stand on the politics of military action, that is surely something we can agree on.
4. However insecure we feel, the answer is more liberty, equality, fraternity. Not less. And not just for those of us fortunate to have been born further, or so we thought, from the eye of the storm. The public reaction to the stories of heroism and tragedy of so many refugees has demonstrated that we have not reached the limits of our compassion. We should be proud that our countries are magnetic; generous in our support to the most vulnerable; and smart enough to recognise the economic potential of migrants. Ask the Pilgrim Fathers.
5. There is no global challenge today to which the answer is a bigger wall. Countries succeed when they have a magnetic quality, and an openness to the world around them: when they invest more in bridges than fences. When their worldview is formed by having viewed the world. Diplomacy is hard when you are competing with players with greater pioneering zeal, when your nation loses its creative edge or hunger for innovation. Diplomacy is hard when a people is looking inwards, when lack of resource or confidence leads to an introspective national mindset rather than a drive to find new ideas, markets and sources of renewal. When the agenda is set by tyrants, terrorists and tabloids.
6. Power in 21st century is about more than simply how many people you can kill. Stalin famously asked how many divisions the Pope had. Well, the Pope is still there. Countries that invest in smart power will be the real superpowers – so it was great to see the BBC World Service and British Council get extra funding this year. I’m looking forward to helping promote the UK’s creative industries in 2016.
7. We can live without deference, but not without trust. It is a wonderful thing that we no longer take ourselves too seriously, especially in public life. But we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. In periods such as the run up to the Congress of Vienna or the Cold War, we had comfortable enemies, neat nemeses. You could chart them on a map. You could kill them in a Bond film. That’s no longer the case. In order to serve the public, we are going to have to regain the public’s trust, especially in handling their digital data. This means humility as to the limits of government authority, and a readiness to be more accountable to and more representative of the populations for whom we work.
8. Diplomacy is disrupted, but not destroyed by technology. Can we replace diplomats with a sentiment miner and a Skype account? No. We still need experts who can understand the countries with which we are dealing, people who can help us to respond to global changes, to see where the next opportunities are, and from where the next challenges will come. Used smartly, the smartphone should enhance rather than diminish that role.
9. Empowerment of the individual makes diplomacy more complicated (see Western policy on Syria), but it is good for diplomacy. Humans have form, honed over millennia, in solving problems. Extreme poverty halved in the last 15 years. We are becoming richer, living longer, and understanding the world better. It didn’t feel like it, but 2016 was the most peaceful year since records began. The more that people are able to determine their own fate, the more peaceful they become. Our early 21st century desire to network and connect is not just a short term response to a surge in connectivity, but a well honed survival instinct. Diplomats have tended to distrust the mob, and online mobs can at moments be as vicious and easily manipulated as their offline predecessors. But we should be evangelical about citizen empowerment.
10. In the Digital Age, anyone can be a diplomat. Increasingly, everyone will need to be a diplomat. Diplomacy is not a creed or a code, but a basic human reflex. Negotiating access and distribution of resource is as essential to the survival of the species as finding the resource in the first place. A little more conversation, a little less action. But if the hypothesis on the positive effect of greater public participation is true, we depend as a species on people engaging with the issues that they can now shape to such an extent. You don’t have to be working for a Foreign Ministry to do this. Indeed most have never crossed the threshold. We have got to find creative and ingenious ways to fix the 21st century’s mounting challenges if we are to thrive as a species. So if diplomacy did not exist, we would indeed need to invent it. But it is much too important to leave to diplomats.

The Handbags and the Gladrags


Nick Robinson, now at the helm of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, asked me on today to talk about EU Councils.
I’ve probably done almost 50 of them, and I’m slowly recovering. There are few 21st century global challenges to which the answer is a European Summit. Just because EU leaders can now meet every month doesn’t convince me that they always should.


But clearly this European Council matters, especially to the UK. The outcomes could have a profound impact on our relationship with Europe. To an even greater extent than usual, the PM is negotiating on several fronts – with his counterparts, the media, domestic opinion, and his own party.
Whatever he secures, some will have already decided their reaction, on a scale from frothing rage to cynical harrumph. But anybody who still thinks that a leader can simply swing a handbag and head to the press conference to announce victory is living in a fantasy world.
EU Councils take tenacity, focus and stamina. It is normally best not to look at how the sausage is made (though some in Brussels disagree). Negotiation takes place over weeks, sometimes months – much more like a Test series than a 20/20 match. Advisers will haggle and trade, and build in negotiating fat. In advance, embassies and experts will have fanned out to get the best possible information.


But ultimately it is the leaders who do the deal. As I said to Nick, those who have run coalition governments are at an advantage, because they understand this kind of rolling negotiation. But no plan survives contact with the enemy.


Reflecting on these kind of summits from outside government, I’m even more struck by the cynicism many feel towards those in the arena. We can sometimes be like a football crowd booing our players before the whistle has been blown. There is a real challenge ahead for European leaders to gain the trust needed to make the compromises necessary for their citizens to be safer and better off. Compromise is a dirty word, but – apart from conquering Europe, which only a few outliers still favour – there is no other way to forge the alliances we need. The trick is finding the compromises that make us stronger, and rejecting those that make us weaker. I know our team will be working flat out on that.
Incidentally, as I’ve argued on this site, a first step towards making EU discussions more relevant and accessible would be to put them in language that people actually use. The communiques are sweated over by officials, and then read only by officials. For much of diplomatic history, those inside the room have had more in common with each other than those they represent. That needs to change if diplomacy is to remain as relevant as it needs to be.

Diplomacy’s Oscars – Film and Foreign Policy

There aren’t many films about diplomats and diplomacy. Diplomats don’t make great heroes, though Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is the exception that proves the rule.

In fact they often get in the way of the hero – Hotel Rwanda (2004), Syriana (2005), The Interpreter (2005), The Constant Gardener (2011). Argo (2012) had diplomats who did both, though Brits close to the action at the time of the Iran Uprisings have fiercely contested Ben Affleck’s version. Otherwise, diplomats tend to stumble onto the screen as hapless, mendacious or drunk: https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/stubborn-stereotypes/. Rowan Atkinson plays them well.

There are of course plenty of fantastic spy films. But they don’t count for these purposes – even if spies sometimes pass themselves off as diplomats; and diplomats quite like it when they’re mistaken for spies.

So diplomacy and film make strange partners. Or so I worried as I moderated a panel this week with four of the Middle East’s most talismanic film makers – Nadine Labaki, Jehane Noujaim, Khaled Mouzanar and Karim Amer. All are exploring the boundaries between art and politics. They are also challenging cultural norms – in both couples, it is the wife who directs. You can see more on Jehane and Karim’s work here: http://thesquarefilm.com/. And Nadine and Khaled’s work here: http://youtu.be/-Te9c2jReOg. This is powerful film making that changes society more than any diplomatic communique.

In our discussion (which I think will pop up on YouTube shortly), we explored the extent to which the frustrations of the Middle East can both stifle and drive creativity. How the politics often follows the story, rather than the other way round. How freedom of expression creates vital space for debate, while restrictions on it leave that space to extremists. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog on the power that lies at the crossover between disciplines – talking to these four exceptional talents convinced me that we need more political films in the region; though not necessarily more films by diplomats.

Or maybe that’s wrong. An increasing proportion of diplomacy is about effective mass communication. And we know that mass communication is increasingly shaped by visuals. Look at the way ISIL make horror films. Or the way that one image, of Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, shifted the European debate on migration from hostility to compassion. Or how Richard Curtis was able to get people outside the humanitarian world excited about the Sustainable Development Goals. In a much smaller way, the YouTube video of my farewell walk through Lebanon got over 100 times the attention of the more formal goodbyes.

Diplomats will never win any Oscars for their film making. But they need to better understand how film, like other art, can drive change. And how the lines are blurring between producer and consumer. The smartphone makes anyone a film maker. It also makes anyone a diplomat.

PS, the panel (in Abu Dhabi) was part of the first meeting of the new Beirut Institute, an independent think tank set up by the formidable Raghida Dergham. Many people ask when Beirut could regain its status as the place to take the temperature of the Arab world. The Beirut Institute could become part of the answer.

PPS, I’m looking forward to David Holbrooke’s film (out in November) on his father – legendary US diplomat, Richard. Maybe TE Lawrence will get some company at last.

Digital Departure

Leaving Lebanon in August after four tumultuous years was an emotional time for me. Amid the traditional formalities, we wanted to see if we could use digital technology to depart in a more modern way, reaching out beyond the protocol and parties.

The first effort was through a walk along the Lebanese coast, taking in everything from army training camps to refugees to commercial projects. LBC tagged along, and captured it in a ‘diplomentary’ here: http://youtu.be/723jcDER5Gk. I also blogged on the experience: http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/tomfletcher/2015/07/20/keep-on-walking-lebanon/

We also thought that I needed to write to the Lebanese people, who had so inspired me over this period. This is always tricky. Here’s the letter and the reactions to it: http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/tomfletcher/2015/07/31/19389/

With the news quiet over August, the letter somehow got picked up in the UK too. Here’s a hero of my Grandmother, Matthew Parris: http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/08/freedom-of-information-killed-ambassadors-valedictory-dispatches-could-blogging-bring-them-back/

And here is a former (red-socked) Ambassador to Washington who knew more than most about communicating diplomacy: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/lebanon/11788282/How-to-retire-as-an-ambassador-with-style.html

Neither knew that in fact I had also written an internal valedictory with my private thoughts and advice. That’s staying secret I hope, at least for the next thirty years.

Finally, we linked up with the nice folk at BBC World Serice, to do a behind the scenes look at my final days in the country. By that time I was running on empty, but Jo Meek and Matthew Teller kindly edited out most of the exhaustion as they recorded everything from my farewell speech to the team to visits to refugees to the farewell party hosted by Walid Joumblatt, plus a backstage encounter with David Gray and a rooftop encounter with Mr Le Gray. You can hear the documentary here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030360v

And you can read the brilliant Matthew’s personal (if colour blind) account here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34040175

As diplomats (and now in my case an ex diplomat, for a while) we’re hugely lucky to be living in a time when we have the means to connect with a much larger group of people than ever before. Even if it doesn’t quite have the poise of Von Trapp’s Edelweiss. Or the gravitas of the flag coming down and an austere handshake at the departure gate.

Less Podium, More Purpose

I was in New York this year, for the UN General Assembly (plus talks in Boston at Harvard and BCFR). Here’s something I wrote for HuffPo on the UN, diplomacy, Syria, and the battle for education.

For a week each September, the global foreign policy elites — elected and often unelected — relocate to New York for the annual jamboree of statecraft, the UN General Assembly.

Despite being hosted in one of the world’s highest energy cities, the UN can feel pretty low-octane. Rooms with not enough air and speeches with too much of it. The bleary eyes of jet-lagged entourages and the perma tans and swagger of the Davosphere. Diplomatic sherpas trailed by their heavily loaded yaks, struggling with tomes of briefing. The rare celebrity President who can turn heads amid the mournful looks of the leaders who don’t. The rogue showboat speech — Gadhafi ripping up the UN Charter, Chavez and the ‘smell of sulphur’ — giving way to monotony as another leader includes a platitude per conflict. ‘Turning now to Ethiopia/Eritrea, we must remain concerned and engaged’.

Away from the podium, it is diplomatic speed-dating: plenaries, pull asides and pool sprays; bilaterals and brush bys; grip and grins. Most are carefully choreographed, but not all. At one UNGA, I organised an ambush of a President who wanted to avoid a difficult meeting with the British Prime Minister. At another, I had to bundle a PM into a side room to avoid an unwanted encounter with Robert Mugabe. Promising careers can be broken by a graveyard speaker slot or uncomfortable placement.

But don’t get me wrong. The UN may not be perfect, and the cast has a tendency to inauthentic hyperbole. But no-one has yet come up with a better idea for global coexistence. Beyond the protocol and preening, the tedium and tantrums, what happens in those corridors really matters to all of us.

This year I’m in New York to hammer away at a single issue — education. There are as many kids out of school globally as people in the UK. They risk becoming a lost generation, vulnerable to radicalisation and manipulation. We want to make it a fairer fight by arming them with knowledge and hope. People talk about countering extremism with boots on the ground, but it also takes books in the hand. You can find out more about the effort to get 1 million Syrian children into school here.

Please join those who are #UpForSchool.

I saw for myself in Lebanon the scale of the refugee challenge, the extent of the education aspiration, and the immensity of the danger should we fail. Without progress, we will discover that the sword is mightier than the pen. Without delivery, we will wake up to more empty life jackets on our shores. Without sustained effort, we will risk probing again the potentially uglier limits of compassion in our own societies.

The vast majority of refugees that I have met want the same things as the rest of us: education for their kids, security, community. The clue is in the name — refuge. You don’t put your toddler in a dinghy on the Med for a nicer TV or a better smartphone. The average Syrian child resettled will deliver more for Europe’s economy than average European. They have had to overcome so much already — they have trained at altitude.

I also learnt something in Lebanon that is perhaps obvious to anyone outside government — governments can’t deliver this effort alone. Especially in a time of limited budgets, energy levels, media cycles and attention spans.

We need to marshall new coalitions — business, government, civil society, the education sector, citizens. The private sector role, where I’m personally focused, demands a new paradigm. In the old model, we asked for money, companies found some in a CSR pot, we praised them, they felt a bit less like soulless corporates, and we all carried on what we were doing. But now we’re not asking just for money (though some would be nice). We’re looking for ingenuity, networks, the ability to make stuff happen. We’re looking for new ideas to tackle the oldest of challenges. In New York next week, we’ll bring together a growing number of businesses who are ready to get stuck in.

Of course, education is only one part of the answer. The toxic Syrian war leaves us all more deeply scarred than we can comprehend. The concept of protection of the most vulnerable lies bleeding beneath the rubble. But Syria must not be RIP R2P. We must double down on courageous and audacious diplomacy, looking to use the opportunity of the Iran deal to deliver a new regional dialogue, resisting harder liners — whether in Tehran, Tel Aviv or the Tea Party – who want to stick to the cosy but corrosive polarisations of the past. We underestimated the brutal lengths Assad and his international backers would go to to stay — literally getting away with murder.

We overestimated international courage, will, compassion, influence, stomach, and patience. But Syria is more than a barrel bombing tyrant and a box office death cult. Can the regional players spend as much time trying to end the conflict as arm it?

In my diplomatic lifetime, the interplay between those inside UN meetings and those outside has been transformed. And we are only beginning to see how digital connectivity will tear through the post 1945 global infrastructure. It is easy to be cynical about the hashtags, the celebrity tweets and the ‘now or never’ cliffhanger campaigns. But I have seen how they force leaders to make tougher decisions. We have subcontracted to the UN many of the biggest challenges facing humanity. But let’s not subcontract — as Stephen Hawking captures with such power — our sense of perspective. Nor our ingenuity, our survival instinct and our conscience.

Tom Fletcher is Director of Global Strategy for the Global Business Coalition for Education and was British Ambassador to Lebanon between 2011 and 2015. Before this he served as Foreign Policy Adviser to three British Prime Ministers. He is also Visiting Professor of International Relations at New York University, and an Honorary Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford University. His book on the future of power and digital diplomacy is published by Harper Collins in Spring 2016.

Making Education Work for Business and Business for Education

I’ve been working on education this past month. This post, originally for WISE, explains why.

In the last month, 200,000 Syrian refugee children have had the chance to return to school in Lebanon — some of them for the first time in more than four years. This was a talismanic example of what the public and private sector can achieve when they work together.

We all know that Corporate Social Responsibility is win-win: business does something good for the community, and employees do their day jobs in more motivated ways as a result of having been involved. Fair enough. But we now need to move beyond CSR towards a more enlightened partnership, and nowhere is this clearer than in the field of education. The private sector needs better access to education in order to create the consumers of tomorrow. And it knows that lack of access to education creates an angry, marginalized, radicalized generation.

The private sector’s entrance to this space won’t just disrupt the old humanitarian order: It needs to disrupt the old humanitarian order. Governments and NGOs are the first to admit that they cannot deliver the new Sustainable Development Goals alone. The sweet spot lies in the creation of new alliances, harnessing not just the money that business can donate, but the ingenuity, creativity and networks it can unleash.

So rather than a company like IKEA being asked to contribute to a fund for refugees, it is coming up with ingenious ways to provide affordable shelter. Digital puts this concept on steroids. Facebook’s best contribution is to get refugees online – for every ten people connected, one is lifted out of poverty. Companies like Microsoft and GEMS are finding tech solutions to get schooling where NGOs can’t go – education without borders. If we are able to map where the gaps are in humanitarian delivery, we should now be able to matchmake companies with the actions they can take.

The Global Business Coalition for Education is at the heart of this effort. We are finding new ways to confront old challenges; connecting private sector ideas to humanitarian problems; and amplifying work already underway. The message to governments needs to be: how can the private sector help? The message to campaigners needs to be: where can we help? The message to the private sector must be: please don’t wait to be asked to help.

Just as governments commit 0.7% of their GDP to fight poverty, the private sector, and individual citizens could commit 0.7% of their profits, and more importantly time. Get this right, and we move beyond CSR as Corporate Social Responsibility to CSR as Corporate Social Results.

Supporting education is an investment not a donation. It makes sound business sense. Global education can work for business, creating consumers and talent. But first business must work for global education.

Professor Tom Fletcher CMG is a former UK Ambassador, now Global Strategy Director for the Global Business Coalition for Education. He was Foreign Policy Adviser to three British Prime Ministers. His book on the future of power will be published by Harper Collins in Spring 2016. He blogs at Naked Diplomat, and tweets at @TFletcher.

Liberty, Trust and the Humbling of FIFA: Magna Carta and the Internet Age

This week is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the moment when the barons imposed on the monarch an agreement for greater liberties and rights, a milestone on the way to many of the freedoms we enjoy today. 

Of course, the journey didn’t start with the Magna Carta. While we in Britain were in our Game of Thrones phase, Beirut was known as the “mother of laws”. I’ll be blogging on the FCO site on the Magna Carta and the modern Middle East, where plenty of tyrants are still clinging on. 

However, these are not just questions about dictatorships. Tim Berners Lee, a Brit who has maybe done more for liberty than any other, argues that we need a new Magna Carta for the internet age. He is right. We need a genuine public debate about our digital rights, tackling tough issues around trust and transparency. We need to find the balance between freedom of expression and the rights of others. We have to ensure that technology is an extension of our humanity and not a replacement for it. 

The genie does not go back in to the bottle. We can’t prevent massive change as a result of the technology tsunami, even if we want to. What we can do is to ask the right questions about what it means, and what we want from it – the answers are not just about efficiency, speed and cost. We should also acknowledge the victims. The new Lords must find ways to share the benefits with Jaron Lanier’s “digital serfs”, if they are to avoid their own King John moment. And as Kevin Williamson (Washington Post) puts it: “the new emperors should learn from the old emperors that empires fall.”

On these questions, many activists have dismissed ‘the government’ as some sort of monolithic block on freedom, captured by traditional elites. Fight the system, Wikileaks-style. But governments have long lost anything vaguely resembling a monopoly on information and influence. Secrets are becoming harder to justify and harder to keep. There will always be reactionary pockets of government, and some are dominated by them. But in freer societies, policy making is more fluid, flat, and free. So, just as governments need to get past a paternalistic ‘we know best’ view of society; so do activists need to look again at which parts of government to work with, and yes – trust. Governments will need to show that they have sufficient safeguards in place for the data that they will have to collect. Individuals will need to lead the debate about how we shape the digital services we use rather than simply inhabit them.

This can provide the basis for a serious debate about how society adapts to the internet in a way that preserves maximum liberty and transparency. We can’t just mooch through these questions, or get distracted by photos of cute cats. We need new global standards, ‘Statutes of Liberty’, safeguarding freedom of expression, and setting out parameters of net neutrality. 

Of course, tech bling and must have gadgets aside, these arguments on the balance between freedoms and security predate the digital era. Like the Magna Carta barons, we still need to understand where authority begins and ends; what issues fall under the rule of law; and how to balance the rights of individuals and communities.

There are also still tyrants to topple. When I asked FIFA delegates in Zurich why they had lied to democratically elected leaders during the 2018 bidding process, they laughed and asked ‘what do we have to lose?’. I wonder if Sepp Blatter will be blogging on the Magna Carta anniversary. He probably has more immediate worries on his mind.

Boe, Boyle and Bombs: Smart Power Rules

Watching Alfie Boe belt out Snow Patrol at the VE anniversary got me thinking about smart power. Soft power is about attraction and persuasion rather than coercion – “letting other people have your way” as diplomacy was described by Italian diplomat Daniele Vare. Joseph Nye argues that the most effective power combines hard and soft – smart power. This is the modern version of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick “.

Any country needs to think strategically about this. Prime Minister David Cameron describes Britain as “the smart power superpower”. In the IfG-Monocle Soft Power Index, the UK came first in 2012, on the back of the London Olympics, second in 2013 and third in 2014. It is a league table that matters, and not just to diplomats. 

Effective smart power requires the right messages, the right mechanisms and the right means. I think there are six rules for the use of smart power in modern statecraft and modern streetcraft.


A nation needs a good narrative. This will be more effective if it is aspirational, inclusive, and doesn’t rely only on killing people from other nations. This is not easy. Danny Boyle’s brilliant telling of Britain’s island story during the 2012 Olympics moved many of us to tears, but a small number to rage. The countries that are most effective at smart power will understand their own story, and why it makes them attractive. It makes it easier to persuade others to support our agenda, on the basis that it is theirs too. It makes it easier to persuade others to share our values, because they work for them too. And it makes it more likely that they buy our goods, because they want them too.


Much smart power just happens. In fact it is far more credible when the message is carried by sportsmen, artists, Royals or business people rather than diplomats or politicians. Austria’s transvestite winner of the Eurovision song contest in 2014 did more for its reputation as an open and liberal country than years of government speeches and press releases. Guantanamo is as influential on the US brand as the Statue of Liberty. The Nobel Peace Prize will keep Norway near the top of the soft power league table as long as leaders aspire to win it. I spent time last week persuading the brilliant David Gray (in John Lewis –  him not me) to come to Lebanon. Like others who have performed here recently – Joss Stone, Keane, Katie Melua, Pet Shop Boys, Tom Jones – he’ll be a great ambassador for Britain. Diplomats have to draw on the power of what other players represent, while avoiding looking like an awkward uncle dancing at a wedding.


A coherent smart power strategy does not just happen. Many emerging economies have recognised this, and are investing massively in media, cultural institutes and scholarships. Russia Today’s annual budget is over 700m USD, and China has set up over 400 Confucius Centres, promoting Chinese language and culture, globally in the last decade. Governments can focus the instruments they control. In particular this means coherence between development, defence and foreign affairs ministries. And backing organisations like the British Council, British Museum, Creative Industries Federation and BBC.


Even the most brutal empires recognised the need to balance military and non military force. Genghis Khan would have been unlikely to describe any of what he did as soft. But he realised that he maximised his influence if he was able to help people feel that they were better off with him than without him. The Romans were weak when they forgot the importance of bread and circuses, relying on subjugation alone. Rome was at its strongest when it created a narrative and offered aspirational people a share in it and a sense of magnetism, the early version of Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill”.

Yet soft power without the threat of hard power quickly becomes “speak loudly and carry a small stick”.So hard and soft power must reinforce each other. They are different muscles to flex and sometimes to use. Hard power must never be neglected – as President Theodore Roosevelt said, don’t punch unless you have to, but never punch soft.


Any smart power strategy must recognise that those it is trying to influence are shaped by a different set of narratives, values and beliefs. As a post colonial ambassador, I frequently bounce into classrooms in the Middle East to talk about British creativity, openness, and innovation. Yet what the class sees is a successor of Arthur Balfour, whose declaration is seen as having laid the basis for the Arab world’s humiliation. Or the grandson of Mark Sykes, whose redrawing, with Picot, of the Middle East’s borders is seen in the region as having created every subsequent problem. They see imperial baggage.

Of course, we can’t wish away the baggage. We have to try to see ourselves as others see us, but not be defined, or knocked off balance by that. If we do not acknowledge it, we come across as arrogant, or cultural imperialists. We are not projecting smart power in a vacuum.


As nations weigh up their comparative advantages in the global race, there is no doubt that English-speaking countries have one significant advantage, for the next hundred years, at least. For anyone who wants to succeed in the 21st century, the English language is the language of information, education, opportunity,  the internet, globalisation. For traders and travellers, the language of Shakespeare, Facebook and the London and New York stock exchanges is not just useful – it is indispensable.

There are already more conversations in English between people whose second language is English than there are between native speakers of English.


Diplomacy is easy when you’re a country on the rise. Representatives of other countries answer your phone, seek you out, expand their embassies and trade delegations. 

Diplomacy is also easy when you have won on the battlefield. Your rivals or opponents are more inclined to see things your way, and your allies to cut you some slack.

Diplomacy is easy when your people are in a pioneering mindset. The diplomats who put together empires aren’t the people who build them. They are preceded by traders, explorers, innovators. The great empires were all built on great start ups.

Diplomacy is easy when the rules are clear, when you are all playing on the same chess board. The subtle dance between the 19th century’s great European states had moments of great jeopardy, and in the end could not contain the shifts in the underlying tectonics of power. But, post Napoleon, the key players all felt the same interest in preserving a status quo. They spoke the same language, often literally. They even ensured that it was the language of the vanquished party.

Where diplomacy is hard therefore is where you are a nation or a region in perceived decline, when it becomes harder to get that White House meeting, or your press conferences is downgraded to a ‘pool spray’.

Diplomacy is hard when your hard power is on the wane, when your citizens are less willing to make great military sacrifices to impose the nation’s interests or extend your influence.

Diplomacy is hard when you are competing with players with greater pioneering zeal, when your nation looks its creative edge or hunger for innovation. Increasingly, that competition is not just from other nations.

Diplomacy is hard is when the rules of the game are in flux, when there are players willing to turn the chess board over, when the international system is being disrupted.Much of the West is therefore in a phase of hard diplomacy. Diplomacy that wears out the soles of your shoes, runs up time in the air, makes you work the phones, forces you to innovate and adapt. So it matters less whether you call it soft, smart or whatever the next catchphrase. What matters is that we call it power. And that we get out there and use it.

(There is a great House of Lords report on soft power here:  


(And here’s Alfie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKY3scPIMd8&feature=youtube_gdata_player)