Decoding Diplomacy: A Bluffers Guide to International Meetings

I’ve posted on the FCO site on why this year’s UN General Assembly matters for Lebanon, and all of us.

Following the coverage from New York prompts me to share again explanations for some of the unnecessarily mystifying diplomatic terms.  

The rough league table of diplomatic meetings, our equivalent to speed dating, runs through: plenary (several countries), bilateral, 1-1, brush by, pull aside. 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 Prime Minister over Zimbabwe.

Before key exchanges, diplomatic advisers will haggle over the length and size of the meeting as well as the substance of any press statement. Even translation can a contested area, with some delegations adept at using up meeting time to avoid reaching the issues they want to avoid, or changing their country’s nomenclature to avoid a graveyard speaker slot or uncomfortable placement.

The type of press conference is also heavily contested. There, the rough ranking is in descending importance and difficulty: full press conference (podiums, flags, prepared statements and media questions), pool spray (more informal, with cameras at the start of the meeting), grip and grin (handshake but no words). The former are the hardest to get right. They present more practical challenges, such as finding a hidden step for smaller leaders. And if the UK media are involved, you have to warn foreign leaders to expect more personal and provocative questions than they get at home.

How you describe the meeting also matters. The rough sliding scale is: excellent, productive, constructive, practical, warm, good, businesslike, cordial, full and frank, difficult. In a separate category is a ‘summons’. Given the diplomatic tendency to understatement, anything below ‘cordial’ implies a serious dust up …  

Diplomats are so good at languages that we decided to create our own. I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog on why that needs to change.

“Intimate Typist”: Unveiling the Private Secretary

I’ve just written an introduction for a new book on Private Secretaries at No 10 Downing Street. Here is a shorter version.
‘I served three very different Prime Ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
The role of ‘Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister’ did not involve, as once translated to bewilderment, being the ‘intimate typist for the Prime Minister’s affairs overseas’. It was a combination of policy adviser, journalist, negotiator, bag carrier and relationship manager. Occasionally therapist, translator, recruitment consultant and even bodyguard, as when Mugabe emerged from a corner of a UN Summit to seek a handshake with Gordon Brown. I wrote speeches, dreamt up policies and procured ProPlus from President Obama. Sometimes I had to tell white lies, as when a Middle Eastern monarch asked what was written on all the ‘nice placards’ being waved at him in London by ‘friendly crowds’. The first voice I heard each morning, and the last each night, was the relentlessly cheerful No 10 switchboard.
Many things about the Private Secretary’s role are unchanged. They no longer cut the dash of the impresarios of Nico Henderson’s memoirs, but do have more influence than our age or rank would normally permit. They work in an atmosphere of creative tension with departments. Output matters more than process. They succeed if they master the art of using leverage. They inhabit the grey but productive area between communications, policy and diary. They don’t need to know everything about everything, but do need to know something about everything. They cannot be control freaks, but do have to create the illusion of freakish control. They rely as ever on the extraordinary good grace and professionalism of the duty clerks, switchboard operators and garden room staff who really run No 10. The thirty seconds walking to the front door with the PM are more important than the two hours rewriting his brief. They have to think fast, but never bluff.  When the door is closed, they can be a licensed heretic, impertinent irritation, devil’s advocate. But not all the time, not in front of others, and never once the PM has reached a decision. If they appear too close to ‘The Boss’, they’ll be seen as a threat. If not close enough, as irrelevant. As ever, the PS must navigate between civil servants and special advisers, drawing the best from both while sidestepping unnecessary scraps. You need a thick skin – I still wake at night to recall one Prime Ministerial ticking off accompanied by the strains of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now, I’m Having Such a Good Time’ on a nearby loudspeaker. Just as the Private Secretaries of the past had to read Stalin or Kennedy, we have to know our Prime Ministers’ interlocutors inside out. Some were easier than others – the success of meetings with one leader could be judged by how often he tapped his crotch. We have to understand how to get the most out of our leaders, including by building in moments to watch the football or beat us at tennis.  
Yet many aspects of our roles have changed dramatically. I worked for the last paper and pen PM, the first email PM, and the first iPad PM. When I started, we had to consider how policy would look on the Sky ticker. By the time I left, by how it would look on Twitter. We have had to become more media-savvy than our predecessors, always with a good story in the back pocket. Preparations for PMQs or press conferences have become the sweet spot in which to debate and hone policy. We have become more focused on ‘deliverables’ – announcements designed, more in hope than expectation, to prevent the media from writing negative alternatives. We have to think more about the visuals, as demonstrated by our often grim experiences over meetings with successive US Presidents – there were few I can recall where the media judged us on the substance of the exchange rather than the length of the press conference.
Even the physical nature of the job has changed. Traditionally, the smaller the desk and the closer to the throne, the better. But under Gordon Brown, we had a period in open-plan, a u-shape of desks around the Prime Minister. The Private Secretary now has a blackberry attached to his or her wrist – leading to a painful version of repetitive strain injury (or No10donitis). The pace of international diplomacy has quickened. Often at a ‘three-shirter’ EU budget discussion or climate change summit, I would long for the days when Churchill’s PS, Jock Colville, could write in his diary: ‘war declared, rode on Hampstead Heath for three hours’. We are probably more paranoid about leaks and inquires – the minute that looks brilliant and witty in the PM’s red box will seem reckless to a parliamentary committee armed with hindsight and media outrage. Recent inquiries have shown that no-one comes out with much credit when their real time communications are put under an intense spotlight. We’re more ‘The Thick of It’ than ‘Yes Prime Minister’.
In my experience, leaders arrive planning to delegate, but end up centralising. On issues of core national interest, they tend to make similar calls. The stereotypes are flawed: those seen as gunslingers were smarter; those seen as steely were more subtle; those seen as gloomy could be hilarious; and those seen as too relaxed were driven. Someone said that JFK inspired America, RFK challenged America, and Ted Kennedy changed America. The best leader has to do all three: set the vision, engage people to believe in it, and put systems in place to deliver it. Most master two out of three. Tactics often get in the way of strategy, but most calls are 51/49 and lonely. So all value judgement over intellect.
Few jobs in government are more gruelling than PS – during one demanding period, my wife interrupted a conference call between the Prime Minister and a head of state to inform us all of how fed up she was. But few can be as exciting, and such a privilege. They give you an extraordinary insight into moments of history, and the characters that shape them. I woke the Prime Minister to tell him of President Obama’s election. I was in the car with Gordon Brown as he left Chequers for the last time, and with David Cameron as he arrived there for the first time.  
The Private Secretaries who are now best remembered are those who wrote most down. The code of omerta remains strong among most of us – the ‘Private’ remains more important than the ‘Secretary’. But as government evolves it is right to shine a light into the corridors in which the Private Secretary ducks, weaves and does the occasional bit of intimate typing.’

Citizen Diplomacy

Last week I joined TEDx at LAU. It was a remarkable event, bringing together many of Lebanon’s realistic dreamers, pioneers and creators. Defying the anxiety and uncertainty about, it gave me renewed hope in Beirutopia. 

Lebanon is the frontline for coexistence. If we cannot live together here, we will fail to live together in Madrid, Paris and London. If we cannot better manage the Middle East’s transition towards security, justice and opportunity, we will face a generation of upheaval. In the end, politics will prevail. The job of diplomats is to help it do so without decades of bloodshed.

When I arrived in Lebanon two years ago, I was a social media virgin. I went through a phase of information harvesting. Then a phase of excited engagement and connection. I’m still doing both, probably too much of both. But what I now believe is more exciting is mobilisation.

And that’s where I believe that social media, coexistence and diplomacy coincide. There is lots of talk about citizen journalists, but not enough about citizen diplomats. Behind the ‘excellencies’ and the protocol, diplomacy is not a mysterious cult. It doesn’t require years of training like medicine or law. We’re basically working, especially somewhere like Lebanon, for coexistence. Anyone can do that, and many people do here, through small acts of resistance against apathy, division, corruption and fatalism.

The smartphone is a superpower. But like all superpowers, it depends on how we use it. We can download pictures of cute cats or flirt with the girl in the fourth row. Or we can use it to shape the environment around us.

So I asked the people at TED what their digital epitaph would be.
There was a huge wall on which participants wrote their aspirations for Lebanon 2020, and how they would help. We buuilt alliances and, true to TED, generated ideas.

I would love to see more people using social media as just such a wall. Plus the occasional cute cat.

It Is Not About ‘Warm Bilateral Relations’

Diplomats are good at making simple issues more complicated, more fudged, less transparent.

Sometimes with good reason, but often not. We can spend hours in international conferences debating whether we are ‘concerned’ or ‘gravely concerned’. Too many statements follow the tired formula – ‘Minister x and Minister y discussed a wide range of issues of mutual concern’. Meaningless platitudes – did anyone think they were meeting to discuss issues that weren’t of mutual concern?

My personal teeth grinder is ‘warm bilateral relations’. As in ‘my objective in Lebanon is to promote warm bilateral relations’. There is a sliding scale only really understood by diplomats. Heaven forbid that relations become just ‘cordial’, ‘businesslike’, or that a meeting be ‘candid’ or ‘full and frank’. This is the kind of logic that leads some to judge the quality of a meeting by the length of the press conference or the official gifts exchanged.

There are several reasons why ‘warm bilateral relations’ particularly gets on my nerves.

First, it is meaningless. It is too often defined in terms of the number of visits, or feedback from courtiers. There is no league table of the warmth of our partnerships with other countries. There is no way of saying whether our relations with Lebanon are warmer than a year ago (though if you believe the telegrams most of us ambassadors send, relations with each of our countries are getting warmer and warmer …). There is no public opinion survey against which to rank changes in temperature.

Second, it turns people off. By reducing everything to such froth, we patronise and underestimate the public. I love it when a diplomatic meeting is described more honestly, when a leader or ambassador says ‘actually, it was a very tough meeting. I respect Russia’s position but I profoundly disagree with it’. People have a right to authentic communication from those who work for them.

Third, it makes us diplomats lazy. By hiding behind platitudes, we are not put on the spot to explain what we’re trying to do. By spending time debating whether we ‘condemn’ or ‘have concerns’ we waste time that should be spent actually doing something about the thing we condemn.

Fourth, it prioritises relationships over outcomes. Diplomacy of course depends on the quality of relationships you can build. But they have to be for a purpose. Do they make us more secure and more prosperous? The objective of a diplomatic meeting should not be to leave everyone feeling warm, but to pursue the national interest. Finance Ministries often understand this better than Foreign Ministries. Don’t get me started on ‘warm atmospherics’.

So, for the record, it is not concern I feel about the human cost of the war in Syria, it is outrage, frustration and a determination that we must stop it getting worse. It is not warmth I feel about what we can do to promote Britain, our brilliant ‘small island’, but passion and pride to wear the shirt.

I am not in Lebanon to promote warm bilateral relations. We’re here to double UK/Lebanon trade, double the number of students learning English, and maximise tangible support for Lebanon’s stability. Sometimes we’ll succeed, sometimes we’ll fail. But we’ll try not to describe the effort in tired cliches.

10 Tips for Twiplomats: Around the World in 140 Characters

In October 2011, I gave a speech to Beirut Online Collaborative. Here’s an extract with ideas on digital diplomacy….
1. Know your followers: Of mine, I judge 25% to want to know more about life of Ambassador (what’s it like to have bodyguards? Do we really eat nothing but Ferrero Rocher?), 25% to be UK political junkies, 25% to be Lebanon political junkies, and the rest to be a mixture of the informed, interested, eccentric, curious and hostile. The Lebanese proportion is increasing so I’m tweeting more about Lebanon.

2. But don’t be defined by your followers. We need to reach out, without falling into trap of courting popularity. We’re not comedians, journalists or politicians, and we should not pretend to be. A high number of followers is a good sign you’re getting through, but is not an end in itself.

3. Be authentic. People can see the real person underneath. Twitter is more raw, more real, more human than normal diplomatic interaction. People are more likely to stick around to read your press releases if they feel they know something about you as a person. I try to challenge preconceptions (for example about diplomats, or about life in Lebanon).

4. Be consistent. Just as a politician can’t say one thing on the Des O’Connor sofa and another to Jeremy Paxman, a Twiplomat cannot face both ways. This is a challenge for diplomats used to pitching to two distinct audiences: one to whom they want to show what they are doing for national interests, and another that they want to show what they are doing for relationships with the host country. The two should not be incompatible. So, for example, when I tweet about a commercial deal, I try to explain what that means for jobs in Watford, alongside the tangible benefits to Lebanese economy.

5. The best diplomacy is action not reportage, purpose not platitudes. So tweets should be about changing the world, not just describing how it looks.

6. But understand and manage the risks, especially where the personal blurs with the political. I made the mistake of tweeting from my official account my private views on public sector strikes: I stand by my position, but it was the wrong platform. The ReTweet dilemma is also trickier for diplomats: UK politicians RT their opponents, but diplomats could not yet do so, since for some a RT implies approval. As with any public intervention, think before you tweet. Imagine how it looks out of context in a hostile media piece.

7. Quality still matters. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, whatever you choose to tweet, tweet a good one. Just because there are huge amounts of rubbish out there, this does not mean you should compromise.

8. Recognise the limits: as an individual diplomat, politically, and of Twitter. This is just one tool among many. The rest of the day job still matters. Don’t get too sucked in. Just as diplomats fail when their telegram report matters more to them than the action they are reporting, we should guard against caring more about the pithiness of the tweet than the subject we’re tweeting.

9. Don’t take it personally. It is a jungle out there, and we have to get our brogues dirty. Every time I tweet about Palestine or Israel, I get vicious abuse from supporters of both sides, in pretty equal measure. We should listen, try to understand, but we won’t convince everyone. And nor should we seek to. But that’s not to say we should not engage some of our opponents more energetically, as UK MPs do to each other on Twitter. We’re not there yet, in diplomacy or Lebanese politics. But imagine the power of a twitter debate between diplomats or politicians who disagree. An interactive HardTalk.

10. Finally, remember the national interest. Transnational debates can be fascinating, and alliances will become more issue based, more fluid. But diplomats cannot lose sight of our bottom lines: what makes my country richer? what makes my country more secure?

Diplomacy not just for diplomats. But not diplomacy without diplomats: social media should attract us. We tend to like communicating, are often extroverts, tend to be political junkies. We’re already writers, advocates and analysts. We must now become digital interventionists.

The First Virtual Diplomatic Reception

February 25, 2013

Earlier this month I posted some futuristic thoughts on what Lebanon could be in 2020.

Much more interesting than the speculation in the post was the response. The almost 300 comments so far give a good sense of current debate in Lebanon: idealism, cynicism, fatalism, frustration. Some seek to apportion blame, many to identify practical solutions.

I’m with the second group. As I’ve argued in responses to some of those who have commented, if we spend another decade arguing over who is responsible, we cannot hope to move forward. It is right to identify the blockages to positive change, but in order to get around them rather than to make them bigger than they are.

Charting a course to the kind of Lebanon that many people so clearly yearn for must be a Lebanese project. As our contribution, we simply want to trigger some debates, and provide a neutral space for discussion. I hope that we’ll see stronger coalitions emerge around the key issues, and more practical responses.

As a first step, we’re getting groups together to tackle some of the ten key questions in this post

Our first event is a virtual dinner, on 25 February, at my place (though, given it is virtual, the venue is not that important). We want to discuss how Lebanon can make the best use of new technology to get over its infrastructure weaknesses. There are great examples to draw on. I worked on a project in Kenya through which farmers were able to get weather and market conditions to their smartphones, bypassing middle men. Engineers in India used wireless networks to link up rural health centres with hospitals up to fifty miles away for video conferencing between doctors and patients. Maybe Lebanon should jump straight to wireless?

Joining us in person will be a number of Lebanon’s top tech innovators in this field, including Kamal Hayek (Director General of EdL), Raymond Ghajar (Ministry of Energy’s Senior Adviser),  Salah Tabbarah (wind energy pioneer) Albert Khoury (Director of energy company Aley), Suheil Abboud (V4 Ltd), Vahakn Kabakian (on how we transform transport systems) and Habib Torbey (head of Global Com and the 460 Multimedia Store).

Joining us virtually will be many more, we hope – the experts, the curious, the realists. We may even get some of the more social media savvy Ministers involved. We hope it will be a genuinely open discussion, across government and civil society.

We aim to live stream the exchange, but I expect infrastructure weaknesses will get in our way. So you can join in on the hashtag Leb2020, and by following @hmatomfletcher and @ukinlebanon, or by commenting below this post. Between 2000 and 2230 we’ll live tweet the discussion, and ask the experts to respond to your questions and ideas.

This should be quite an interesting social media experiment, and may even generate some practical ideas. So please stock up on tabbouleh and Ferrero Rocher, and join us tomorrow. Ahlan wasahlan.

Speechmaking By Twitter ….

March 1, 2013

Yesterday was our ‘Education, Education, Education’ Day.

I met the prizewinners of our competition for English teachers, including an inspirational administrator from Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp, whose winning lesson plan was based on fish and chips. She is helping even those living in extreme desperation to enjoy and unlock English.

But the day began with earthier Anglo-Saxon, unsuitable for a family blog. I had got up early to write a speech on education for an event twinning UK and Lebanese universities, but my iPad crashed before I could send it to the printer. My son, off school ironically for the teacher’s strike, had run the battery down.

The speech wasn’t exactly Demosthenes, but with half an hour until the event, it was too late to start afresh. So I asked Twitter for ideas.

As ever, it delivered a mixture of the comic (free visas?), critical and creative. Twitter told me that lack of education was more expensive than education. That education is not about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire. That the Arab world is young –  with one in four jobless, and 90m due to enter the job market in the coming decade.

That almost 400,000 international students study at UK universities each year, 10% of the international market. That we have four universities in the top 10. That Peter Brougham said ‘education makes a people easy to lead but difficult to drive: easy to govern, but impossible to enslave’.

That Lebanon spends more on education than anything but food, more per capita than any other country.

Twitter also generated suggestions for Lebanon: more online resource, less rote learning, civic education about other religions.

With all this in mind, I want to explain Britain’s education offer to Lebanon, how we will back Lebanon’s future by backing its educators.

First, the English language. As I argued in an earlier blogpost, this is a fire worth lighting. For a nation of traders and travellers such as Lebanon, the language of Shakespeare, Facebook and the London and New York stock exchanges is not just useful – it is indispensable.

The Phoenecians gave us our alphabet. We want to give the Lebanese our language. So the British Council will make it possible for anyone in Lebanon to learn English, for free. We are putting online every resource you need to teach or learn English.

Second, because it is about quality and not just quantity, we’ll make sure that English language teachers are the best they can be. In the coming year the British Council will train 2000 English language teachers, about 20% of all those in Lebanon. With their help, we want to boost the numbers of students taking English by a third, making it Lebanon’s second language.

We’ll also make available our benchmarks for English, including the IELTS test. And we’ll fight hard for equivalence for the British A-Level.

Third, we’ll bring the best of British technology to Lebanese classrooms and educational partnerships to Lebanon’s institutions.

Already, Prometheon are putting interactive whiteboards in schools across the country. Last year we organised the largest British education trade mission to the region. We’ll bring an even larger mission in September, with over thirty British education providers in Beirut, alongside English UK’s annual conference.

Fourth, we will aim to attract more Lebanese students to UK universities. We issued 25% more student visas last year, more than ever before, enabling an increasing number of Lebanese students to study in the UK.

We’ll support the very best students, the role models and change makers, with six fully funded Masters scholarships. And because we also want to forge connections between those who don’t have the means to travel, we are linking more than fifty classrooms to their counterparts in the UK.

Finally, we will support the Ministry of Education’s reform agenda. They and their local partner – an NGO called Adyan working with educational experts and religious leaders – are changing the foundations of the education system, from one based on fusion and tolerance to one based on diversity and partnership. Pupils will for the first time be taught in all schools that Lebanon’s diversity is not a reason for division and weakness, but for unity and strength.

So thank you Twitter for salvaging a speech, thank you to the British Council and English teachers throughout Lebanon in the frontline of this effort, and thank you to the British and Lebanese institutions that are forging the partnerships that will underpin it.

It matters. As investment in Britain’s best export. As downpayment on Lebanon’s future. And because, as Disraeli said even without the benefit of Twitter, “on the education of the people the fate of this country depends”.

Ambassador 2020

Last week I was scheduled to join Foreign Minister Bildt for a Q&A session on innovative diplomacy with Sweden’s ambassadors. I was looking forward to learning from them, as the first Foreign Ministry to put all their envoys on Twitter. But the ongoing dramas here in Beirut prevented me from travelling, and so I joined – appropriately for the subject – by videolink. A good UK/Swedish combination: the Brits invented electricity and the worldwide web, and the Swedes invented Skype.

As part of my talk, I tried to imagine what it will be like to be an ambassador in 2020. There is always a risk with these exercises of sounding a bit ‘Tomorrow’s World’. But here’s what I suggested.

“The ambassador is woken refreshed from a night in which his smartphone has measured his sleeping pattern to ensure maximum rest and assessed what nutrients he needs in his morning smoothie. As he shaves and has breakfast, his tablet projects onto the mirror, wall or his glasses a distilled stream of analysis and news. In the car on his way to work he has a videoconference with his capital and neighbouring posts.

He enters his embassy through a series of non intrusive but effective security checks. The ground floor is an engagement zone, a pavilion full of space and light, designed by Britain’s best creative minds, not by civil servants. All services are online, with customers exploring virtual reality tours of the UK while they wait.  Students are accessing language materials, online and in the library, and a class is meeting for its monthly discussion group. Others are learning about cultural events or watching English films in the cinema space. People are making connections to British friends and strangers through hundreds of iPads with bespoke apps. Some are making business deals through a portal that uses online dating technology to link them to UK networks. Students are taking virtual tours of UK campuses, and sitting in on sample lectures. A cafe serves organic British products, and some non organic fish and chips. Interior walls feature a constantly changing virtual gallery of contemporary UK artwork. Kids are having photos taken with interactive models of British heroes, with Prince George the most popular.

This is not a space that people come to as a chore. But where they choose to come. It is client-focused. It projects the UK as fresh, innovative and creative. It responds to the security threat by embracing openness. It channels the same spirit that lifted the London 2012 Olympics.

He chairs a meeting with his key staff, most joining by videoconference. All have tablets on which they can add to the meeting record, displayed on a virtual whiteboard. He spends an hour online, engaging members of the public. He joins a digital demarche on human rights, quickly backed by 1m people, and picks a lively online argument with his Iranian colleague, with thousands joining the debate. He hosts a virtual coffee with civil society activists from all over the globe, livestreamed. He uploads to the embassy website a digital clip of his response to the new energy policy, which is simultaneously translated. He checks the number of Brits in country, all registered through the embassy’s visitor app, and where they are.

At a public event, livestreamed and with a Twitter wall for interaction with what was once called his audience, he is pleased to see that most in the room are playing with their phones, a good sign that they are engaging and interacting. Struck by a comment from a participant in Texas, he downloads a paper written ten years earlier by a colleague in Finland and shares key elements with other participants as he speaks. He hosts a skype call between a local business group, a UK investor and one of his predecessors – in a networked world he needs to leverage every influence possible.

He looks forward to a more traditional encounter, lunch with the Foreign Minister. As is now standard etiquette, there will be no smartphones on the table. Not just because half the world could listen in. But because it is just rude.

The 2020 envoy is a lobbyist, leader, communicator, pioneer, entrepreneur, activist, campaigner, advocate. She has learnt from the best in those fields, and has worked in several of them. She understands that diplomacy is not some kind of secret art form, concealed by jargon and titles, but an amalgamation of disciplines. She does crossover. She competes for space, attention, relevance and influence. She builds coalitions and alliances across business, civil society, borders. She doesn’t see the embassy as a building, but as an idea. She bases herself less on structures/institutions than on networks. She unleashes the younger members of her team to reach the parts she cannot. She spends little time in international conferences. She finds out where people are, and goes there. Her embassy is the hub for the national brand and UK companies she promotes unashamedly. Her appraisals include an assessment of her digital clout. She gives her Foreign Minister added value through influence and analysis, not reportage. She prioritises outcomes over relationships. She takes time to build a personal and national brand. She takes risks. She does not hide behind diplomatic platitudes. She does not believe that diplomacy is a job for life.”

I picked 2020 because it had a nice ring to it, and because it is a bit of a theme to these blogposts. But there is no reason why all of this couldn’t be done in 2013. Indeed, by 2020 this post will look even more ridiculous.

There is a bit of a backlash against digital diplomacy at the moment, because it hasn’t changed the world. No-one said it would. There is still a need for traditional diplomacy, more than ever. But we also have to embrace innovation faster if we are to remain relevant as diplomats. I always ask people who will influence the 21C to a greater degree – Google or Britain? Most say Google. We need to show that they’re wrong.

The Naked Diplomat

The iGeneration has more opportunity than any generation before to understand their world, to engage with their world and to shape their world. In the ten years since 9/11 that world has been transformed more by American geeks in dorms than Al Qaeda operatives in caves.

It was citizens who took the technology and turned it into something extraordinary. In years to come, people will say that the most powerful weapon in the Middle East was not sarin gas or Iran’s bomb, but the smartphone. We have seen the power of the best of old ideas allied with the best of new technology: regimes can ban the iPhone, but iFreedom will get through in the end.

This new context changes everything. Increasingly, it matters less what a Minister or diplomat says is ‘our policy’ on an issue – it matters what the users of Google, Facebook or Twitter decide it is. As the rock star of digital diplomacy, Alec Ross, says – networks are replacing hierarchies.

Diplomacy is Darwinian. We evolved when sea routes opened up, empires rose and fell, the telephone came along. Some said you could replace the FCO with the fax. Well, we saw the fax off, and the telegram. Now we have to prove that you can’t replace the FCO with Wikipedia and Skype.

Equipped with the right kit, and the right courage, diplomats should be among pioneers of this terrain. We’re already writers, advocates and analysts. We must now become digital interventionists.

Jamie Oliver, as the Naked Chef, pared back cooking to the essentials. The Naked Diplomat has a smartphone to protect his modesty. But also the skills that have always been essential to the role: an open mind, political savvy, and a thick skin. He or she will learn the language of this new terrain in the way he or she has learnt Chinese or Arabic.

Set piece events are being replaced by more fluid, open interaction with the people whose interests we are there to represent. I ask colleagues who are not convinced about the power of these tools to imagine a reception with all their key contacts. You would not delegate it, stand quietly in a corner, or shout platitudes about warm bilateral relations. You would be in the mix, exchanging information. With or without the Ferrero Rocher.

Some practical examples. We’re aiming to use online dating technology to link UK producers with one of the world’s most powerful trading networks – the Lebanese diaspora. Crisis/contingency preparation now relies increasingly on social media. We judge that it is not now worth doing a speech unless it is reaching, via social media, over 1000 people. We’ve done a virtual dinner, live streamed to involve thousands of Lebanese, and the first ‘tweet up’ between an ambassador and a Prime Minister. One of our blog posts reached 1 in 10 Lebanese citizens.

But the most important thing social media does for us is that, for the first time, it gives us the means to influence the countries we work in on a massive scale, not just through elites. This is exciting, challenging and subversive. Getting it wrong could start a war: imagine if a diplomat tweeted a link to an offensive anti-Islam film. Getting it right has the potential to rewrite the diplomatic rulebook. A digital démarche, involving tens of thousands, will be more effective than the traditional démarche.

I think, like the best traditional diplomacy, iDiplomacy comes down to authenticity, engagement and purpose. It is raw and human. People are more likely to read your material if they know something about you. We need to interact, not transmit. Our followers will be a mix of the influential, curious, eccentric and hostile.

The internet brings non-state actors into the conversation. That’s part of the point. Once they’re in, they can’t be ignored. Diplomacy is action not reportage, so tweets should be about changing the world, not just describing how it looks. What makes my country richer? What makes my country more secure?

Of course social media can’t replace diplomacy. We still need secrets, and direct conversations, however many of us become what the Economist calls ‘Tweeting Talleyrands’. We have to recognise the limits. This is just one tool among many. Just like a clever telegram, the pithy tweet does not matter more than the action it describes. The message matters more than the medium.

Many of us have made mistakes on social media, but the biggest mistake is not to be on it.

This is happening all around us, with or without diplomats. It presents threats as well as opportunities. But so did the printing press, the telephone, air travel. Now that anyone can be a diplomat, we have to show that you can’t live without diplomats.

We need to seize our smartphones.