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.