TEN THINGS 2015 SHOWED US ABOUT DIPLOMACY

 
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.