Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me: Leadership, Vision and Statecraft

(Here’s something I’ve just written with @nickjefferson of Monticello, for HuffPo)

The currency of leadership is the future.


The future is what leaders deal in, and, ultimately, it’s where they will be judged.


The leaders we admire most are pioneers.


Pioneers create a vision of what the future looks like, and they energise those around them to join the journey to get there.


This is not simply a matter of the head.


It is a matter of the heart.


Think of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Shining City On A Hill’. Or Martin Luther King’s ‘The Dream’. Or Nelson Mandela’s ‘free and equal society’.


Many of us in public life or business call ourselves leaders. But leadership is not a title. It is a mindset. And the mindset of many ‘leaders’ today is too often one of management.


There is nothing wrong with management.


Good management is essential to the wellbeing of any organisation. It is what ensures that staff are paid, that deliveries are made and that the wheels are kept on the machine. But it will not tell the machine where it is going, or why. That is what leadership is for.


In the second half of the 20th Century, the notion of leadership was too often conflated with management and, in particular in the UK, the insidious ‘management of decline’.


The ramifications of this mindset still play out today in politics, in statecraft and in business. 


Politics is easy when you are building, ‘on the up’ and offering clear choices in simple language. Politics is easy when power is concentrated, when the rules are clear and, while they might not agree, everyone is all playing on the same chessboard.


Politics is hard when the power is fragmenting, when the rules of the game are in flux, and when there are players willing to turn the chessboard over. Politics is hard in the periods when your constituents don’t think you, or any of your rivals, matter – and wouldn’t trust you even if they did.


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


Statecraft is hard when you are competing with players with greater pioneering zeal, when your nation loses its creative edge or hunger for innovation. Statecraft is hard when lack of resource or confidence leads to an introspective national mindset, rather than a drive to find new ideas and sources of renewal.


Business is easy when your costs are low and your exports guaranteed into markets that have been established and maintained through military hegemony. It’s easy when others don’t have the technology, IP or wherewithal to profitably replicate what your business does.


But business is hard when the world is smaller, pacier. It’s hard when your products or services have become commoditized through the rise of Asia, or digital; or both. Business is particularly hard when the ‘Operational Excellence’ that got you and your business to the top offers, at best, only diminishing returns.


We need, all of us, in business, diplomacy and politics, to make life more ‘easy’ again for ourselves.


This will not be achieved by turning back-the-clock, building bigger walls around us or turning inwards, but by demonstrating relevance, and by staying hungry and agile.


To do this, leaders need to create aspirational ambitions that are readily accessible by those they lead.


That goes especially for the Brits. ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation’ might have been the English, or even British way, in the second half of the 20th century.


But in the 21st Century, it will not suffice.


We need more.


We want more.


Because the market for something to believe in is, well, infinite.



New Tech for Old Challenges

The Syria conflict has created the biggest refugee crisis in modern history – imagine everyone inside the M25 leaving Britain. Lebanon is dealing with an unprecedented influx of those vulnerable refugees, 78% of them women and children.

The international community’s response has been huge – we are spending more in Lebanon per square kilometre than anywhere in the world. UK funding for Lebanon in the past two years is greater than the total for the rest of post independence history. Yet we and our Lebanese partners are still struggling to cope. One response is to raise more funds, as we will be trying to do in Kuwait in April. One is to get education to those who need it. Another, we have discovered, is to innovate.

There are some great examples already out there. Ten years ago, DFID seed funding enabled Vodafone to pilot transferring credit via text message for farmers in Kenya (M-Pesa) – a technology which is now global. DFID is promoting the provision of ATM cards loaded with cash, to empower vulnerable people to spend on their most urgent needs: whether it is food, shelter or fuel. It is also great value for money and provides a cash injection into the local economy. UNICEF has developed a low-cost tablet ($100) called Raspberry Pi, invented in the UK. It is loaded with apps and games to help kids improve their maths, science and technology skills and is now being rolled out to schools across Lebanon. UNHCR use Google Earth to capture real time data on health, education and water across the country and with one mouse click can zoom in on any village and pull up the vital stats they need to direct the right resources to the right people.

Mark Lowcock, DFID’s Permanent Secretary and an innovation champion was here this week, and we spent two hours brainstorming with development experts and entrepreneurs on how we can change the way we do development. We need to matchmake public and private solutions, and get entrepreneurs to own the challenges. We need some talismanic role models to show the way. We need to be connectors not castles – solutions will come through empowering new participants, especially refugees and communities. We need to remain focused on what delivers – ‘Does it work in Akkar?’

The hardware matters: broadband, kit, connectivity. But we also showed that spreading the English language fosters innovation and makes people less poor. We are only on the cusp of understanding the massive potential of Big Data . We need to seek out the best examples from other fields – robotics, classroom tech, start ups. As so often, the best role for embassies is to convene, connect and then stand back.

Most importantly, innovation in development will work best where it creates wider win/wins, not least economic growth. We have to find ways to ensure that the refugee crisis is not just a drain on the Lebanese economy, but triggers new ways of building Lebanon 2020. One way we want to encourage this is through the UK/Lebanon Tech Hub. Most importantly, we need Lebanese and Syrian thinkers to identify new ways to get help to those who most need it, give Syrians the skills to rebuild their country when they are able to return in the future, and stimulate growth here in Lebanon. This involves a change of mindset from a situation where refugees are seen only as helpless victims, and donors as detached. It means a genuinely collaborative, fresh approach, drawing in anyone who can be part of the solution. As a UN colleague says, ‘It takes a lot of heat to make a diamond’.

The politics are not easy, but as long as Syrians are caught between the Assad’s barrel bombs and the barbarism of ISIL, we do not have the luxury of hoping this crisis will simply go away. If Bill Gates believes innovation can work, so should we. We need to bring the newest technology and the smartest minds to the oldest of challenges, and this is the right place to start: creativity is in Lebanese DNA.

Are Foreign Ministries Castles or Connectors?

‘Are you a sponge or a stone?’, Uncle Monty asks his nervous guests in ‘Withnail and I’. This excellent piece by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms on new power (December 2014 Harvard Business Review) suggests that the equivalent question for traditional power players is ‘are you a connector or a castle?’.

Diplomacy is of course one of the oldest forms of traditional power. It has been around as long as the human race: It fits the definition of old power used by Heimans/Timms: “like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven.” Their list of old power values will also be familiar to many mandarins: “institutionalism, exclusivity, confidentiality, separation of public/private.” Think of the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

As I’ve argued in earlier posts, the old power model of diplomacy relies on prepared and platitudinous press statements, overcooked summit communiqués and too much self indulgent paraphernalia and protocol. I suspect many diplomats would also recognise this description of how old power institutions are coping with digital: “they layer on a bit of technology without changing their underlying models or values. They “reach out” via Twitter. They host the occasional, awkwardly curated, lonely Google hangout with the CEO.” This Twitter lark, eh? Yet “new power is more flash mob and less General Assembly.”

Like other forms of old power, diplomacy is under threat, ( As Heimans/Timms put it, “Old power is enabled by what people or organizations own, know, or control that nobody else does—once old power models lose that, they lose their advantage.” As others ‘do’ diplomacy – private sector, civil society, citizens – we find our value added as diplomats questioned. All that at a time when resource challenges bite hard. So we too need to understand that “new power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.”

Foreign Ministries need to work harder and faster to adapt. For Timms/Heimans this means: audit your power; occupy yourselves; and develop a movement mindset. On the power map, much diplomacy risks being stuck in the ‘castle’ quadrant, to follow the analogy in the article, rather than with the connectors, changers or cheerleaders. We too often think of an embassy as a building rather than its original value as an influencer and hub. We are instinctively fearful and threatened of the more empowering, anarchic, diffuse ways that power is now distributed. Crowds can make us queasy, unless they are listening to the Minister’s speech, following us on Twitter, or touring the state rooms once a year. As to ‘occupying themselves’, with longer working hours and rising workloads, some Foreign Ministries might think that they are well on the way. I think a takeover of an MFA would involve more transparency, more values, less servicing the machine, less hierarchy and structure, more risk. We’ll all need to find our way towards the values of new power: informal, open source collaboration, ‘radical transparency’.

Diplomats need to tap into people’s growing desire to participate and influence. So we face three big questions.

1. How can foreign policy evolve to draw on a wider cross section of creative inputs? People have a heightened sense of human agency. We should harness that to prioritise core diplomacy – the effort towards coexistence rather than combat. We need to react fast enough to be in the right conversations while remaining thoughtful enough to start the right conversations too.

2. How can we ensure that what we do as diplomats is trusted, and consequently owned, by more people? What’s the diplomatic equivalent of Airbnb or Uber? As the authors recognise, “new power is fast—but it is also fickle.” It “offers real opportunities to enfranchise and empower, but there’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality.” We need to harness the power of the mob without becoming hysterical.

3. How do we protect space for strategy and the long view? I’d bet that no MFA is doing more horizon scanning now than twenty years ago. We all struggle to protect ourselves against the ‘fierce urgency of now’ – to retain capacity to think beyond the next news cycle, election or summit. As innovation accelerates and we face information overload, we must avoid being distracted by the “human tendency to favor the immediate, visceral, and emotional”.

This is not just about the survival of diplomacy as a craft, important as that is. Heimans and Timms say that “the battle ahead, whether you favor old or new power values, will be about who can control and shape society’s essential systems and structures. Will new power forces prove capable of fundamentally reforming existing structures? Will they have the ingenuity to bypass them altogether and create new ones? Or will they ultimately succeed in doing neither, allowing traditional models of governance, law, and capital markets to basically hold firm?”

Diplomats need to be in that argument, to find a way to maintain the best of old power while harnessing the best of the new. This is a huge ethical and political challenge. As we “see ever more people shaping their destinies and lives, the big question is whether new power can genuinely serve the common good and confront society’s most intractable problems… Those capable of channelling the power of the crowd must turn their energies to … redesigning society’s systems and structures to meaningfully include and empower more people. The greatest test for the conductors of new power will be their willingness to engage with the challenges of the least powerful.”

I’ve written at greater length on that challenge here ( We need to forge with new power tools a form of international politics that is more representative, inclusive, empowering and progressive. That means we need to be more ‘connector’ and less ‘castle’. Maybe even more sponge than stone.



Optimism, Technology and (Citizen) Diplomacy

At this time of December, I always write a paper on how we can help get Lebanon through the coming year. In this part of the world, at this time, that is success. 

It is not just Lebanon where pessimism is mounting. Globally, 42% of people think that their lives will be worse than those of their parents. People worry that the bewildering rate of technological advance means that we are no longer in control of the risks we are creating. Roger Cohen wrote this year of “the great unravelling”, a time of aggression, breakup, weakness and disorientation. Astronomer Martin Rees argues that our probability of extinction before 2100 is 50%. Technology will do to 21st century arms what it did to the musket, bayonet and pikestaff. This could be the North Pole’s last century. Tens of millions of the angriest, hungriest people will head North and West. Another economic crisis could trigger de-globalisation. 

Pessimists also worry about the impact of technology on our society. Thomas Piketty tells us that the digital economy risks increasing inequality. Evgeny Morozov sees a world in which we prioritise consumer experience over jobs, wages, dignity and rights, with victims yet unseen. Jaron Lanier, an internet pioneer who has become its most outspoken critic, argues that it is dividing us into “computing cloud overlords” and “digital serfs”. 

We are already seeing how digital systems can over-ride human instincts and alter the way that our hands and minds interact with inanimate objects – watching my three year old with an iPad is the 21st century equivalent of watching an early Paleolithic hominid reshaping stone tools. The next waves of technological change are going to alter basic human capacity, including how we move, communicate, store essential information and – most dramatically – think. I asked one Oxford scientist how many decades it would be before he could implant a foreign language in my brain – his answer was “who needs decades?” 

Maybe digitalisation is even damaging our souls. Nicholas Carr argues that our ability to think is decayed by how we interact with the internet. More humans will migrate towards digital relationships, as in the 2014 Spike Jonze film ‘Her’. Like the characters in EM Forster’s prescient ‘The Machine Stops’, written over a century ago, we will acquiesce in the idea that there are “no new ideas”. “Quietly and complacently, humanity was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine … until the body was white pap, the home of ideas as colourless, last sloshy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars.” See Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’ for the modern version of this dystopia, where “all that happens must be known”, “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”. Life by Klout score. A wikiworld in which everything is up for grabs. We will become so connected that we lose our ability to truly connect. 

Contemporary analysts are not be the first in history to warn that the end is nigh. Pessimism about the impact of technological innovation on culture, learning, traditions, institutions, businesses or morality has always accompanied breakthroughs in transport (rail, road, air), production (assembly lines), energy (steam, nuclear) or communications (telephone, radio, television). The Luddites smashed spinning wheels in 19th century Britain, and some aim to do the equivalent today. Sometimes the doom mongers have been right. When previous empires waned in the Middle Ages, the power vacuum created space for religious fundamentalists, pirates and Vikings, and communities fell back on protecting themselves in smaller and smaller units amid growing fear of ‘the other’. Sounds familiar? 

 I think however that there are four reasons for us to be more hopeful about the Digital Century. First, the stats are on our side. It turns out that an optimist is a pessimist armed with facts. We live twice as long and grow six inches taller than our great, great grandparents, and have access to a life that they could never have imagined. In 1900, 53% of humans died from infection. That figure is now just 3%. We are 200 times less likely to die violently than a century ago. We have just had the most peaceful year since records began. This is little consolation to a civilian in Syria, Gaza or Chad, but it is remarkable.  

Secondly, technology can in fact reinvigorate our creativity and politics. Many companies, states and ideas will be disrupted out of business. But democracy is going to evolve, adapt and improve as more people are drawn into the political process. The internet brings us greater diversity, choice and opportunities for engagement. Through what Moses Naim calls “minilateralism” – building small coalitions to get the job done – individuals have an unprecedented ability to influence decisions made on their behalf.  And that empowerment is a good thing. The more we are able to determine our own fate, the more peaceful we become. We have tended to distrust the mob, and online mobs can be as vicious and easily manipulated as their offline predecessors. But maybe we should learn to believe in the wisdom of crowds after all. Our desire to network and connect is not just a fad or blip, a short term response to a surge in connectivity. It is in our DNA. 

A third reason for optimism – resilience is in our DNA too. We have been here before. “Never let the future disturb you” counselled Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, “you will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” The astronaut Chris Hadfield updated this at TED this year: “people seem to think space is different from everything else we’ve done. It’s not. We’ve always taken the best of our technology to probe a place and then decide whether that’s something we’d like to make a part of our shared experience.” We have genuine form, honed over millennia. At key moments, as in the West after 1200 BC, or at the end of the first century AD, we face a race between transformation and collapse. So far, we have always managed to respond: hunter gatherers turned to domestication; farmers created cities; states created empires. When millions lost their agricultural jobs, nobody knew that they would find industrial work. At these catalytic moments, though we might not realise we’re doing it at the time, we find a way through, what Buzz Lightyear calls ‘falling with style’. As NYT crossword writer David Kwong says, “human beings are wired to solve”. 

Fourth, we should be optimistic because the internet is going to help. As Alec Ross has argued, connectivity is going to be a great leveller. Only about a third of all the people on earth now have internet access. Deloitte studies show that expanding access to 4 billion people in developing countries will increase productivity by a quarter and GDP by almost three quarters, create 140 million jobs and lift 160 million out of poverty. 

If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between sharers and exploiters. Between those who want transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want privacy, or as its critics call it, secrecy. Between old and new sources of power. The next wave of technological disruption will be faster and greater than anything we have ever experienced. But we can and must be ready for it. 

What has this got to do with diplomacy? Everything. I’ve argued on this blog that when we strip back the ‘excellencies’ and the protocol, we find diplomacy is not a mysterious cult, creed or code. It doesn’t require years of training like medicine or law. It is a basic human reflex. At its essence it is about promoting coexistence, or – more starkly – stopping violence. We are trying to provide the lube as continents, states, armies and economies rub up against each other. We are trying to agree how best to distribute resources and power without fighting, as essential to the survival of the species as finding the resource in the first place.  

You don’t need to be working for a Foreign Ministry to do diplomacy. Indeed most of the people doing it have never crossed the threshold. They are working in communities, in NGOs, in the media, in politics, in business, in food banks and schools, elsewhere in government. Many do so through small acts of daily resistance against apathy, division, corruption and fatalism. And if we are to get through a period of significant peril, we need more of that citizen diplomacy to kick in. We need to find a more inclusive, empowering and effective way of marshalling the best instincts of humanity against the worst. Technology makes this a more imaginable reality – we won’t always need to put our nationality before our common humanity.  

Power is draining away fast from traditional elites, including diplomats. It is less like a traditional British banquet – ordered, structured, top down. And more like a Lebanese meal – anarchic, unpredictable, diverse.

The man or woman on the Clapham omnibus, Tokyo train or Dubai monorail now has three things that have never existed in the same way before. First, the means to disentangle the complexities of international problems, through access to information that was previously either out of reach or confined only to policymakers or elites. As Alain de Botton put it this year, “It is as if a dossier, with the latest news from Kiev, which might properly arrive on the desk of a minister has accidentally been delivered to the wrong address and ends up on the breakfast table of a librarian in Colchester or an electrician in Pitlochry.” 

Secondly, that electrician in Pitlochry has the access to networks that allow him to form an unmediated view on the information he receives. The public no longer need to wait for a Times editorial or government statement to form an opinion on the latest atrocity in Syria. Indeed, by the time the thunderous denunciation or timid bleat of concern arrives on their television screen or in their newspaper – for the declining proportion of people who use either – they have moved on to forming a view on the next crisis or debate.

Thirdly, an unprecedented ability to influence and shape how humanity responds. We haven’t yet worked out how to convert our incredible new access to information into genuine influence. Like all superpowers, the smartphone superpower depends on what we choose to do with it. We can download pictures of cute cats, and follow the twists and turns of Justin Bieber’s hairstyle. Or we can use it to shape the environment around us. Citizens can now control the public square, literally and digitally, in a way they never could before. We need to win wars in the digital space. We need to show that improving the world around us involves more than ‘liking’ something on Facebook or sharing a hashtag. Change also requires spine – organisers and institutions to turn that energy into something tangible.

Yet factors are getting in the way: our hardwired tendency to form gangs; and disinterest, banality and distraction. If the basic hypothesis on the positive effect of greater public participation in policy is true, we depend on those participating to understand their increased power, and to engage with the global issues that they can now shape. It is all too easy not to care, to see it all as too difficult, to swallow the easy conspiracy, or simply oppose. In reviewing David Marquand’s ‘Mammon’s Kingdom’ this year, Gaby Hinsliff concluded that “To put it in the words of Milton, how do you get people to choose “strenuous liberty” – the huge effort and risk involved in remaking society along radically different lines, and weaning ourselves off the rewards of economic growth – instead of “bondage with ease”, or the devil we know?” How, in other words, do we avoid mooching towards destruction? How do we ensure that more people use technology to become Roosevelt’s “man in the arena”, not just Roosevelt’s critic.

The reality is of course that we don’t have to know everything about everything. We don’t need to have an emotional reaction to everything. But, with the world getting smaller, we do need to care.Why? Firstly, because the people in the news are also human. Idealism is out of fashion as countries turn inwards. In an austere age, don’t we need to build our own schools and hospitals and let the rest of the world look after itself? Should we not just put up bigger walls and better checkpoints? Yet history tends to suggest that walls and checkpoints don’t last long. There is a pragmatic not just moral case for finding creative and ingenious solutions to the 21st century’s mounting challenges if we are to survive as a species. The threats no longer take the form that they did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Neither can our responses.

We also need to care because history hasn’t finished.  In 2014, Nader Mousavizadeh updated Norman Angell’s ‘Great Disillusion’ to argue that “the tools of 21st globalization are now acting as the very enablers of an archipelago world of fracturing power and identity”.  A topless Putin on horseback is one muscular symbol of this. The decline of influence and credibility of global institutions is another. So are selfies of beheadings by the UnIslamic Non State. We have not had the last world war, nor reached a plateau where everyone agrees that liberal democratic values are as good as it gets. We don’t, 25 years after Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’, know how history ends. That should fill us with fear. It should also fill us with hope. As Harvard’s Dan Gilbert put it at TED 2014, “Human beings are works in progress who mistakenly think they’re finished.”

So we will need to summon up fresh will to defend the progress and freedoms we take for granted. We cannot simply wait for someone else to come up with the answers. What we do as humans, and how we do it, is changing at a faster pace than any time in history. The gadgets and apps of 2014 will become as comic as the mobile phones heaved around by characters in 1990s sitcoms. It is in our restless nature not to be satisfied with what we create – we go from novelty must-have to car boot sale (or now eBay) at speed. Ideas that startle us today will not be startling for long. Changes we wonder at today won’t be wonderful for long. Predictions we think are crazy today will not seem crazy for long. 

Optimism requires hard headed realism. It must be based on our past success in managing these dramatic periods of change, and our ability to master new tools and ways of interaction. It requires ceaseless creativity and innovation: the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. Most importantly, it must be based on a fundamental belief that, like Chaplin’s Great Dictator, “more than machines, we need humanity”. It requires the courage to bend the curve of history, to write our own epitaphs. But also – in the pursuit of justice and coexistence, or what some of us call diplomacy – to be on the right side of that history. This will test our heads and hearts. 

My rediscovery of the year has been Jacob Bronowski’s extraordinary account of human development, ‘The Ascent of Man’. His work on the nuclear bomb in the 1940s drove him from the most complex corners of the destructive power of science towards a profound understanding of this simple but vital challenge. He concludes it standing knee deep in mud at Auschwitz, with the slime of the holocaust running through his fingers. We need, he exhorts us, “to reach out and touch people”. 

There is an amazing gadget for citizen diplomacy. It allows us to process information, listen, communicate, influence, create, build, progress. It has been honed over centuries, and is constantly improving. It is not the smartphone. It is that ability to reach out and touch people. It is about the message not the medium. So perhaps the greatest danger to the most influential generation in history is not actually the nuclear bomb, environmental catastrophe, the robot age or the crazed terrorist, frightening as they all are. The greatest danger is in fact the loss of the curiosity to learn from each other, the loss of the desire to live together. 

Technology and diplomacy must together enhance rather than remove that vital and creative part of who we are, so important to humans throughout history. Not because of fluffy platitudes about warm bilateral relations and Ferrero Rocher cocktail parties, but because our ability to find ways to coexist is what, since the first naked diplomat, makes us survive. Of course, technology will change us, and we will change technology, as we always have. It won’t always be empowering and enlightening. But it can often be if we hold our nerve. We can change the way we communicate without changing what it means to be human. 

This is going to be another exhilarating year. But amid the drama, churn, parochialism and distraction, we will need to focus more energy on ten urgent and fundamental global questions: how do we nurture creativity?; when should we go to war?; how do we protect the most vulnerable?; how do we fix the international system?; how do we spread economic opportunity while conserving the planet?; where is our next energy source?; how do we make as many people less poor as possible?; how do we reduce global imbalances?; how do we establish rules on the new weapons?; and how do we keep the internet free, fair and available? 

We better not screw it up. Let’s not fail because of a lack of ingenuity, creativity or curiosity. Let’s not fail because of a lack of courage. If diplomacy did not exist, we would need to invent it. But diplomacy is now much too important to leave to diplomats. 

Truth and Diplomacy

Should Diplomats be Good Liars? 

Sir Henry Wotton, a sixteenth-century English diplomat, joked that an ambassador was “an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”. There are plenty of history’s diplomats who would agree. Wotton’s contemporary Machiavelli, who wrote the handbook on how to take, maintain and use power, certainly did. 18th century Austrian master diplomat Metternich also saw deviousness as part of the diplomatic DNA. On hearing of the death of a rival he mused, “now I wonder what he meant by that”. 19th century Foreign Secretary Palmerston claimed that “I tell ambassadors the truth, because I know they won’t believe it”.

Another 19th century statesman, Italian Count Cavour, saw a lack of morality as central to statecraft, concluding that “if we did for ourselves what we do for our country, what rogues we should be”. There have been plenty of diplomats prepared to break the rules in the service of a higher cause. I find that it is a working assumption of many in the Middle East that the perfidious Brits have a cunning scheme up their sleeves. But if we were that clever, we would still be running the world. 

Perhaps it is true that the best diplomats understand when to say nothing, or not to say everything: no negotiator shows his full hand. But in reality honesty remains one of the most important qualities of a decent diplomat. Deviousness backfires. In negotiations, you live or die on your reputation. As a former French ambassador, Herve Alphand, put it – “a diplomat is a person who can tell the truth to anyone in the government to which he is accredited without offending him, and to anyone in his own government at the risk of offending him”. Harold Nicolson, writing a guide to diplomacy in 1961, agreed. “Good diplomacy is akin to sound banking, and depends on credit. Even if your opponent gains a trick or two by sharp practise, you should yourself abide by the rules of the game”.

There will always need to be a place for confidential diplomacy, and secrets. And of course any diplomat is going to present his or her country in the best possible light. But you want the truth? People can usually handle the truth. More importantly, they can see through platitudes and propaganda, as I’ve argued on this blog. So the devious diplomat is another stereotype that needs to be binned as we work towards a more candid and authentic diplomacy. We can update Wotton. A diplomat is an honest man or woman sent abroad to tweet the truth about his or her country. 

E-nvoys: What Next For Diplomacy?

Here are ten thoughts on what to watch as digital technology further disrupts and transforms diplomacy …


1.        Creative Content      

The ability to create digital content that makes people ‘lean forward’ will be increasingly vital. Diplomats have always produced interesting content – analysis and reportage – but for an internal audience. Social media now gives them the means and incentive to reach well beyond that. The rules on how to do this will evolve – with authenticity the key, individuals will find their own tempo and their own voice. Foreign Ministries will recruit and empower digital natives to whom it comes naturally; and train and equip the rest of us. Allowing anarchy will bring out the smelling salts in corners of most civil services, designed over centuries to do precisely the opposite. But co-creation leads to better ideas. 

2. How We Manage Knowledge 

Being the recipient of masses of data is already a challenge. The person or machine who curates it will be at the sweet spot of influence. New tools will allow Foreign Ministries to create the equivalent of internal Google databases, that store and filter key information. Look at the way Ushahidi, Sparkwise or Gapminder are using data. We’ll need to develop better knowledge sharing networks between foreign ministries and analysts, economists and game theorists on specific global challenges. We’ll need to win the case that we can be trusted with people’s data. Our opponents won’t be constrained by conventions and silos. If we want to compete, nor should we.

 3. What We Hand Over to the Robots

Can robots replace diplomats? Cynics say they already have. There will still be need for emotional intelligence and human interaction. But everything we do will need to pass the test on whether it can be done by new tools. Can a computer generate a fairer deal, say on climate change or energy, than diplomats? As in other industries, diplomats will focus on retaining a market lead on what can’t be done by machines. One particular niche will be analysis, seeing future trends and responding to them. As the expression goes, to every complex international issue there is always one answer which is simple, lucid and logical – but which is invariably wrong.

4. How We Predict the Future

Big data will give diplomats the ability to see and analyse trends far more effectively. We have always had to rely on small networks of contacts (thinkers, journalists etc) to identify ‘public opinion’. We can now get an unfiltered view. So when we talk in the future of ‘rising sectarianism’ or other trends, we will do so with greater confidence and authority. We can’t predict the future, of course. Human agency, fluke and cock up will all continue to play their part. But history is not just about great men and bungling idiots – there are more powerful trends at work. The ability to mine data in greater detail will give us a better understanding of what comes next. 

5. How We Network 

Engagement is already changing. We will need to use people’s desire for connectivity rather than push against it – I now encourage people to fiddle with their phones when I am giving a speech rather than put them away. But this process needs to accelerate: in three years we have gone from three UK ambassadors on Twitter to over 100, but that still means almost 100 are absent. Diplomats will increase dramatically their time online. There are growing threats from engagement: the smartphone with which I do core parts of my job is also the means by which terrorists track my movements. But the biggest risk is not to engage. Other businesses aren’t debating this, they are just doing it.   

6. How We Influence

Diplomatic networking is ripe for innovation. Not just how we meet people, but how we connect those we need to connect. We will use new technology to create public squares where we can engage and communicate. Political movements are doing this already, using tools like Loomio to change the nature of popular participation in policy making. In building our national brands, we will recognise that people are much more likely to be influenced positively by direct, people to people connections than by anything that smells of government. So we need to create those opportunities, for example by connecting classrooms. And then stand back. 

7. How Leaders Interact

Traditionally, diplomats minimised and managed direct contact between leaders. We encased their exchanges in protocol, prepared lines and statements. I’ve been in meetings where diplomats don’t take notes – they know what both leaders will say. New ways of communicating break down those restrictions. Leaders now text, email or tweet each other direct. During negotiations, the text messages between them (and between their advisers) will be more important than the formal conversation at the table. They won’t meet as often, yet will get to know each other better. Much of this will be out of the direct control of diplomats, but they will play a critical role in advising when and how to engage. 

8. How We Deliver a Service

Big data means we can and must improve our service delivery. We will have to design public services in a way that (the clue is in the title) serves the public. This means  cutting out the layers, and directly connecting consumers with the data they need. Our best minds need to be looking at how companies like Amazon provide an increasingly tailored experience to customers, and learning the lessons for our trade, consular and visa services. 

9. Where We Put Resource

Big data will allow Ministries to plan better. Rather than relying on imprecise trade stats or vague notions of the warmth of the bilateral relationship, they will chart where real opportunities are for new business, and where the greatest threats lie. This has implications for recruitment, public diplomacy, contact strategies, financial planning. We will rely less on ‘bricks and mortar’ embassies – a hub for our country will be an idea rather than a building. Secondments will increasingly be to and from technology companies rather than to business or NGOs. 

10. How We Create Citizen Diplomats

Given the dramatic shifts in power ahead, we will be forced to think more effectively not just about training diplomats, but how we create citizen diplomats. How can we influence how pupils are taught in schools in order that they are more likely to understand the benefits of coexistence and the costs of failure? When teaching diplomacy, we should be thinking less about how to draft a treaty than how we have managed to find ways, throughout history, to live together. 

Elsewhere on this blog, further thoughts on these themes  …

– disruption (

– the embassy of the future (

– the future of networking (

– citizen diplomacy (

– digital engagement ( 

Marigolds and Migrant Rights

Earlier this week, I traded places with Kalkidan, a migrant worker from Ethiopia, in order to highlight inequality. The idea was part of Blog Action Day (#BAD2014, not as dangerous as it sounds). The aim was to generate debate on a controversial issue, and stimulate positive change in attitudes.

This seemed to work – we estimate that the online coverage reached over a million. Kalkidan and I have written it up here (, with some of the photos, TV coverage and reactions. 

Lebanon tends to put visiting ambassadors on more of a pedestal than they deserve, so the initiative had significant local shock value. Since then a Lebanese MP has responded with a plan to table legislation to protect migrant workers, which is great.

The experience reinforced some of the ideas on digital communications that I’ve explored on this blog. The message is more likely to cut through if we let more credible voices amplify it in their own way (in this case bloggers, media stars and journalists). Picking arguments and being a bit provocative often helps. Visuals are vital, in this case lots of photos and video clips. We need to ride waves when they emerge – we had not expected to get such a reaction to the idea, and therefore sustained the momentum with fresh angles and content for three days. It all needs a purpose – the fact that we were working alongside relevant local and international NGOs showed that it was more than just a gimmick. 

Finally, it was a reminder that, in campaigns of this sort, it is important to create heroes not victims. Kalkidan was our heroine, and is now overwhelmed with media offers. Her statement was more powerful than anything we could have said. 

A stunt, yes, but a stunt with a purpose.

Stubborn Stereotypes

Seeing Lord John Marbury, the ridiculous parody of a British Ambassador, at No 18 in a survey of West Wing characters ( reminded me that there are four stereotypes of diplomats that have proved hard to dislodge. 

First, Francis Ferrero. 73 calories of chocolate covered hazelnut in a gold wrapper has dogged a generation of British diplomats: “why Ambassador, with these Ferrero Rocher you really are spoiling us”. “I bet you hear that all the time”, we are told, as it is repeated again. “Yes”, we respond through gritted teeth, wondering about the aggressive potential of a small, dark, nut-crusted chocolate. 

Many ambassadors may have a secret desire to be the suave hosts of the cocktail party captured in the advert. Just occasionally a diplomatic reception might come close. But it is very rare indeed. With diplomatic services under significant resource pressure, we tend to be more Prosecco and Pringles than champagne and canapés. I’ve written more on this here (

A second stereotype is Sebastian Smug, the aristocratic amateur. Think of the diplomats in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, self-styled decent chaps, exclusively male and pale. They glide between diplomatic encounters, never without a withering put down, independent of political control and occasionally in the national dress of whichever country they are serving in. Lawrence of Arabia with fewer principles. Most are insufferably pompous and grand. While retaining a sense of his own superiority, Smug has decided that foreigners are far more interesting than Brits.

This stereotype is not new. The story goes that a Whitehall policeman was asked in 1939 for directions to the Foreign Office. “Which side is the Foreign Office on?”. He responded, “I don’t know sir, but they claim to have been on our side in the last war”. A number of world leaders have commented that the trouble with their foreign ministries is that they believe that their role is to represent foreigners.

A third stereotype of literary folklore is Archibald Assassin. After all, doesn’t the British national anthem talk of the need to ”confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks”? The unscrupulous Lord John falls into this category, as do any number of louche but despicable diplomats in John Le Carre’s novels. This is a stereotype that persists in parts of the Middle East, most notably Iran.

Those who see a dastardly British hand behind every twist and turn must often be disappointed. If we were half that cunning, we would still be running the world.

A fourth stereotype is Hapless Henry, the well meaning chump who tends to arrive after the key decision has been taken, and invariably lets down any fellow countryman needing help. He is frequently drunk, usually inept and sometimes inappropriate. PG Wodehouse captured this character very effectively. Rowan Atkinson played him as Nigel Smith-Fawcett in the Bond pastiche ‘Never Say Never Again’.  More recently, he was brilliantly portrayed by David Mitchell in BBC series “Ambassadors” – dishevelled, tired, only just about holding it together, trying to do his best but overwhelmed by his job, indeed by the modern world.

The reality of course is that these stereotypes have been replaced by very different types of diplomats. Our ambassador in Yemen, Jane Marriot ( is just one example. Of the British diplomats in Beirut, there have been periods when I have been the only white man. 

We’re junking the diplomatic baggage ( You are far more likely to meet a Foreign Office Director dashing to reach the nursery on time as sipping a sherry in his elegant club. Ferrero, Smug, Assassin and Hapless are increasingly weeded out by recruitment and promotion procedures. Diplomats are becoming more representative of the populations from which they are drawn.

That’s probably less amusing, but a good thing for diplomacy.

Diplomatic Baggage

In 1949 the Vice Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps advised new British diplomats that they “should always take the option that is more pompous and old fashioned”. He might have been right then, though somehow I doubt it. He is certainly wrong now. 

At a moment of rapid transformation of other trades, ours retains customs first constructed around the diplomatic encounters of the Renaissance. Here are seven changes that would make us leaner and more competitive in the digital century. 

1. Junk the jargon. I’ve written before about meaningless diplatitudes such as “discussion of regional issues” or “matters of mutual concern”. Diplomats talk about “being unable to remain indifferent” to human rights violations – a phrase that drips indifference. There are ambassadors who could write of a mugging that “he took all my possessions, but the atmospherics were warm”. Just sometimes there is a place for obfuscation. But we should replace the jargon with more candid and authentic communication.

2. Stop the summits. Leaders need to meet, but too many international conferences have become exercises in political vanity. Content is heavily prepared – diplomatic foreplay. Many diplomats see it as their role to minimise any actual debate among leaders, leaving a fudged public communique and a photocall in a local hat. Al Gore, who sat through more summits than most, says the “habit of wearing colourful shirts that represent the fashion motif of the host nation recalls the parable of the child who noticed that the emperor has no clothes. Except in this case, the clothes have no emperor”. We should strip away the set pieces and grandiose declarations, and give leaders time and space for practical, direct and honest diplomacy. We should replace the choreographed summit with a Skype call and a fireside chat.

3. Can the credentials. On arrival in a country, the Ambassador is not meant to meet anyone until he has presented his credentials to the head of state. This can be moving and memorable – I will never forget hearing the British national anthem at the president’s summer palace high in the Shouf mountains of Lebanon. But while the private sector focuses on the first 100 days of a CEO’s tenure, the Ambassador is often spending his or her first weeks marooned at home, waiting for permission to hand over a piece of paper. The practise was established to show that an envoy was genuinely representing his leader. That is now easier to verify. We should replace the letter of credentials with a Google search. 

4. Nix the note verbale. Many Foreign Affairs Ministries still insist that formal communication between embassies and the host government is by a verbiose letter covered in stamps and seals. A typical one might run “The embassy of x presents its esteemed compliments to the Foreign Ministry of y. The embassy respectfully requests that the ambassador be permitted to park his vehicle in the main courtyard of the esteemed foreign ministry on his next visit. The embassy of x takes this opportunity to share its respect and warmest regards with the distinguished ministry”. Many ambassadors write in similiar terms to their diplomatic colleagues: I receive notes telling me that ambassadors I have never met will be out of the country for three days. We should replace the Note Verbale with a text message.

5. Drop the diplomatic bag. “The bag”, that transported diplomatic reports without the host country reading them, has a special place in diplomatic history. Wolsey was a serial violator in its early days. 19th century Lord Curzon exploded with fury when the Turks opened his, “and condemned them to a thousand hells of eternal fire”. In 1964, Italian authorities found a kidnapped Israeli in an Egyptian bag. When blood was spotted seeping from a bag on arrival in London, we discovered that it contained bush meat for a visiting Head of State,  evidently no fan of British cuisine. I suspect the modern pouch is now filled with DVD box sets from Amazon. We should replace the diplomatic bag with an email.

6. Can the canapés. We need to show that every truffle has a tangible effect on national interests. Most of them do. But there is still too much valuable time lost at diplomatic receptions. Harold Nicolson in 1961 captured the curse of the traditional national day function – “these parties tend to degenerate into stagnant pools in which the same old carp circle round and round gazing at each other with lacklustre eyes”. Diplomats need to get out of their comfort zones, stop talking only to each other, and engage wider society. We should replace many of our receptions with Twitter.

7. End the “Excellencies”. Master diplomat Talleyrand advised that “only fools mock etiquette, it simplifies life”. But it often complicates practical diplomacy. I frequently observe the frisson which some Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary feel when addressed as “Your Excellency”. As a rule, the more an envoy insists on being called “Excellence”, the less excellent they are likely to be. Elitist labels are a barrier to meaningful communication. We should replace the titles with an avatar.

His Excellency thanks the esteemed and distinguished reader for taking the time to peruse this despatch, and hopes respectfully that it addressed issues of mutual interest and concern. 


In ‘Guerilla Diplomacy’, Daryl Copeland writes that modern diplomats need accessibility, flexibility, improvisation, cultural awareness, and a catalytic and transformational orientation.

I agree: most posts on this blog are about how diplomacy is changing, and the skills that future diplomats will need. I’ve argued that we need to dump the diplomatic baggage – jargon, unnecessary protocol, pomposity – that gets in the way of our ability to engage and influence. 

But we shouldn’t throw the diplomatic baby out with the digital bathwater. This trade has been around a long time, and many of the skills honed over centuries remain vital.

So what are those qualities? I’ve been digging through the archives.

Most of us can’t compete with Ottaviano Maggi’s description of the ideal diplomat in the era of the Italian city states: “trained theologian, familiar with Greek philosophers, expert in mathematical sciences, competent in law, music and poetry, proficient in Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish and Turkish, of aristocratic birth, rich and handsome”. Nor, thankfully, does diplomacy rely nowadays on what former ambassador Oliver Miles described as “good horsemanship, good looks and a good head for alcohol”. 

Some skills are more timeless. Lord Gore-Booth, Head of the British Diplomatic Service, said in 1974 that the ideal ambassador “must be able to contrive anything, eat or drink anything and appear to like it, and be surprised by nothing. And all this must be done without loss of sensitivity or courage”. Harold Nicolson wrote after the Second World War that the “key qualities of the diplomat are truthfulness, precision, calmness and modesty”. Most of the best diplomats I’ve encountered master three of the four. Nicolson also warned diplomats against becoming “denationalized, internationalized, and therefore dehydrated, an elegant, empty husk”. Indeed. 

Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador in Washington, sees “insatiable curiosity” as essential. “You need a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a warm smile and a cold eye”. Having eaten, on behalf of my country, a local delicacy best described as bull gland sushi, I can testify both to the continued importance of a strong stomach and to the limits of curiosity. 

Tact is mentioned repeatedly in the diplomatic handbooks of the past. It was always said that a diplomat should think twice before saying nothing. Or as Isaac Newton put it, “tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy”. As ever, Churchill was tweetable: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions”. 

On honesty, the experts are more divided. 19th century Italian statesman Count Cavour saw a lack of morality as central to statecraft: “if we did for ourselves what we do for our country, what rogues we should be”. Austrian master diplomat Metternich was famously devious. On hearing of the death of a diplomatic rival he commented, “now I wonder what he meant by that”. Charlie Hill argues that the most successful diplomats are those prepared to break the rules. He describes Richelieu, Talleyrand, Cromwell as amoral characters. Odysseus changes the messages he carries between Agamemnon and Achilles, and Wallenstein fixes the Treaty of Westphalia by manipulating the facts against his own side. 

So was Sir Henry Wotton, a late sixteenth-century English diplomat, right in his joking description of an ambassador as “an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country”? No. The history books are full of examples of where devious diplomacy has come undone. Perhaps the best diplomats do indeed understand when to say nothing. But former British ambassador Leslie Fielding concludes that “plain dealing is best. Deviousness always backfires. Charm not coercion; good manners, not ill; persuasion not deception”. Oliver Miles says that “scrupulous regard for truth, not a quality always associated with diplomats, is the key quality”. A former French ambassador in Washington, Herve Alphand, judged that “a diplomat is a person who can tell the truth to anyone in the government to which he is accredited without offending him, and to anyone in his own government at the risk of offending him”. British Foreign Secretary Palmerston thought frankness with his envoys was best: “I tell ambassadors the truth, because I know they won’t believe it”. 

The diplomatic skillset must become even more eclectic as we compete in the digital age. But the archives also suggest that we should be teaching future diplomats curiosity, tact, courage, plain dealing, and an ability to eat anything.