The theatre foyer is filled with people arriving for a gala production sponsored by your Embassy. There’s an excited, glittery buzz in the air. Media cameras click. Let the show – and all its high-profile prestige for your country – begin!
Everything has been planned by you in detail, above all seating arrangements for VIPs. Senior local dignitaries are in the front row, with friendly Ambassadors in honest protocol order in the second row.
You are in the foyer to greet the VIP guests as they arrive. Your Embassy Protocol Officer, in the theatre supervising the seating, receives a text message with bad news: the Foreign Minister and Development Minister plus partners are not able to attend.
Gulp. These people had the four prime ‘guest of honour’ seats next to the Ambassador right in the centre of the front row. What to do? The Protocol Officer turns giddy with anxiety. Different options swim into view:
a) Ask other VIPs in the front row to move along to close the awkward ‘gap’, leaving seats empty unobtrusively at either end of the row
b) Politely offer the two most senior Ambassadors and partners in the second row these best seats in the front row
c) Wait until the curtain rises, then give the central empty seats to friends – that gap must be filled
d) Rush to consult the Ambassador or DHM to ask for advice
e) Do nothing
This simple but horribly realistic scenario gets to the heart of Diplomatic Technique. It tests how far your Embassy understands the real point of what it is doing.
Or try this one. You are the mission’s lead Political Officer. The Ambassador is busy and gives you complicated oral instructions needing early action. You understand most of them; but not all. Do you:
a) Go back to interrupt the Ambassador’s important meeting and ask him/her to clarify exactly what he/she meant
b) Start to carry out those instructions you did fully understand, and leave the others until the Ambassador is less busy
c) Ask the Deputy Head of Mission for advice
d) Do nothing until the Ambassador is free later in the day to say exactly what he/she wanted
This too tests something profound – the way the Ambassador communicates priorities and operational effectiveness to all staff.
And how about this? The Foreign Minister, plus you (Ambassador) and one other senior national colleague are in a late-night meeting arguing over an EU budget deal worth billions. Several hours more weary haggling lie ahead. Your delegation shares a pocket calculator for the complicated options. Disaster. The battery dies. Your junior staff all went home long ago, but an all-night supermarket five minutes away sells new batteries. Do you:
a) Volunteer to run to the supermarket to buy a new battery
b) Insist that it is not your job as Ambassador to go shopping, even if the Foreign Minister asks you to go and buy a new battery; the delegation must manage with paper calculations
c) Ask around quietly to see if another delegation can lend you a calculator
d) Ask the Foreign Minister to decide what to do, agreeing to accept any instruction even if you feel it is grossly undignified
e) Telephone the hotel to order a junior colleague to fetch a new battery as soon as possible (probably 45 minutes or more)
This draws on a true story I was told by a senior colleague from a big EU country who had admired the crafty cleverness of the Brits at a top EU budget negotiation: ‘You Brits arrived with laptops and spreadsheets, but we had only a pocket calculator and it ran out of battery. We had no-one to go and buy a new one.’
All these examples are about the heart of diplomatic technique at all levels and in all contexts – judgement. Judgement is intangible and elusive. Some key people at all levels of any organisation have it. Many others just don’t. Those who have it are likely to be too busy (and too important) to have time to join training courses and try to share with lesser mortals the secrets of their unfailing operational insight.
Judgement is all about weighing lots of different things instinctively and coming down firmly on a judicious and productive way forward. Right at the core of judgement is, of course, accuracy. It does not matter what noble qualities you bring to a job if you get key facts wrong. But it’s also much more than that.
In foreign policy things are complicated: Big vs Small; Certain vs Uncertain; Risky vs Safe; Principle vs Politics; Practical vs Possible. See the current turbulence in North Africa and the Middle East for myriad examples. Or the former Yugoslavia, where the international community struggled for years with Slobodan Milosevic.
In a democracy (maybe even more so in a dictatorship), ministers need skilled officials to help them steer through these operational and philosophical minefields: people who simplify complexity in a subtle way; people who can juggle numerous balls (tactics) but keep their eye on the big picture (strategy); people who combine all those skills in taut sensible advice while keeping a beady eye on deft public policy presentation.
The point here is that technique links Judgment to Real Life. Here are six diplomatic technique Top Tips to help do just that:
Never ever ‘assume’ – always check. History is littered with examples of rash assumptions, such as the Finnish convoy of diplomatic vehicles racing from the airport to the conference centre leaving the bemused President behind. Or the ghastly British mistake when some wrong invitations were sent out for the Queen’s banquet during the state visit to Poland in 1996.
Always send thank you letters. Task your office to have draft thank you letters ready after every social function and key meeting. They stand out for the recipients as almost no one sends them any more. Plus they allow you to record specific action points in a polite, handy way. This builds relationships.
Be nice to helpful junior people. Make a point of getting to senior appointments a few minutes early to exchange banter with the office team of the Minsiter you’re visiting. Invite them to a reception now and again to show appreciation. You never know when you’ll need their urgent cooperation. If you’ve been gracious towards them, perhaps they’ll be gracious towards you when things get sticky.
Focus on what exactly happens on the day. What exactly will happen at each stage of a visit? Is there a podium for speeches? Is it too small or too tall for your speaker? Are microphones working and connected? Has someone checked the room itself? Much better a small room filled to the brim for a visiting VIP speech than a grand room half-empty. Inviting 800 guests to a national day outside in summer is fine – but do you have the waiters to keep refreshments moving fast?
Have a strong, smart team. There is nothing (much) worse in terms of ambassadorial humiliation than accompanying a visiting VIP to a key meeting when your driver cannot find the building or the right entrance. Your PA, Protocol Office, driver and anyone else involved must work as one pulsating, coherent organism to make things happen smoothly and on time. No exceptions. Set a high standard of operational discipline right from the start. Then enforce it. They’ll love you for it – eventually.
Admit mistakes or problems quickly. Not one that comes naturally to Ambassadors – and you don’t want to overdo it. But senior colleagues know that in diplomatic and political work there are always margins of error. Sometimes what looks like a good policy call just turns out to be wrong. Best to acknowledge that quickly. It enhances not diminishes credibility, showing you’re thinking intelligently about your work and its operational impact.
Finally, answers to the three questions above.
Do nothing. Nothing! When the lights go down, there’s a gap in the front row. So what? Anything else risks causing grave offence or other rapid protocol disaster. What if the missing VIPs do show up and their seats are occupied?
The only sensible thing to do is interrupt the Ambassador to check for certain what was needed. Even if you understood some instructions, how do you know how/when to do them if you may have missed other key instructions? It’s embarrassing and even annoying to interrupt, but when there are no good options take the least bad one.
The point of your ambassadorial status is to serve the public interest you represent. The public want you to get the best possible deal for them, which means your delegation having best tools for that job. Swallow your ambassadorial pride. Rush out and get that new battery as soon as you can.