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How to Train Your Diplomat

Former UK Ambassador and training expert Charles Crawford highlights the differences between diplomatic theory and practice, offering some hints on the skills every diplomat should master 

Here’s an interesting question for people in the diplomacy business. You are tasked with devising a brand-new training programme for diplomats, comprising (say) six modules each lasting a week spread over six months. What exactly do they need to know?  And how best to teach it?

In May, I joined international experts pondering such questions at the seventeenth Dubrovnik Diplomatic Forum. Professor Joseph Mifsud of the London Academy of Diplomacy wisely reminded us all of The Ambassadors, the splendid Hans Holbein painting. It features Jean de Dinteville, 29, French Ambassador to England in 1533, and his even younger friend Georges de Selve, variously Ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor and Venetian Republic.

The portrait includes intricately painted objects used by these youthful ambassadors, also denoting their distinguished learning. Celestial and terrestrial globes. A portable sundial and other clever instruments for understanding the heavens and measuring time. A lute and flutes. A hymn book. A book of arithmetic. These items ooze symbolism. The lute has a broken string: discord in Christendom? Plus, of course, the painting has the famous distorted skull. The macabre transience of diplomacy?

Nearly 500 years later, this Dubrovnik conference considered the main division in diplomatic-teaching philosophy. On the one hand there is the traditional formal academic approach, tackling the Vienna Convention, the legal basis for international trade and consular work, plus concepts of multi-polar power and international relations. In short: Theory.

Back in real life, those of us who have worked as professional diplomats like to share vital skills, tips and tricks needed when key visit deadlines loom and the minister is in a foul mood. Negotiating how the minister’s close protection team’s firearms get past customs. Drafting craftily ambiguous records of conversation. Placement for the minister’s private dinner for eight people who do not all speak the same language. Giving the media just enough, but no more. In short: Practice.

Busy new areas of Diplomatic Theory are being invented by the social science industrial complex.  Diplomacy is sliced and diced to create new specialities and plump research grant opportunities. Economic Diplomacy. Commercial Diplomacy. Climate Diplomacy. Once these new specialities float off as part of ‘civil society’ in the balmy seas of the EU or other official funding, they spawn new ‘interdisciplinary’ phenomena. Why not combine Environmental Diplomacy with Gender Diplomacy?

The key thing in all this formenting of useless theory is to insist on strict demarcation lines between these so-called disciplines. We mere, actual diplomats might, for example, think that Economic Diplomacy could tell us about economic sanctions, and how regimes subject to international sanctions duck and weave to avoid them. But no. Sanctions come under Security Diplomacy. Sorry. Wrong course.

Different foreign ministries and international organisations find many ways to tackle professional training work.  The Dubrovnik conference had an elegant presentation on Poland’s new Institute of Diplomacy and its sophisticated suite of courses for Polish (and other) diplomats at all levels. Russia deploys the mighty Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a world-renowned centre of theory and relentless practice. Here in the UK the Foreign Office has a new Diplomatic Academy, a would-be trailblazer for in-house and online diplomatic skills.

International organisations have their own needs. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons run specialised scientific courses on nuclear and chemical processes respectively, as well as negotiation and leadership skills. The innovative UN System Staff College (UNSSC) in Torino in Italy is using online learning modes to bring together UN officials around the planet without fiendishly expensive airfares and per diems.

I recently worked with UNSSC to deliver a webinar course on Drafting Talking Points. We achieved notable training firsts. On one side of the screen was a short draft speech prepared by one course participant, while next to it was a video of another course participant giving the speech. Webinar participants thousands of miles apart could watch together how the words on the page were brought to life by an actual speaker. I also showed ‘live’ how to use voice recognition technology to create fast draft speeches in natural language. Vivid learning experiences.

In short, the best diplomatic training is all about sharing techniques for diplomats to use in tough situations. Here, in no special order, are skills every diplomat needs to master:

Records of Conversation

Diplomacy is all about top people quietly sharing positions and proposals. When they meet, someone has to record what was said in a way that others might use. There is real art to doing this well, capturing key points of agreement and disagreement while conveying the sense of the meeting (plus, perhaps, leaving out especially sensitive things from the main record and recording them separately for a narrow senior distribution).

Speaking Notes and Public Speaking

Sooner or later all diplomats stand up in front of an audience to convey their basic messages. They need to know how to structure a speech or presentation, and how to deliver it convincingly and engagingly. And how to give a witty but gracious after-dinner speech. Good public speaking can be taught. It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you know how to do it, you can’t not do it.

Steering Meetings

All sorts of subtle points of technique can be taught here. Practical aspects include setting out the table to achieve appropriate formality but with just the right intimacy. Plus setting the agenda, reflecting key words, reframing difficult issues, when to speak and when to keep quiet, summing up elegantly, and (last but not least) agreeing robust arrangements to make sure that decisions taken at the meeting are in fact implemented.

Talking to People

Not everyone is naturally confident or socially graceful. Diplomats need to be able to enter a large, noisy room full of senior people they have never met before and strike up useful conversations with as many people as possible. Yes, this can be taught.

Operating Above your Pay Grade

This is important. For many purposes diplomacy is hierarchical and proud of it. But it often happens that younger or less experienced diplomats have to stand in for others much more senior than they are and deliver good results. Can we please be taught how to do that? Yes.

Official Entertainment

Official entertainment is all about the thin line between success and embarrassment, if not disaster.  Diplomats need to pay meticulous attention to detail and protocol.  Most of this is in fact informed by common sense. Yet it is remarkable how things go spectacularly wrong, up to and including the very highest levels. Training that leads with scary real-life examples never fails to help ambitious diplomats avoid making horrible unforced blunders.


Any substantive diplomatic course has to include sharp operational training in negotiating. This should involve some theory (Positions, Interests and Needs), but also powerful case studies and role-plays to help diplomats play with specific subtle techniques. More generally, all diplomats need to grasp that a lot of what they do, even when it seems routine or uninteresting, is all part of deeper, wider negotiations between countries and ideas that go on down the years and decades and centuries. See Russia, Ukraine and ‘Europe’, or China and Japan, or England v France v Scotland, or the Middle East passim.


Almost no mainstream diplomatic training includes specific mediation skills. This is madness. Diplomats at all levels from the start of their careers need to be good at listening creatively, and looking out for ways to redefine problems to achieve imaginative solutions that leave everyone more or less happy on different levels simultaneously. Memo to the world’s diplomatic academies and institutes: must do better when it comes to mediation training.

Media Work

Too many diplomats are wary of the media. They shouldn’t be. It’s easy to teach the basics of media work and how to share information safely and professionally with media contacts. Pro Tip: confirm with a journalist what is or is not attributable before the conversation starts.

Crisis Management

Obvious. Having tough procedures so that when the embassy phones start shrieking the team are ready to drop what they’re doing and respond. Then, when an actual crisis erupts, being flexible and disciplined enough to change those procedures on the run.

What’s This Really All About?

The greatest of all diplomatic skills is judgement. That comes with experience (or not, as the case may be). It’s all about perspective. Robin Renwick, one of the UK’s finest modern diplomats, likes to quote this insight from an earlier veteran diplomatist: “You need to distinguish what’s important from what matters.” Or, as a wily Russian diplomat once said to me: “Nothing is linked – but everything is linked.”

Is your diplomatic training programme organised around such cryptic insights into the philosophical and operational paradoxes of diplomacy? No? Find one that is.


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