Chairman of Cerebra Global and former British Ambassador to Albania and Greece David Landsman OBE discusses diplomacy meeting the ‘real world’
One of the features which makes the Court of St James so distinguished is that, in addition to the very best career diplomats, there are many Heads of Mission who come from the worlds of politics, business, academia and even the arts.
As a former career diplomat, I am naturally a firm believer in the benefits of experience derived from a succession of postings in different countries, the UN and other multilateral organisations and in Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister’s Offices and so on. But I always respected and even sometimes envied the perspective of those who came from a completely different field. With a few notable exceptions, Britain has traditionally eschewed political appointees in diplomatic positions, but I have to admit that they can sometimes reach parts that other diplomats can’t…
There’s a good reason why it’s beneficial to have a diplomatic corps with a wide range of backgrounds. On the one hand, diplomacy is becoming more professionalised and specialised: just consider how much over recent years formal training has replaced traditional ‘learning on the job.’
I’m sure far more of today’s intake of British diplomats have degrees in international relations than when I started my career. At the same time, geopolitical developments increasingly reach out beyond chanceries and impact the plans of businesses and even individuals, including those who would much prefer to leave diplomacy to the experts. The growth of the political risk analysis industry demonstrates that today’s business leaders perceive an important gap in their understanding that needs to be filled. But, as I learned early on as a junior diplomat, analysis without strategy is not much use. Since I left diplomacy for business, I’ve seen that business leaders are often more impatient still, with a brisk ‘so what?’ as the immediate response to a piece of political analysis.
The broad sweep of perceptive geopolitical analysis, of the kind one may hear across the (real or virtual) diplomatic dinner tables of London, can be impressive, but I suspect also irritating to those whose need is primarily for an answer to the ‘so what?’ question. Just take the events of recent weeks. The US has brokered important deals between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. The impact of these moves will be felt in Turkey which is, at the same time, in dispute with Greece and Cyprus over the EEZs and hydrocarbon exploitation, in which Israel and Egypt are also partners. Meanwhile, in another deal brokered by the US between Serbia and Kosovo, both countries have agreed to locate their Embassies in Jerusalem, bringing Balkans and Middle East diplomacy unusually (and uncomfortably?) together. As a diplomat, I’d have been preoccupied with understanding the geopolitical Rubik’s cube and predicting the next moves and advising on a policy response. But from my current position as an adviser, I’m more likely to be focusing on specific implications for an international energy company, investor or law firm.
Advice to foreign ministers and advice to business leaders can undoubtedly be very different, even if the initial analysis is the same. Answers to the ‘so what?’ question has to be both simpler and broader. Simpler, because the analysis needs to generate strategy often for short- or medium-term decision-making. But broader too, because for a business (or indeed an individual), ‘so what?’ will usually have commercial, reputational, legal and other dimensions which may be more important for the audience than the ‘pure’ geopolitics. There’s a lot of truth in the maxim ‘if you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail.’ In other words, the narrower the professional silo, the narrower the answer you’re likely to receive to your question. However smart your advice, if it’s too narrow, it won’t serve your client’s purpose.
We can think of this as the ‘specialisation paradox:’ if you’re suffering from a particular disease, you’d like to be treated by the world’s greatest expert on that disease, but you’d hope that she also knows something about the rest of the body too…. Much has been written in recent years about experts, for and against. Since all readers of Diplomat magazine are undoubtedly experts in something, I’m sure we’re all in favour. But you don’t have to be an expert-sceptic to realise the limitations. Gillian Tett’s book The Silo Effect proves its own point masterfully, as she is able to write from the perspective of two professions, anthropologist and business journalist. More recently, David Epstein in his readable and insightful book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World (Macmillan 2019), starting with sport and moving into business, government and personal life, shows how many challenges call for breadth as well as focus. Specialists are indispensable, but generalists should have confidence in their breadth of vision.
What does this mean for those working in and around geopolitics? As a former diplomat, it goes without saying that I don’t buy the contrast between diplomacy and the ‘real world.’ Geopolitics is all too real. But, as a former executive, I can easily understand why some of my colleagues might have reached that conclusion. That’s why now that I’m working as a strategic adviser, I’m glad to be able to do so with a group of colleagues whose backgrounds are as diverse as the armed forces and the law. And why I definitely see the breadth of the corps accredited to the Court of St James as such a plus. That’s what really makes for the ‘real world.’