James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News asks if traditional diplomacy has had its day, and explores what diplomats have to do to adapt and keep up
I WAS STANDING OUTSIDE the United Nations headquarters at this year’s general assembly when a rather fundamental question struck me: what is it all for? What are the thousands of officials, politicians and diplomats here doing? Every year they gather at this temple of global diplomacy in mid-town Manhattan to do the deals and make the speeches they hope might just produce a peaceful solution to the conflicts gripping the international system. But amid the throng one could sense a faint strain of doubt echoing across the Hudson River. What’s the point of all this international diplomacy? What do these diplomats actually achieve?
The multilateral diplomacy they practice is under greater challenge than ever before as many populist leaders swap globaltalking shops for more bilateral, transactional relationships. Diplomats are increasingly bypassed by their political leaders, who deliver their messages in public via Twitter, or in private via WhatsApp messages, cutting out their officials who can at times struggle to keep up. We live in a world where a diplomat can no longer trust that their counsel will remain secret, vulnerable not just to the malicious leak but also to the needs of transparency laws. Just ask Lord Darroch – Kim to his friends – who resigned as UK Ambassador to the United Statesafter his frank diplomatic telegrams were published.
That obviously puts the case at its most extreme. But no one can deny that the world in which diplomats operate is changing and the question is whether they are changing too. A profession that was once closed and restricted, practised largely by an elite is being opened up by new technology, greater transparency and changes to the way states do their business.
Take new technology. Over the years some have always been fearful of the change it could bring. Lord Palmerston famously said the telegraph would be the end of diplomacy. In later years some said the fax machine would render the Foreign and Commonwealth Office redundant. This was clearly nonsense. But equally is it too simplistic to suggest that technology simply provides diplomats with new ways of doing what they have always done – engaging, influencing, communicating and negotiating?
Let’s look at some examples. Twitter could be seen simply as another way of delivering messages from one state to another. Donald Trump’s tweets, for example, could be considered merely pithier, swifter and less formal versions of a Note Verbale. Yet Twitter has done more than this: it has changed the nature of diplomacy. It has provided envoys with new ways of practising their trade. Take John Casson, the former British Ambassador to Egypt. He secured more than one and a half million followers on social media and used that to engage directly with the people of Egypt. He was no longer reliant just on his relationship with the Egyptian elite, which at times could be strained. He told me that it reached a point where members of the government asked him to mention certain issues on his Twitter feed to get messages across to other parts of the Egyptian administration. In other words, his presence on social media gave him more diplomatic relevance. This allowed him to engage in what he calls ‘transformative diplomacy’, where he engaged with Egyptian society to try to counter historical anti-imperial prejudice against the UK, instead of just pursuing traditional, transactional diplomacy with the state leadership.
Of course, Twitter can present a risk for diplomats. They are just 280 characters and one return button from a career-ending mistake. And certainly not all capitals will allow their diplomats the freedom to speak freely on social media. Some countries still insist their envoys send draft tweets back to their capitals for approval, by which time the caravan has moved on. But some countries with a high degree of central control have realised the strength of autonomous tweeting by local embassies. The Russian Embassy in London, for example, is well known for its use of humour and sarcasm when pushing back against its critics on Twitter. Other diplomats accept that mistakes are part of the dialogue of social media and understand that a swift apology can mean a row is quickly forgotten.
And what about WhatsApp? Politicians and diplomats have always spoken face-to-face at receptions and in the margins of meetings. But this technology gives them the ability to communicate directly, securely and swiftly in a way that is fundamentally different to the past. One criteria by which a British ambassador is judged by their ministerial masters is whether they have the WhatsApp number of their host country’s president, foreign minister and national security adviser. If an ambassador can text a local minister about an issue, he or she can tell London immediately that they have raised it directly with the government. No longer does a diplomat have to deliver a Note Verbale, arrange a meeting or hope for a quick chat at a reception.
WhatsApp can, however, also present diplomats with a challenge. The former British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told me how the first thing he did when he met counterparts was to swap mobile phone numbers. He then got missions overseas to suggest things he should send to these foreign ministers – such as football matches, birthdays, significant events. But for the diplomat, there is always a risk if ministers are talking to each other secretly round the negotiating table. How can these communications be recorded, controlled, assessed? Does the diplomat have to have more preparatory meetings with their principals to make sure that the wrong message does not get delivered by mistake?
New technology is not just improving diplomatic backchannels. It is also creating some rather unusual tools of the trade. Tom Fletcher, the former UK Ambassador to Lebanon, is helping to develop a new app that would use face recognition technology to remind diplomats of people they have met. This potentially could include a special pair of glasses that would help an envoy scan a diplomatic reception, identify any contacts present and provide a prompt about where they last met and what they discussed.
Gizmos aside, technology is also changing the rules of diplomacy. At the UN general assembly, I met Casper Klynge, the Danish tech ambassador, one of the world’s first official envoys to the Googles and Apples of Silicon Valley. The thinking is straight forward: these companies are hugely powerful and make decisions that affect Denmark. In a world where states no longer have a monopoly of power, diplomats must follow where the power has gone. Casper told me his job was not to lobby these corporate giants for Danish business but to engage, negotiate and hold them to account.
All this change can worry some diplomats. As a breed, they can be conservative with a small c, protectors of the status quo. But the world is changing, and they may have to change too.