The Future of….Diplomacy
– by Tom Fletcher CMG, former British Ambassador to Lebanon
Diplomacy matters more than ever in the Digital Age because the consequences of diplomatic failure are more catastrophic than ever. The weapons of the future will make current armouries look like bows and arrows. So we don’t have the luxury of letting our principal means of preventing their use rust away.
Diplomacy is not Kodak – there is not a shiny alternative aggressively taking it on. But it must adapt fast. The ways it will do so will be like the survival tips any trade needs to adopt: disrupt yourself, be digital or dead, work out what big data means for your industry, cut out the crap and focus on where you add lost value.
The review my team has just done of the Foreign Office looks at those issues in more detail. Future diplomats will curate masses of data to analyze and predict foreign policy in far more detail. They will be able to connect with people on an unprecedented scale. 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 pile in. Other businesses aren’t debating this, they are just doing it.
The artificial barriers between Ministers being the public face and diplomats operating behind the scenes will also fall away. Foreign Ministries will build the equivalent of Wikipedia to manage their knowledge and relationships – diplopedia. They will be forced to deliver services – visas, passports, crisis response – as fast as the commercial competition. Policy making will become more democratic and transparent. Bring it on.
In the midst of all this turbulence, what is the rock to which diplomacy must cling? In my view – though this is contested – it is to promote positive global change that makes our nations more secure and prosperous.
But also, like any other industry, diplomats should not chuck the baby out with the digital bath water. Remember that people used to scoff that you could replace the Foreign Office with a fax. There will still be a need for confidentiality (see the counter terror effort), quiet negotiation (see US/Iran, US/Cuba) and a bit of occasional theatre (see state visits). And the best diplomacy will still rely on curiosity, tact, judgement, courage and the ability to eat anything and get on with anyone.
At NYU, my team (in which I’m the only person over 25) are now working on the more distant future of diplomacy, as part of a report for the next UN Secretary General. Can robots handle most of what embassies currently do? Can big data generate a better climate change deal than humans? Can Google Maps deliver disaster relief better and faster than the UN? How do we establish the new balance of security and liberty in the digital age? How do we ensure that digital transformation creates more winners than losers?
The first diplomat was the caveman who persuaded his fellow Neanderthal to put down his club and hunt together – literally, a naked diplomat. Stripped of all the paraphernalia and protocol, that is where diplomacy still adds most value. You don’t have to be naked to do it. But neither will you need to be a diplomat. This is not some obscure cult or creed. Citizen diplomats are all around us.
The great dividing line of the 21st century is coexistence. On one side are the wall builders, who believe we should live apart – ISIL, the hard right in Europe, Donald Trump. On the other are the rest of us, who understand that understanding and engaging the rest of the world is what keeps us strong. That’s a diplomatic fight that we all need to be in.
– with thanks to the author Tom Fletcher, former UK Ambassador and foreign affairs adviser to three Prime Ministers. ‘Naked Diplomacy – Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age’ is out on 2 June, and is available on Amazon.