Dr Tristen Naylor, Oxford’s Lecturer in Diplomatic Studies, chatted with Tom Fletcher, the former British Ambassador and Downing Street foreign policy advisor, about his new book, Naked Diplomacy.
In this three-part series their discussion explores everything from diplomacy in the digital era to the divide between academics and policy makers — with a nod to the intertextuality of W.H. Auden and Black Sabbath along the way. For Part I, see here.
TF: In diplomacy, like any other trade, there are people who simplify and people who complicate. I tend to side with the simplifiers.
TN: I can easily see that. Just taking the very start of your book as an example, you begin with W.H. Auden’s ‘The Embassy’, which so elegantly and simply captures essence of diplomacy and what’s at stake in it (not unlike Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’). Why did you choose to start with this piece?
TF: Again, I wanted to get back to basics. I particularly wanted to get back to what an embassy originally was. It wasn’t a building- it was an idea; it was a group of people. They didn’t just set up a building and sit at a desk. They had a clear sense of purpose and they were ‘out there’ accomplishing a specific mission.
I’ve just been doing this big review for the Foreign Office and in my experience the most effective embassies in the world have no more than five people. It’s small enough to maintain that sort of ‘start up’ feel.
TN: One of the recommendations I really like in that report is the idea of transforming the role of a ‘desk officer’ to that of a ‘policy officer’ responsible for networks in London. It does two things at once: it aligns a diplomat’s job at home more closely that when abroad and it gets us away from the notion of diplomacy being about physical structures – imposing buildings with grand salons – and more about relationships and interactions.
TF: What I’m trying to get at with that specifically is that we do very different things when we’re away than when we’re back home. We’re really good at networking and getting stuff done in foreign capitals and then not when we are back in London. We’re not building networks in other government departments, we’re not thinking about who we need to know in the media, and so on. The idea is to unchain people from their desks and the bureaucracy; as well as get them to think that they’ve also got act like a diplomat when at home in London.
TN: It reminds me of Iver Neumann’s book, At Home With The Diplomats, which explores the ways in which diplomats have fundamentally different roles at home and abroad. In short, a diplomat is a diplomat abroad but a bureaucrat at home.
TF: Yes, and this is why people tend to be more motivated when they’re overseas and why most diplomats can’t wait to get out of their capitals, because that’s where the diplomacy is.
TN: Which no longer holds true (and it’s debatable as to whether it ever really did).
TN: Whether at home or abroad, communication is key. How do we as communicators – as diplomats or academics, or anyone engaged in the public sphere – ensure that we’re effective in the era of social media in which getting and holding attention is harder than ever?
TF: I think what’s really key here is having people who know how to curate and tailor information so that it reaches and resonates with its intended audiences. You still need to have high-quality information, but you now need to ensure that it’s packaged in the right way.
TN: And here’s where academia really lags behind.
TF: I think so. Increasingly, it’s also about listening much more. It’s now a bit of a communications cliché to say that you’ve got to be engaging rather than just transmitting, but it’s true. For me, this even means spending much more time on Twitter reading than just visiting it a few times a day to broadcast a message.
TN: And not something banal and meaningless like reporting that a meeting was ‘productive’, which is by-and-large most of what’s broadcast from diplomatic and political Twitter accounts.
TF: Absolutely. Again, it’s cliché, but it’s got to be authentic. That doesn’t mean that you’ve got to tweet what you had for breakfast, but it does mean that you’ve got to bring your own personality into it. That’s what people are looking for.
And it’s not to be social media stars. The objective is not to have lots of followers. Social media is merely a means to an end. For a British diplomat, the purpose is to use social media to say something about Britain and its purpose in the world.
TN: Particularly in a period wherein impersonal governmental institutions are perceived to be lacking in credibility. I think this brings us back to this idea about putting the individual back at the centre of diplomacy- the point you’re emphasising in starting your book with Auden.
Tom Fletcher CMG (@TFletcher) is the former UK Ambassador to Lebanon and a Visiting Professor at New York University and the Diplomatic Academy. He campaigns for global education, the UK’s creative industries, and the power of social media to create positive change.
Dr Naylor (@TristenNaylor) is Departmental Lecturer in Diplomatic Studies at the Oxford Department of International Development and Deputy Director of the G20 Research Group, London.