Tom Fletcher, a young star of the Foreign Office, made his reputation last year when he blogged his ‘valedictory despatch’ from Beirut, where he had served as ambassador for several years.
From time immemorial ambassadors had written these despatches on quitting their posts. It was the occasion to spread your diplomatic wings with candid observations on the country or career you were leaving. A few have been small literary gems and have been republished in book form. Some were laced with indiscretion. In his farewell despatch, Sir Ivor Roberts, our man in Rome earlier this century, was extremely rude (rightly so) about the way the Foreign Office was run. His comments were leaked to the press; and the Foreign Office, in the defensive crouch to which it has become accustomed, cravenly abolished the valedictory despatch.
So when Fletcher posted online for all to see his despatch on leaving Lebanon, murmurs of approval rose from the ranks of retired diplomats like me. The impact was the greater for the élan of Fletcher’s resolutely unbureaucratic style and his perceptive empathy for Lebanon and its people.
Now he has brought these qualities to the writing of this highly enjoyable if uneven book. It purports to be an analysis of ‘power and statecraft in the digital age’ (Fletcher has just completed an officially commissioned review of the future of the Foreign Office). His argument is that a digital revolution in communications has, as he puts it, shifted the tectonic plates beneath diplomacy. Social media have empowered ordinary people and, horrible phrase, ‘non-state actors’ to shape events at the expense of foreign ministries. A new generation of ‘citizen diplomats’ has been born. But far from making the Foreign Office redundant, argues Fletcher, this revolution has made its diplomats more necessary than ever, if only they can learn to bend the new i-diplomacy to the advancement of the nation’s security and prosperity. His argument is made with evangelical zeal and not a little humour. But the constant exhortation is at times tiring; and the disparate cultural and historical references in which the argument is wrapped can weary as much as illuminate.
Is Tom Fletcher right? The ambassador’s challenge has always been to add value to the information that is publicly available to the government. The internet, with its profusion of sources, certainly makes the task harder. It is also true that if it has created a new channel for popular pressure on governments, it can also be a potent means for governments to influence public opinion. But it is hard to see how all this, any more than the invention of the electric telegraph, affects the primordial role of diplomacy: to win friends and influence people at the pinnacles of foreign governments and societies and to negotiate with them effectively. We are already seeing the limitations of social media. Authoritarian governments have acquired the technology to crack down on digital dissent. The Arab Spring, initially borne aloft online, has been snuffed out by repressive governments. Most of the digital emissions from foreign ministries have all the excitement of a dead fish. Speed of communication is in itself a neutral beast.
The bad thing about this book is its wispy futurology and diplo-babble (today ‘diplomatic alliances are more fluid, issues-based and flexible’), only partially offset by sensible stuff, drawn from Fletcher’s time as a Downing Street adviser, on negotiation, hard and soft power, secrecy and openness, and the like. The good thing is Fletcher’s fascinating account of his experience in Lebanon. It is the soul of the book and provides its template. He was clearly a highly effective head of mission. And there’s the rub. Operating in a weak state, wracked by inter-communal tension, he sought to raise Britain’s standing by promoting, often online, the coexistence of communities. He seems to have got a warm response from Lebanese of all denominations. But what worked in the Levant will not necessarily work elsewhere. Try that kind of engagement with the locals in Moscow or Beijing and you will be out on your ear before you can say Google.
Naked Diplomacy (a bow to Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef) brings to mind a French foreign minister, Jean-Bernard Raymond, who said when the reformer Gorbachev first came to power in Moscow that the West needed to show ‘double vigilance’ in dealing with him. Raymond meant that we must be vigilant for the genuinely new in the Soviet Union and vigilant also for what had not changed beneath the patina of reform. Likewise with this book. Is a digital revolution really transforming diplomacy, as Fletcher maintains? Or, with the clearing of the digital dust, do we not see that the second oldest profession continues much as it has done over the millennia, through one technological revolution after another?
Christopher Meyer was Britain’s ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003, and before that our ambassador to Germany.