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.