, Volume 68, Number 6

Author: 

Tom Fletcher CMG, British Ambassador in Beirut

Tom Fletcher CMG is British Ambassador in Beirut @hmatomfletcher www.ukinlebanon.fco.gov.uk

Abandoning the banquet in favour of the smart phone 

When people ask me whether at 37 I am too young to be an ambassador, I sometimes wonder if perhaps I am too old. I worked in No 10 for the last ‘pen’ PM, Tony Blair; for the first ‘email’ PM, Gordon Brown; and for the first ‘iPad’ PM, David Cameron. Delivery of government services by social media is being transformed. 

This digital tsunami is also rocking the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings would have happened without social media, but not as fast. The world is being changed by the power of the best of old ideas allied with the best of new technology in the hands of a generation with more opportunity than any in history to understand, engage with, and shape their world: regimes can ban the iPhone, but iFreedom always gets through in the end. 

So nowhere should we be more attuned to social media than in international relations. Diplomacy has always been Darwinian: we have to evolve or die, just as diplomats did when sea routes opened up or the telephone was invented. Someone once said that you could replace the Foreign Office with a fax. We saw off the fax, and – only this year  – the telegram. Now we have to show that you cannot replace us with Wikipedia and Skype.

Social media are now indispensable to our core tasks: information harvesting; analysis; influence; promotion of English as the code for cyberspace; crisis management; commercial work. Imagine a reception at which all your key contacts were interacting. You would not stand in the corner silently or shouting platitudes, nor delegate the event. 

In this brave new digital world, the most effective diplomats will carry an iPad rather than letters of credence; a digital demarche will be more powerful than a diplomatic one; and the setpiece international conference of the 20th century will be replaced by more fluid, open interaction with the people whose interests we represent. For the first time ever, diplomats can engage directly on a meaningful scale with the countries we live in. We no longer have to focus solely on elites to make our case. 

This is exciting, challenging and subversive. Getting it wrong could start a war: imagine if a diplomat misguidedly tweeted a link to the offensive anti-Islam film which provoked riots across the Muslim world. Getting it right has the potential to rewrite the diplomatic rulebook. 

So we must now become digital interventionists. I think, like the best traditional statecraft, Twiplomacy comes down to authenticity, engagement and purpose. Twitter is more raw, more human than normal diplomatic interaction: people are more likely to stick around to read your press releases if they know something about you as a person. We need to interact, not transmit. We need to be about action not reportage, about purpose not platitudes. 

So tweets should be about changing the world, not just describing how it looks. While alliances will become more issue-based and fluid, diplomats cannot lose sight of our bottom line, the national interest: what makes my country richer and more secure?

I’m not, however, at the libertarian end of the Assange/Kissinger scale. I do not want to live in Wikiworld, and do not think you should want that either. A report recently concluded that social media could not replace diplomacy. Of course it cannot – there is still a need for direct private conversations between leaders, for intelligence and confidential analysis, for robust discussion of national interests. 

The nuances and subtleties do not always translate to 140 characters. Much has to be handled backstage, however many of us become what the Economist calls ‘Tweeting Talleyrands’. While social media tends to support our values, it also unleashes forces that oppose these values: extremism, cynicism, distraction, apathy. 

The digital revolution has opened up a new frontier. Equipped with the right kit and the right courage, diplomats should – as ever – be among its pioneers. Diplomacy not just for diplomats; but not diplomacy without diplomats. Jamie Oliver pioneered the idea of ‘The Naked Chef’ – pared back, simplified, focused on the essential essence of the job. The Naked Diplomat needs a smartphone and those oldest of diplomatic attributes – thick skin and an open mind.