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REVIEW: Governance, Law & Ethics
Naked diplomacy: power and statecraft in the digital age. By Tom Fletcher. London:
William Collins. 2016. 310pp. Index. £15.90. ISBN 978 0 00812 756 5. Available as e-book.
The future of #diplomacy. By Philip Seib. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2016. 155pp. Index.
£40.50. ISBN 978 1 50950 720 7. Available as e-book.
The late Kenneth Younger, Minister of State at the Foreign Office and Director of Chatham House, once perceptively remarked that British foreign policy-makers had a degree of latitude, as they were insulated to a significant degree from public criticism, provided decisions were kept within the bounds of a reasonably wide spectrum of options. At that time, ministers and their official advisers were seemingly able to draw a pragmatic distinction between purely domestic issues and demands and external pressures from a variety of sources.
Of course, in times of crisis, public interest, protest and debate were spurred by intense media controversy, as in the 1973 debate about joining the European Economic Community. Defence, too, provoked argument, especially over the issue of Britain’s nuclear capability, but, by and large, foreign policy was bipartisan in character: support for NATO, the special relationship with the United States and the influence accorded to Britain with its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Moreover, participation in the Korean War and the Malayan counter-insurgency campaign in the 1950s were clear evidence of Britain’s standing as a Great Power with an influential role in world affairs. And this aspiration
was rarely challenged by a public beginning to enjoy domestic prosperity following the austerity of the immediate postwar years.
Both books under review address the question: how can diplomacy survive and prosper as a key institution giving structure and substance to an international society of states, despite the stresses and strains of a precarious post-Cold War order? In particular, Tom Fletcher and Philip Seib recognize that the world of ‘telegrams and anger’ (in E. M. Forster’s famous phrase) has expanded into one in which ‘anger’ no doubt remains a recurring feature of international intercourse, with the difference that policy-makers have to face a battering from social media’s intrusion into the rarefied and complex domain of foreign policy decision-making. Thus, no longer the exclusive preoccupation of a mandarin class, Kenneth Younger’s ‘spectrum’ has narrowed, with more and more policy options subject to public demand for transparency, accountability and pressure from intense media scrutiny, WikiLeaks ‘revelations’ and vociferous single-cause lobbies.
Fletcher’s thesis is bluntly asserted: ‘with power shifting unpredictably, so must the diplomats of the Digital Age. Diplomatic service—the clue is in the name; like the rest of the political class, diplomats have to find new ways to connect with the public they serve. Of course, international relations are much more than simply public relations, but diplomacy is not yet as social, progressive or democratic as it needs to become. It is not
yet connected to the new sources of power’ (p. 20). How this is to be done with profit - both economic and political - the author explores with skill, panache and wit. His analysis benefits, too, from a lively opening section which offers a cogent history of diplomacy. This provides a helpful context for the analysis of diplomacy’s role in the modern era and how best to cope with the continuing revolution in information technology. To this end, the author draws on his own experience as a senior diplomatic envoy, providing insights into the tasks confronting the current diplomatic service and its successors. This text has added value for the academic study of diplomacy, for the informed layman and indeed the
current and future crop of diplomats. Fletcher’s argument throughout is robust and always relevant. The fledgling diplomat might well still have to plough through Satow’s mammoth volume, but Naked diplomacy provides a fine supplementary analysis.
These observations apply equally well to Seib’s admirable companion volume to Fletcher’s book. He, too, considers the impact of the internet on diplomatic practice; as he argues, ‘these new connections are being used for more than mindless chit-chat and the exchange of cute cat videos. People are learning more and more about the world around them, and not in passive ways. They can watch what their own and other governments are doing and participate in debate about those … All this matters to diplomats because during past centuries their work proceeded at a measured pace. Theirs was a closed club—elite, male, and disdainful of anyone outside their circle. No more. The ranks of diplomats have been opened to become more inclusive and egalitarian and the public’s attention to their work has grown exponentially’ (p. vii). The author cites a telling example: during the Iran nuclear agreement, ‘the public’s involvement in the debate about the plan provided good examples of the diplomacy that exists beyond the work of professional diplomats … social media [enabled] advocates and opponents to conduct a global debate’ (p. vii).
Seib’s key concern is to demonstrate the validity of his proposition that ‘the future of diplomacy is inextricably linked to the politics of the future of the media’ (p. 3). As he evocatively argues, individuals via the possession of personal media tools, are empowered in ‘unprecedented ways … everyone can be a journalist of sorts’ (p. 3) or, as Fletcher argues, ‘if we are to get through a century of significant peril and uncertainty we need the co-existers to fight back. We need citizen diplomacy to kick in’ (p. 264). What is crucial is that officials and their political masters continue to enhance their social media skills in pursuit of sophisticated and credible decision-making. The outcome of Brexit might well provide a test case of success or failure in this context.
Seib has much of interest to say about public diplomacy, which he unequivocally distinguishes from propaganda. He explicitly argues that most publics want to feel at ease with their government’s definition and practice of public diplomacy and its projection abroad; he has much of interest to say about the public diplomacy of key actors such as China, Russia and Israel. He makes the valid point that the benefits of public diplomacy, for example student exchanges, are hard to quantify and its full beneficial effect may only be obvious over the long term. If nothing else, both books will provoke argument within foreign offices and beyond.
Both these books demonstrate diplomacy’s continuing validity in a world of increasing pressure on governments. Certainly the rise and importance of social media are having a transforming impact on diplomatic performance. We might certainly heed the verdict of George Kennan, one of the great ambassadors of the twentieth century: ‘the conduct of foreign policy rests today on an exercise and understanding, truly staggering in its dimension - understanding not just the minds of a few monarchs or prime ministers, but understanding of the minds and emotions and necessities of entire peoples’ (p. 162). The learning curve will be steep, but not insurmountable.
Jack Spence, King’s College London, UK