• Posted on : February 9, 2015
  • Posted by : Tom Fletcher

‘Are you a sponge or a stone?’, Uncle Monty asks his nervous guests in ‘Withnail and I’. This excellent piece by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms on new power (December 2014 Harvard Business Review) suggests that the equivalent question for traditional power players is ‘are you a connector or a castle?’.

Diplomacy is of course one of the oldest forms of traditional power. It has been around as long as the human race: It fits the definition of old power used by Heimans/Timms: “like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven.” Their list of old power values will also be familiar to many mandarins: “institutionalism, exclusivity, confidentiality, separation of public/private.” Think of the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

As I’ve argued in earlier posts, the old power model of diplomacy relies on prepared and platitudinous press statements, overcooked summit communiqués and too much self indulgent paraphernalia and protocol. I suspect many diplomats would also recognise this description of how old power institutions are coping with digital: “they layer on a bit of technology without changing their underlying models or values. They “reach out” via Twitter. They host the occasional, awkwardly curated, lonely Google hangout with the CEO.” This Twitter lark, eh? Yet “new power is more flash mob and less General Assembly.”

Like other forms of old power, diplomacy is under threat, ( As Heimans/Timms put it, “Old power is enabled by what people or organizations own, know, or control that nobody else does—once old power models lose that, they lose their advantage.” As others ‘do’ diplomacy – private sector, civil society, citizens – we find our value added as diplomats questioned. All that at a time when resource challenges bite hard. So we too need to understand that “new power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.”

Foreign Ministries need to work harder and faster to adapt. For Timms/Heimans this means: audit your power; occupy yourselves; and develop a movement mindset. On the power map, much diplomacy risks being stuck in the ‘castle’ quadrant, to follow the analogy in the article, rather than with the connectors, changers or cheerleaders. We too often think of an embassy as a building rather than its original value as an influencer and hub. We are instinctively fearful and threatened of the more empowering, anarchic, diffuse ways that power is now distributed. Crowds can make us queasy, unless they are listening to the Minister’s speech, following us on Twitter, or touring the state rooms once a year. As to ‘occupying themselves’, with longer working hours and rising workloads, some Foreign Ministries might think that they are well on the way. I think a takeover of an MFA would involve more transparency, more values, less servicing the machine, less hierarchy and structure, more risk. We’ll all need to find our way towards the values of new power: informal, open source collaboration, ‘radical transparency’.

Diplomats need to tap into people’s growing desire to participate and influence. So we face three big questions.

1. How can foreign policy evolve to draw on a wider cross section of creative inputs? People have a heightened sense of human agency. We should harness that to prioritise core diplomacy – the effort towards coexistence rather than combat. We need to react fast enough to be in the right conversations while remaining thoughtful enough to start the right conversations too.

2. How can we ensure that what we do as diplomats is trusted, and consequently owned, by more people? What’s the diplomatic equivalent of Airbnb or Uber? As the authors recognise, “new power is fast—but it is also fickle.” It “offers real opportunities to enfranchise and empower, but there’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality.” We need to harness the power of the mob without becoming hysterical.

3. How do we protect space for strategy and the long view? I’d bet that no MFA is doing more horizon scanning now than twenty years ago. We all struggle to protect ourselves against the ‘fierce urgency of now’ – to retain capacity to think beyond the next news cycle, election or summit. As innovation accelerates and we face information overload, we must avoid being distracted by the “human tendency to favor the immediate, visceral, and emotional”.

This is not just about the survival of diplomacy as a craft, important as that is. Heimans and Timms say that “the battle ahead, whether you favor old or new power values, will be about who can control and shape society’s essential systems and structures. Will new power forces prove capable of fundamentally reforming existing structures? Will they have the ingenuity to bypass them altogether and create new ones? Or will they ultimately succeed in doing neither, allowing traditional models of governance, law, and capital markets to basically hold firm?”

Diplomats need to be in that argument, to find a way to maintain the best of old power while harnessing the best of the new. This is a huge ethical and political challenge. As we “see ever more people shaping their destinies and lives, the big question is whether new power can genuinely serve the common good and confront society’s most intractable problems… Those capable of channelling the power of the crowd must turn their energies to … redesigning society’s systems and structures to meaningfully include and empower more people. The greatest test for the conductors of new power will be their willingness to engage with the challenges of the least powerful.”

I’ve written at greater length on that challenge here ( We need to forge with new power tools a form of international politics that is more representative, inclusive, empowering and progressive. That means we need to be more ‘connector’ and less ‘castle’. Maybe even more sponge than stone.

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