04 March 2010 - 06 March 2010

The functions and purposes of modern diplomacy

Chair: The Lord Kerr of Kinlochard GCMG

This conference addressed the delicate subject of the value of diplomats and diplomacy in the modern, open and information-rich world.  As one participant commented, the pain was on full display.  Yet we had a fascinating and in many ways constructive debate.  We worried about, and to some extent resolved, the tension between Westphalian (balance of power) and values-based diplomacy;  we examined the effects of the information revolution;  we noted the increasing general scepticism about governance and governments in today’s democracies;  we examined the different kinds of threats and state failures in twenty-first century experience so far;  and we tried to analyse the mix of issues, interests and problems emerging at the global level.  Within all this, there was a great deal of discussion about specific tensions and crises which this Note cannot adequately cover.  But it was a rich mixture. 

No-one can say that we tried to avoid the significance of global change.  The public arena had opened up as never before and the diplomatic market-place was crowded with a plethora of new and largely independent actors, many of them beyond the routine control of states.  This meant that the diplomats’ old monopoly on knowledge of overseas issues, and of analysis of international affairs, had definitely come to an end.  The speed with which events in one place impacted on many others was a daily fact of life;  and the international merged with the domestic in ways which made traditional government structures look out of date.  Political leaders were now involved with events and with each other in a way which constantly caught the headlines;  and the instruments of power themselves had taken on a different relative strength, with persuasion and legitimacy requiring as much attention as military, economic and political weight.

Whether this picture demanded a new type of diplomat became a central question we had to confront.  The career professionals at the table were under attack, with journalists, academics, civil society actors and think-tankers sharp in their contention that the traditional approaches would no longer do.  But the diplomats fought back gamely.  They argued, with some success, that there were a number of classic attributes which still remained relevant:  the acquiring of deep knowledge about foreign countries and their leaders;  the capacity for strategic analysis;  calm crisis management;  and negotiating skills.  No other profession was required so constantly to adapt and build bridges:  between national and multinational interests, between reality and values or between old and new holders of power with a global reach.  So the discussion focussed on how the traditional skills could be expanded to embrace the new environment, in ways in which current practice indicated diplomats were already making a start.  In spite of some relevant questions in justified areas, such as public diplomacy, the conversation was more about adding than replacing.  NGOs and companies tended to be single-subject;  the media, for all their speed and spread of knowledge, tended to be tactical, not strategic players;  politicians were active and involved, but needed support.  Diplomats were still the workhorses of international interaction, with politicians setting the course and turning the wheel, but needing the engineering and the continuity which established diplomacy provided.

Diplomats nevertheless had to recognise, many people thought, that there were areas of weakness.  They had not been fully successful in convincing even their own ministers that they were necessary members of the team in all international exchanges.  The circumstances differed from country to country, but political leaders were increasingly inclined to handle hard issues with their own immediate advisers.  This meant that foreign ministries needed to compete more sharply in their own national contexts.  They should aim to develop capacities to do a number of new things, some of which might need specific operational training:  working on state breakdowns and post-conflict reconstruction, for example, where management of material programmes and infrastructure building were relevant.  The ability to handle collective interests with a wider spread of actors was increasingly important.  As for the international-domestic interaction, it was now more important for ambassadors in overseas posts to connect with and explain developments to public opinion at home.  Recruitment and training would do well to reflect the greater diversity of most of our societies, even to the extent of using the language skills of recent immigrant communities.  These new tasks did not mean the old skills had to be abandoned.  Confidential diplomacy continued to play a role, even if transparency now had to be served.  Embassies had to provide analysis and reporting, for all the extra demands placed on them by the public’s demand for good services in the consular, commercial and travel fields. 

In other words the range of tasks was a mix which foreign ministries had to get right.  The difficulty of persuading finance ministries to allocate adequate budgets was nevertheless an increasing challenge.  We discussed the degree to which diplomatic outputs could be measured, so that the right ammunition with treasuries and accounts committees could be gathered.  Many participants felt that this was asking too much, when so much of an experienced diplomat’s work was concerned with making the right judgements, contacts and tactical decisions.  But others, particularly across the Atlantic, felt that there were ways of doing these things which paid dividends.  It was at least essential to describe accurately what an ambassador or embassy was required to do across the board, so that they were not endlessly being asked to add tasks on.  But with this came a call to understand that, in the most complex areas, a diplomat had to be allowed to judge with tactical independence how he pursued his country’s range of interests. 

There were some very good discussions about the meaning of global change.  There had certainly been a shift in the balance of global power, mainly towards Asia and the emerging economies.  With greater freedom in the world, there was a greater number of powerful actors, not excluding civil society, the private sector and small groups.  But the outcome of these power changes had not yet been clearly indicated.  The capacity of newer players to serve the collective interest, rather than capitalise on the extent of their new independence, remained to be seen. 

As for the international institutions, we saw strong pressures on them to adapt in both formal and informal ways.  The conference recognised that the UN’s primacy as a global institution had taken some knocks recently and might not be able to recover.  The G7/8 was close to moribund, except perhaps in the finance field, but the full capability and usefulness of the G20 had not yet been fully tested.  The regional organisations were playing a greater role, because of the legitimacy conferred by local ownership, but it was not clear whether this was adding to or subtracting from the strength of the functions and operations of the UN.  As for the smaller countries, unrepresented in any of the proactive arrangements, their voice was growing louder but their representation was weak.  All of this added up to a new range of independent activity, some of which was self-sufficient in its own field, while other parts presented new opportunities for intelligent diplomacy.  In other words, our discussion identified a trend towards an ever greater accent on national interests, but in a different mix of identities and issues from previous eras, creating the need for new concepts and methods of bridging differences and moulding the collective advantage.

It is worth adding that our non-developed world participants pointed out quite firmly that much of this discussion was passing the developing world by.  Most foreign ministries in that arena were not thinking about specialising in new tasks or approaches.  Their diplomats were mainly generalists, acting under close instructions from the capital.  They knew little about the new specialisations in technical areas being considered in Europe and North America and were short of resources to learn new approaches, but they still performed to a high standard in their traditional areas.  They could recognise, nonetheless, just as the West did, that inter-state relations were increasingly being pursued from a selfish national base, with a strong focus on sovereign rights and narrow local interests, even while global problems might appear to be growing.  Since, on the whole, they did not have the capacity to address and adapt to the new and complex mix of cross-border activities and interactions, they kept going with what they were familiar with.  In this respect, we were warned, there might develop a growing gap between the mainstream power actors and the smaller countries, who risked being marginalised.  Even the G20 did not, and could not, represent the latter.  Yet, as the Copenhagen climate change conference had shown, smaller countries often had to be brought on board.  If the capable did not take action to aid the less capable, the opportunity for truly collective solutions to global problems would not be found.  This needed much greater attention.

In trying to pin down the true implications of all these shifts, most participants agreed that realism was needed in assessing the residual potential of the United Nations.  It remained the only global institution, with a family of organisations and agencies continuing to do magnificent work in their own areas.  But ad hoc multinational action, especially on the hardest issues, was beginning to take over, as a matter of pragmatic evolution.  Diplomacy had to take account of this and do its best to manage the crowded market-place.  We were not optimistic about the value of reform efforts at the UN:  a better approach would be to sharpen up those parts that worked well rather than attempting to alter the central structure.  In this way the UN might grow old gracefully, while other activities gradually became the norm.  This was preferable to starting with a completely fresh approach, which might anyway only happen if there had been a global disaster of some magnitude.

This concept of accumulating and pragmatic change would, we thought, give the regional and sub-regional organisations scope to make a difference even if their existence was partly competitive with the authority and comprehensiveness of the UN’s membership.  Actors with a shared identity could, in the modern context, demonstrate a clearer ownership of a regional or local issue.  The European Union had perhaps taken this to the most sophisticated level so far, including in representing the interests of the smallest players.  No other organisation represented so well the post-Westphalian phase of rising above the concept of balance of power and aiming for the collective interest.  Yet the EU was struggling to convince its member populations that it was their principal representative.  And many observers in other continents were unable to see the EU as acting for the global good.  This perhaps needed further discussion within the EU itself; and this Note covers below some thoughts in this direction.

Within all the talk of globalisation and new actors, we were reminded of the importance of the security field.  The range of threats had changed; and the tendency of each identity, whether collective, national or sub-national, to see its security interests in subjective terms indicated a very complex picture.  This was an issue with a great deal of impact when one compared the modern era with the Cold War or the period of western dominance which followed it.  These thoughts took us into a discussion of the roles in particular of the United States and China in global affairs.  The US retained an enormous weight on global security issues and American leadership was still needed in sorting many of them out.  At the same time US hegemony was increasingly resented and its relative dominance was seen as being in decline.  This mix of respect and resentment made it especially difficult for the US itself to adjust to the new era of multilateralism (at best) or competitive nationalisms (the more likely trend).  The big issues coming up in this respect were seen as being Iran, Israel-Palestine and the relationship with China.  China itself was close to the superpower league, but had not yet shown that it was definitely prepared to move from a careful calculation of national interests to being a contributor to global solutions.  No-one expected a G2 to take over control of the world’s agenda, but the interplay between these two giants was bound to be a factor in almost every issue of global importance.  Neither of them, meanwhile, could ignore the trend towards smaller units in global politics, all of them with a capacity for independent action, but all of them also dependent on others for their overall security and prosperity. 

While all this discussion of the political trends was continuing, with the diplomats still in their comfort zone, the power of the information revolution and its incalculable effects on society were being vigorously inserted into the conversation.  The challenge was presented as one affecting not just diplomacy, but governance as a whole.  Public confidence in governments, at least in the democratic world, was falling partly because political leaders were struggling with the complexity of things, and partly because the information flow was beyond their control.  Depriving government of the monopoly on information was a compelling change.  Why were governments and diplomats not adapting faster?  People now wanted to know what was happening and why, and how developments should be responded to in the public interest.  They thought they knew better than governments, even when this was not the case.  The job of the media was to create doubts in official minds in order to improve policy formation and implementation.  It appeared that they had been much more successful in the first than in the second part of this.  How could all these new interconnections be redefined and successfully managed for the good of society? 

Diplomacy pushed back to some extent.  It was claimed that senior diplomats were becoming more used to speaking and explaining in public, more aware of the need to address domestic opinion and inventive – down to the junior regions of their embassies – in conceiving of new public diplomacy initiatives.  It was argued that not all inputs from the media and the web were material or requiring a response.  Policy-makers and diplomats had to distinguish between what was froth and noise and what was going to affect their fundamental tasks.  No-one could deny, however, that the connection between the weight of public opinion and effective international policy-making and action was of crucial importance.  Proper analysis needed to be done; and confidential diplomacy had certainly not lost its usefulness.  Once again, there was a balance to be struck and our discussion pointed to some key elements in it.  Diplomats could not close their eyes to the new phenomena, but nor should they be swept away by it.  The diplomat’s first function was to serve power; and they would have to take their lead from the political class on how to get this balance right. 

Finally, we looked at the particular requirement for the EU at this stage in its development to create an effective External Action Service and start it with the right kind of recruits, some of whom would have to come from established member state diplomatic services.  A major objective for the EU, beyond representing its own immediate interests, was to develop a rules-based world.  It recognised that the values it needed to promote included the values of other cultures as well as the European one.  How to emerge from the financial crisis; how to develop an effective response to climate change; how to help the developing world mend poverty; how to respond to the various currents within Islam:  all these things needed an understanding approach and carefully calculated action.  The EU saw itself as building trust by being consistent and competent on collective issues, with a bias towards partnership and joint stakeholding.  Nevertheless it had some way to go to express this in effective action.  The advice given around the table tended to focus on the need for the EAS to choose priority areas in the first place that gave it a distinctive advantage:  for instance, partnership with the developing world;  post-conflict reconstruction;  capacity-building;  and the fields of energy and climate change.  To move too early beyond these sorts of issues to representing all of the interests of the EU and its member states was too ambitious a thought for the current period, when EU member states were still jealous of their own national inputs.  In the other direction, EU capitals were urged to supply a proportion of experienced practitioners from their own services, rather than treat the EAS as a competitor. 

The conference in itself did not attempt to draw up a list of proposals to foreign ministries for the reshaping of their diplomatic capability.  But there were a number of pointers from this spirited discussion and it might be of value to list the main ones here:

·         Diplomats needed to be aware of the new context, the new mix of issues, the new threats and the new tasks that followed.  But the basic skills were still needed and overseas factors and influences had to be interpreted.  Adaptation was necessary, but most diplomatic services in the developed world were capable of learning them. 

·         The distinction between realpolitik and values-based diplomacy appeared, from this discussion, to be a false one.  It was important to be consistent and to promote rights and values where possible.  But sometimes the obstacles were just too big.  Accusations of double standards were inevitable, but the real world had to be managed.

·         Diplomacy had to be concerned with what was fundamental, beginning with state-to-state relationships.  There was no substitute for the hard slog of diplomatic engineering, communication and negotiation, working to objectives set by the holders of power.  Compromises between power centres would remain a matter of calculating interests.  It was for diplomats to interpret the options and the possibilities and then to build bridges wherever possible.

·         That said, the spread of inter-state activity had most definitely broadened.  Diplomats would have to go with the flow of that and take account of a much greater number of independent actors.  Their instinct for who might make a difference on a particular case would remain crucial.

·         Now that the voice of public opinion carried such weight in the political arena and was often forcefully presented, diplomacy would have to take account of it.  This suggested that investment in good explanation of policy and speedy provision of information on breaking crises should be part of the mainstream toolbox. 

·         Nevertheless, in the end it was the action that counted, however important the rhetoric.  With confidence in government so low, it was the outcomes that needed to be convincing. 

·         As for the global and multinational institutions, investment was needed in the areas which worked effectively, but otherwise reform looked unrealistic.  Diplomacy would need to accomplish by other routes what the UN could not.  It should not be forgotten, however, that the UN was a place where private diplomacy could have a huge effect, because interaction was possible there, even if much of it was untransparent.

·         The G20 would, for at least a period, be one of the informal mechanisms gaining ground, but at this present stage it remained a building site.

·         The developing world needed to be brought more proactively into global governance, partly through capacity-building and partly through the representative nature of regional and other institutions.  The developed world would be making a mistake if it did not reserve some investment for this area.

·         The EU’s diplomatic capability would be most useful if it devoted itself in the first instance to constructing a rules-based world.  The External Action Service should concentrate on at least some elements of this, perhaps with a focus on the developing world.  It was important, as it built up its reputation, that it acted in areas which added value at an early stage. 

·         Overall, this conference indicated the importance of building multilateral bridges and mechanisms and on avoiding succumbing to the apparent inevitability of a multipolar world.  North America and the EU would have a particular responsibility in this respect. 

The need for diplomats to adapt and the range of new circumstances which they would have to confront made this a daunting discussion in many respects.  Yet occasional suggestions that diplomats were no longer relevant fell on infertile ground.  If anything, this conference pointed to areas where diplomatic excellence was even more necessary than in previous eras.  Ditchley was fortunate in having the company of so many experienced and yet open-minded professionals, who in the end added up to an imaginative and constructive assessment.  In this we were helped by the sharp eye and firm hand of our chairman, who constantly pushed us into forward-looking territory.  On this subject, the stakes will be quite big; and participants will be watching with some anxiety whether our final note of optimism is going to be justified.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman : The Lord Kerr of Kinlochard GCMG

Deputy Chairman, Royal Dutch Shell plc (2005-);  Chairman, Imperial College, London (2005-);  Director:  Rio Tinto plc (2003-),  Scottish American Investment Trust (2002-);  Scottish Power plc (2009-);  Chairman, Centre for European Reform (2008-).    Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1966-2001);  Secretary-General, European Union Convention (2002-03);  Permanent Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1997-02);  Ambassador to the USA (1995-97);  UK Permanent Representative to the European Union (1990-95).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Ms Liz Dowdeswell

Interim President, Council of Canadian Academies;  Adjunct Professor, Global Health Division, University of Toronto;  Special Adviser, Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Canada.
Mr Robert Fowler
Senior Fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.  Formerly:  United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger (2008-09);  Canadian Public Servant (1968-2006).
Ambassador Claude Laverdure
Senior Fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa;  Vice-President and Secretary of The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.  Formerly:  Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (1965-2007);  Ambassador to France (2003-07).

Mr Kamalesh Sharma
Commonwealth Secretary-General (2008-).  Formerly:  High Commissioner of India to the UK (2005-08);  Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to East Timor (2003-04).

Ambassador Hossam Zaki

Senior Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Official Spokesperson, Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Formerly:  Deputy Ambassador to the UK (2005-07);  Spokesperson for the Secretary General, League of Arab States (2003-05).

Dr Alexandros Yannis

Member, Cabinet of Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission (2009-).

Mr Paul Culley

Director for International Trade and Development, DG External and Political-Military Affairs, EU Council of Minister.  Formerly:  Common Agricultural Policy (Reform and external aspects).

Ambassador Philippe de Suremain

Member, Scientific Council, Fondation Robert Schuman, Paris.  Formerly:  French Diplomatic Service (1964-07);  Ambassador to Ukraine (2002-05);  Co-Chair, Minsk Group (2001);  Ambassador to Tehran (1998-20001).
Ambassador François Descoueyte
French Diplomatic Service (1975-);  Director, Foreign Press Centre of Paris (on secondment) (2010 ).  Formerly:  Director, Asia-Oceania, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris (2008-09);  Ambassador to Australia (2005-08). 

HE Ambassador Georg Boomgaarden

German Diplomatic Service (1974-);  Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Kingdom (2008-).  Formerly:  State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office (2005-08).  A Governor and a Member of the Council of Management of the Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Markus Ederer
German Diplomatic Service;  Head of Policy Planning Staff, Federal Foreign Office, Germany (2005-).
Dr Melanie Morisse-Schilbach
Visiting Scholar, Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley (2009-);  Chair of International Politics, Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow in International Relations/European Integration, Institute for Political Sciences, Technsche Universität, Dresden (2001-).

Mr Pavel Andreev

Head of International Projects, RIA Novosti News Agency, Moscow.  Formerly:  Deputy UK Bureau Chief and Commentator for RIA Novosti, London;  Russian Diplomatic Service.

Mr Lionel Barber

Financial Times:  Editor (2005-).  Formerly:  Managing Editor, United States (2002-05);  European Editor (2000-02);  News Editor (1998-2000);  Brussels Bureau Chief (1992-98);  Washington Correspondent (1986-92).
Sir Samuel Brittan
Columnist, Financial Times;  Honorary Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge;  Honorary Doctor of Letters, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh;  Honorary Doctor, University of Essex;  Author.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Sarah Ewans
British Council:  Head of Strategy (2009-).  Formerly:  Regional Director Near East and North Africa (2005-09);  Director Palestinian Territories (2002-05);  Secretary to the Council (1998-2002);  Director Nepal (1994-98).
Mr David Frost CMG
HM Diplomatic Service (1987-);  Director, Directorate for Strategy, Policy Planning and Analysis, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) (208-).  Formerly:  Ambassador to Denmark (2006-08).  A Member of the Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation.
Dr Nigel Gould-Davies
Project Director, Directorate for Strategy, Policy Planning and Analysis, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Formerly:  Ambassador to Belarus (2007-09).
Mr Nik Gowing
Main Presenter, BBC World News (1996-).  Formerly:  Principal Anchor, The World Today (1996-2000);  Channel 4 News:  Diplomatic Editor, Channel 4 News (1989-96);  Diplomatic Correspondent (1987-89).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.  Author.
Mr Peter Horrocks
Director, BBC World Service (2009-) and BBC Global News (2010).
The Rt Hon Lord Hurd of Westwell CH CBE
Life Peer, Conservative (1997-);  Senior Adviser, Hawkpoint Partners Ltd (2001-);  Chairman, German-British Forum;  Chairman, The Centre for Dispute Resolution (2000-);  Deputy Chairman, Coutts & Co (1998-).  Formerly:  Foreign Secretary (1989-95).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.  Author.
Mrs Mariot Leslie CMG
HM Diplomatic Service (1977-);  UK Permanent Representative to NATO (from April 2010).  Formerly:  Director-General Defence and Intelligence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London (2007-2010).
Mr Simon McDonald CMG
HM Diplomatic Service (1982-);  Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Adviser and Head of Foreign and Defence Policy, Prime Minister’s Office.
Mr James Naughtie
BBC (1988-);  Presenter, BBC ‘Today’ Programme (1994-);  Chancellor, Stirling University (2008 ).  Formerly:  Presenter, World at One;  Chief Political Correspondent, The Guardian;  Laurence M Stern Fellow, The Washington Post.
Professor Sir Adam Roberts KCMG FBA
President of The British Academy;  Emeritus Professor of International Relations, Balliol College, Oxford University;  Member, UK Defence Academy Advisory Board (2003-);  Author.  A Member of the Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Ivor Roberts KCMG
President, Trinity College Oxford (2006-);  Editor, Satow’s Diplomatic Practice.  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1968-2006).
Ms Antonia Romeo
Director, Whitehall Liaison Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2009-).
Mr Keith Simpson MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Mid Norfolk (1997-);  Conservative Shadow Foreign Office Minister (2005-).  Formerly:  Conservative shadow Defence Minister (2003-05).
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVOB
Director, Policy Foresight Programme, University of Oxford (2006-).  Formerly:  Chancellor, University of Kent (1996-2006).  Author.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Jennifer Barnes

President, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge (2008-);  Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Strategy, University of Cambridge (2009-).  Formerly:  Director, Global Education, BP;  Dean, Trinity College of Music.
Mr Scott Hugo
MPhil Student in International Relations, Balliol College, University of Oxford.

Professor Nicholas Burns

Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (2008-).  Formerly:  Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, US Department of State, Washington DC (2005-08).  A Director of the American Ditchley Foundation.
Ambassador Marc Grossman
Vice-Chairman, The Cohen Group;  Future of Diplomacy Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School;  Resident Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (2010).  Formerly:  US Foreign Service (1976-2005);  Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.
Ms Cari Guittard
Executive Director, Business for Diplomatic Action.  Formerly:  Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, US Department of State.
Mr Jim Hoagland
Associate Editor and Chief Foreign Correspondent, The Washington Post.
Professor Philip Seib
Director, Center on Public Diplomacy, Professor of Journalism and Public Diplomacy and Professor of International Relations, University of Southern California (2007-).
Mr Casimir Yost
Director, Long Range Analysis Unit, National Intelligence Council (2009-).  Formerly:  Marshall B Coyne Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy and Director, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University (1994-2009).
Professor Karl Kaiser CBE

Director, Program on Transatlantic Relations, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.