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Winter Reading: The Naked Diplomat

February 4, 2019

I’ve come a little late to Tom Fletcher’s The Naked Diplomat – Understanding Power and Politics in the Digital Age. Fletcher, a former adviser on foreign affairs to three Prime Ministers and then Britain’s Ambassador to Lebanon, published his book about challenges to diplomacy in the digital age in 2016.

It’s a great read, full of optimism, wit and wisdom. In Lebanon, where he was our youngest ambassador, he practised what he preached, engaging the Lebanese people as well as politicians on Twitter with the relentless positivity that is evident in his current twitter feed.

He recognises the dangers of the social media, the reality of a world without the sanctity of secrets (or so Wikileaks would have it) and the threat of the digital age to the traditional practice of diplomacy. He also looks at the role of the diplomat of the future, wielding soft power, networking and encouraging the use of embassies as gathering places for those interested in interacting with the country they represent.

Quite a change from my limited interactions with ambassadors in the Middle East, which were confined to occasional invitations to the annual Queen’s Birthday celebration. At such events you could get to talk to His Excellency (for it was always a he) if you tried hard enough, but the conversations were always platitudinous. We expatriates were not the object of his interest. We were merely British subjects whom his consular staff occasionally had to extricate (often with limited success) from self-inflicted messes.

To us, the ambassador was a lofty figure, there to influence the great and the good in his posting. That was in the eighties. When I came back to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia a couple of decades later, things had loosened up a bit. Embassy staff were more approachable, but I still got the impression that our demands on their time were met on sufferance, unless we ourselves were sufficiently influential to affect the outcome of British business initiatives.

At no time did I feel that we were viewed as a potential resource to reinforce the British brand amongst our local colleagues. No positive information was ever pushed our way, nor were we invited to provide feedback on the Embassy’s activities and initiatives. There were British business associations, which held occasional parties at the Ambassador’s residence. These promoted a spirit of cooperation between business people, but I always saw the Embassy as a benevolent sponsor rather than an active participant. Perhaps they were afraid of associating with us too closely in case we turned out to be wrong’uns. In other words, we were potentially unreliable exemplars of the British brand.

Tom Fletcher’s embassy in Beirut was clearly way beyond the relative aloofness of his colleagues in Riyadh, though I get the impression from his book that his reaching out was focused more on the Lebanese than on the recalcitrant Brits in his back yard. And yes, his primary role was to represent his country to the people, the government and the powerful warlords in what must have been a fiendishly difficult posting at a dangerous time – just as the Arab Spring was revving up and the Syrian civil war was igniting.

His book is superbly written and starts with a fascinating tour d’horizon (a phrase beloved of diplomats) of the history of diplomacy, from the notional Neanderthal persuading his neighbour not to club him to death to the great diplomatic set pieces from the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century through to the summitry of the 20th and 21st centuries. Most of these were – to a greater or lesser extent – successful attempts to stitch up the world order by a small number of powerful nations. They continue today with the G7 summits and Donald Trump’s bumbling encounters with Putin and Kim Jong Un. But in the 21st century, structures like the UN Security Council whose permanent members reflect the ‘great power’ structure of 1945, are becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. Why is Britain a member, and not Germany? Why France, and not South Korea, or Japan? And what of the transnational great powers of the age – Google, Amazon and Facebook? What role should they play in the diplomatic game?

The role of Facebook in shaping opinion around the world may have been less obvious before July 2016, although Fletcher recognises the power of transnational corporations. But subsequent events – the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump – put a different complexion on the power of the social media.

In a way, The Naked Diplomat makes me feel a little nostalgic for those relatively innocent days before a group of ruthless campaigners weaponised data sucked out of Facebook and other sources and used it to send Britain spinning out of the European Union and caused the United States to elect a narcissistic demagogue as president.

For me, the digital world grew several shades darker in 2016. The blueprint that Russia, Cambridge Analytica and others used to subvert the US election took the chaos of the internet and created a powerful beam of concerted manipulation of facts, and most crucially, emotions. It will be used again by other actors, and increasingly by artificial intelligence, through malign algorithms designed to appeal to the basest instincts.

And Donald Trump, by spewing out lies, hatred, paranoia and baseless boasts on Twitter, has shown politicians everywhere that they can prosper with similar methods. America’s diplomats have an almost impossible job projecting consistent and positive messages when their president changes his positions on a whim. And America’s enemies, from states to terrorist groups, have a far easier job justifying their hostility when the most naked diplomat of all reveals his needy personality, covered with psychological warts, boils and running sores, to all and sundry. When he tweets, he speaks for America, and it isn’t a pretty picture he portrays.

How can America’s diplomats project a credible image without conceding that Trump is slightly mad?

As for America’s intelligence community, one can only imagine how they feel when their sober assessments of world affairs are trashed by their boss, who believes he is smarter than all of them. And then denies that he trashed them in the first place!

In Britain, Fletcher’s country and mine, lies from politicians, both online and through conventional media, have become so blatant and frequent that nobody reacts in horror any more. And those who want to believe them go ahead and believe, despite others shouting the truth until they’re blue in the face.

Political discourse through the social media has become more coarse and abusive over the past three years than it ever was. Poisonous tweets abound from people who would never dare to say face to face what they say online. Insults that once could only be hurled with impunity through the closed windows of cars in traffic and through poison pen letters have become the meat and drink of the internet.

And yet the same media, if you follow the right people, can offer rays of hope – pointers to sanity, reason and hope. But my goodness, you need to work hard to find them though the ordure of lies, manipulation and false equivalence.

The Naked Diplomat is still very much worth a read even though so much has changed since Fletcher wrote it a mere three years ago. I have the second edition, in which he provides an introduction clearly written after Trump’s election but before his presidency got into full swing. The twenty three pages stand on their own as wonderfully cogent reminder of challenges we face over the next few decades. The weaponization of the internet is one issue, but there are many more, not least the gap between rich and poor. As he writes:

Finally we will see a growing chasm between ‘on demand winners’ and ‘on demand losers’. Many of us are going to love the ‘on demand’ economy. We’ll get more of what we want when we need it. But it will take a lot of people to service that. Their time will be on demand so that ours can be our own. Make that gap between winners and losers too wide, and we create peril. Growing inequality is the biggest geopolitical risk today. If displaced people had a country, it would be the twenty-first largest in the world.

We better mind that gap.

Two years on, that problem is getting worse, exacerbated by kleptocrats, demagogues and dictators. And, of course, by self-interested politicians in democracies too feeble to call them out and reject them.

We badly need optimism and hope, but tempered with realism. And we need more than ever voices like that of Tom Fletcher to speak truth to power. The power, that is, vested in us as digital citizens.

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