Interview with Tom Fletcher

November 2016

Tom Fletcher, better known as the ‘Naked Diplomat’, talks to Insight about ‘Citizen Diplomacy’, Soft Power, and how digital technology can help to improve the world.

I suppose I should start by asking: what are you wearing – if anything?

Well, rather on brand I’ve actually just been for a swim, so I’m not actually wearing that much. It’s a good job we’re not doing this on Skype. But I assure you I’m not completely naked.

You’ve certainly worn several hats in your career already: advisor to three prime ministers, the British Ambassador to Lebanon for 4 years - which ended with you re-launching the ‘valedictory dispatch’, calling for someone to write a book arguing that digital is revolutionising diplomacy and power - and now author of a book that powerfully makes that argument: ‘Naked Diplomacy’. Are you winning that argument?

No, I don’t think so.

The first part of my argument – about opening up diplomacy to make it more acceptable, transparent and engaging - is being won. Not necessarily by me, but by loads of people out there in all sorts of ways. Only 7 or 8 years ago, having a British Ambassador on Twitter was quite a novelty, and seen as a bit of a lightweight gimmick. I don’t get the impression that’s true anymore now that British diplomats are using Twitter in all sorts of interesting ways. And pretty much every ambassador in the world is now on Twitter personally. So I think that argument is won.

The argument I think I’m losing is my broader argument about whether the 21st century will be won by the ‘co-existers’ or the ‘wall-builders’. It’s hard not to feel utterly despondent about the American election. I feel that broader argument for co-existence is being lost.

Let’s take those two arguments in turn. Firstly: an old-school diplomat might say that two hours a day Tweeting is no substitute for diplomatic expertise or the personal face-to-face contact of the ‘last three feet’– indeed that it can undermine it. Do they have a point?

I agree there’s no substitute for that work. If diplomats are just sitting on Twitter and Facebook all day they’re really not doing their job properly. That’s why I spend the first third of my book talking about traditional diplomacy. We need that more than ever. But look at the recent Iran deal or the Cuba deal. The hard work on those was through old-fashioned, behind the scenes diplomacy - and that is as vital as ever. Digital doesn’t replace that: it complements it. So I disagree that it makes it harder to do the ‘last three feet’.

In Lebanon, I found leaders were more willing to give me time because I had a social media presence. So for example we did a live hour on Twitter with the Lebanese Prime Minister which really helped me build my relationship with him before more private, confidential, classic diplomatic exchange. The two things are mutually reinforcing.

Perhaps more fundamentally, to take the second part of your argument, some might say that digital, like all new technology, can be used by anyone for any purpose. That it hasn’t changed human nature, competition for power, or the need for real politic. Liberal diplomats may use it (as you suggest) to ‘get Bono and Malala to help mobilise popular leverage’ that can help their negotiations, but less benign governments can also use it to try to influence foreign elections, or stir up disinformation and even violence in other countries’ populations. Why should this technology be a force for good and how can we ensure that it is?

Good point. That’s already happening and many of those bad guys are winning. You can see the way social media undermines trust and the credibility of what leaders are saying. The Economist called it ‘post-truth politics’. It’s a real challenge. In the Middle East, on-line the bad guys are winning and proving to be much more effective at using, for example, gaming technology to radicalise young people in this region than we are in the other direction. There’s a real battle to be fought and we’ve got to get much better at using the new tools. We can’t just leave those tools in the corner. If we went around saying social media is making our lives much harder and we shouldn’t engage with it then we’d just leave that terrain completely to the other side. It would be like walking away from Radio during World War II rather than Churchill using it to build public support. In any age you have to master whatever is the medium of that age. And a large part of the medium now is social media.

I think social media has been a massive part of this trend for digital technology creating an ‘age of mistrust’: a reduction of deference (which I think is probably a good thing), but also a reduction of trust in authority

Can I just ask you whether the echo effect of social media: the ability for trolls or even robots to put out lies or aggression, and the undermining of the traditional gatekeepers – including diplomats – by this technology, may have actually helped to create this populist ‘post-truth’ political landscape?

Yes. I think social media has been a massive part of this trend for digital technology creating an ‘age of mistrust’: a reduction of deference (which I think is probably a good thing), but also a reduction of trust in authority, so that people’s starting assumption is simply that government is bad and so are people in public service - dodgy MPs with their expenses, dodgy bankers, dodgy media. That rising scepticism is a huge challenge. Social media is a massive part of that. We’ve got to get better at using social media to try to explain what we do and build trust, because without it our jobs are very hard.

Citizen Diplomats

You’re a powerful advocate for ‘citizen diplomacy’ to tackle these challenges and to build bridges not walls. What exactly are you suggesting ordinary people do to be good ‘citizen diplomats’, and what should governments do to enable this?

I think that’s the idea in the book that has most irritated people. It is a provocative thought. What I’m not saying is that every ‘citizen diplomat’ needs to go and learn the Geneva Convention, turn up at the Brexit negotiations, and join in. What I’m really getting at is that the basic fundamental issue of diplomacy - since the first ‘naked diplomat’ cave man persuaded someone to stop bashing him over the head and to work with him instead, is about building bridges not walls. You don’t need a degree in International Diplomacy to do that.

At a school in the Bekaa Valley I recently met a Head Teacher who has more Syrian refugee than Lebanese students: I’m claiming her as a citizen diplomat. The people in Munich negotiating the sharing of local services between locals and refugees. They are citizen diplomats. Anyone who is on the front line of the new negotiations not between competing states but between peoples is a citizen diplomat.

Someone coming out of Government like me can see that Government (of any party) can’t fix this stuff. They increasingly don’t have the bandwidth, resource or time or trust to solve these massive problems. If power is moving towards individuals – and I’m certain it is – then with power comes responsibility. So we need people to start thinking that they’re also part of the solution now.

That sounds like a counsel of despair. Or at least a wakeup call to all of us. What should we do if ‘Government does not have these issues covered’?

It’s just realism. There’s growing realisation in Government and outside it that Government can’t deal with all these problems. For example, if there is a need tomorrow to really think about the boundaries between liberty and security on the internet, the answer is not to have a big government conference to get 198 governments together and come up with a communiqué. People would laugh, as you’re laughing now, and say ‘where are the tech companies, where are the NGOs?’. So I think people realise that, for example, Climate Change can’t just be left to governments - or else we’re screwed. So people realise it, but aren’t necessarily taking the next step of asking how they can take more responsibility themselves. It may be incredible naiveté and idealism but I still believe that there are more humans with ingenuity, curiosity and a desire to live together than there are people on the other side. I think there is a silent majority. But we’re being too silent.

Island of Liberty, Beacon of Creativity

Those sorts of people-to-people connections are a growing part of nations’ Soft Power. But seen from abroad, how does British Soft Power work on a) leaders and b) ordinary people? What tangible benefits has it brought?

It’s massively powerful, which is why we’re 1st or 2nd in the league tables each year. Although we can’t take that for granted if we’re not investing in our creative industries or wider soft power effort. I saw it at work all the time. When I went to universities to do Q & A’s with Lebanese students, I was often harangued about Balfour declaration or Sykes-Picot by students wearing Premiership tops who’d be quite happy to have conversation about how much they loved James Bond or Downton Abbey. So people understand at the human level that there’s more to Britain than just the things they disagree with. Because we are quite magnetic and vibrant.

I saw this morning that 25% of world leaders are educated in the UK. This is an extraordinary fact and, particularly in the post-Brexit environment, we need to be doubling down on our education and creative industries sectors and the other areas that the rest of the world recognise as a strength.

In 2012 in particular there was a huge advantage to be a British ambassador in terms of the image we were projecting through the Danny Boyle opening ceremony, etc. That just gave us licence as ambassadors to go out there and not think of ourselves as representing just a sovereign or a government but a people. I saw how much easier it then was to engage with governments and people overseas when we were doing anything related to British culture. 2012 really was a high-point. I just hope we can re-capture the 2012 spirit rather than allow the rest of the world to see 2016 as us defining ourselves as isolationist or intolerant, because I don’t think that’s what the vote was about.

Education and in particular the Creative Industries form major planks of British Soft Power. I see you are Chair of the International Advisory Council of the Creative Industries Federation (here I should declare an interest as I used to work for them myself). What should British policymakers, soft power and creative organisations, and individuals do to help the UK continue to be a ‘soft power super-power’?

I think a lot will come down to creative education: making sure our kids have the space to be creative. That is such a source of 21st century power. I spend a lot of time at the moment thinking about what skills kids need in the 21st century. Creativity comes out at the top of the pile. We really need to invest in those creative skills. And we should look for example at student visas. We should be encouraging people to come to the UK to study, not giving the impression, as we sometimes do, that we’re chasing them away. A lot of this comes down to projecting a message of openness and tolerance. We’ve always been at our strongest when we have projected that magnetic quality. The countries in the 21st century that respond to economic uncertainty by closing themselves off will become the 21st century sick men of Europe.

You’ve talked about the spirit of 2012 vs the spirit of 2016 and you’ve called the EU Referendum ‘the true end of the 20th century’. How exactly, as you say, can ‘progressive Remainers and libertarian Brexiteers’ come together to help forge an internationalist future for the UK as an ‘island of liberty’ and ‘beacon for creativity and openness’?

 

We can be the country that’s in the vanguard of freedom of trade, freedom of opportunity, freedom of coexistence, and freedom of creativity...I think being exporters of liberty is vital. That’s been true for much of our history and would be a niche that would work for us

It’s a really tough question. I think it is about disbanding the circular firing squad and moving the argument on from saying ‘I told you so’ or ‘it’s all going to be awful / amazing’. Because no matter how despondent or angry some people feel, I think there is something in this theme of global liberty. We can be the country that’s in the vanguard of freedom of trade, freedom of opportunity, freedom of coexistence, and freedom of creativity (including the freedom of the internet – getting as many people on-line as quickly as possible and giving them as much freedom as possible to co-create on-line). I think being exporters of liberty is vital. That’s been true for much of our history and would be a niche that would work for us.

You’ve suggested that the post-war architecture of international relations is no longer fit for purpose in a globalised world of huge trans-national challenges. How exactly should we re-fashion it, without diminishing our own role?

Coincidentally I have just this morning written a letter to the new UN Secretary General, António Guterres, with some thoughts about how we can re-energise the UN. He should take a personal role on Syria because Syria has so undermined people’s confidence in the international community’s ability to protect the most vulnerable. I will spend much of the rest of my life trying to explain how we managed to let Syria happen on our watch. We shouldn’t have set any red lines that we weren’t prepared to back up. I would like to see us putting military actions carefully back on the table. I think Syria’s also a real challenge for him. And I think this idea about freedom of opportunity, coexistence, and creativity is really important. Do we need an online declaration of human rights to go alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? I think there’s loads more the UN can do to use the best digital ideas and technology to prepare for the implications of the digital age.

It sounds like you’re helping to solve the world’s problems before you’ve had breakfast, so I’ll let you ring off – and indeed dry off and put some more clothes on.

Thank you. Let me just finish by saying that I’m a big fan of the British Council. My first ever job was as an English teacher for the British Council. So thank you too.

 

Tom Fletcher was interviewed by Alasdair Donaldson on 03/11/2016