What skills do diplomats need to be effective and avoid making embarrassing mistakes?
A subtle question. Diplomacy hates taking risks!
The ideas of ‘stability’ and ‘predictability’ are right at the heart of the way countries deal with each other. Any good diplomatic service puts a lot of emphasis on correct process and attention to detail. Avoid nasty surprises.
Leaders themselves also make simple mistakes from sheer tiredness, so for example when planning a senior visit make sure that the programme is sensibly paced.
When I give webinars on protocol for United Nations colleagues, I emphasise stupidity as a force in international affairs. When things go wrong in a publicly embarrassing way, it’s often through unnecessary ‘improvisation’ over points of detail. Someone has failed to understand where their own work fits into the big picture.
Key idea? It’s not what’s important, it’s what matters! Grasp that, and you’ll usually avoid calamity…
Our old friend – a sense of proportion.
You are also a mediator. Tell us about this profession and how important it is in the modern world. Does it solve real issues?
It’s madness that all diplomats and other professional people are not given basic mediation training.
Mediation is simply the skill of helping people settle differences and solve shared problems. To do it well you need to train yourself to listen carefully – and show that you’re listening. Listen to what they say. Listen to what they don’t say.
Unfortunately, many international problems drag on at a huge human cost because it suits powerful people that they’re not solved peacefully and fairly. Ukraine. Syria. North Korea.
Once things get stuck there’s ‘safety in failure.’ If you’re a bad but tough leader presiding over a poor oppressed country, what’s your interest in stepping down from power and letting someone else have a go? Not much!
Almost any international problem you choose could be solved or at least hugely improved by subtle sensitive mediation, IF the leaders concerned wanted to solve it. But they don’t!
The idea of ‘safety in failure’ © is important. It explains why so many global problems drag on ruinously. If a business is failing, the workers or shareholders or Reality Itself typically weigh in and compel change to try to stop the rot. But once citizens can’t heave out a Bad Leader who then manipulates the power of the state to stay in control indefinitely, things can get really bad and maybe never recover. See eg Zimbabwe, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and so on.
Why not use development budgets to pay such leaders a few tens of millions of dollars to go nicely? Isn’t that better/cheaper/wiser/fairer than letting everything drift towards chaos and poverty?
It is all those things. But it also seems to incentivise individual despots and political gangsters to be even more ghastly than they otherwise might be (“Hey, the worse we behave, the more the stupid West will pay us to leave!“), so it almost never happens.
You had a long diplomatic career with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What were some of the most interesting lessons you learned?
For me, the greatest diplomatic discipline is Accuracy. Never assume! You either know, or you’re guessing. If you’re guessing, you’ve lost control.
Ah. Control. When something goes wrong, it usually boils down to loss of control through some or other fatuous blunder. Remember THIS?