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Who needs diplomats?

Dec 09,2014 - Last updated at Dec 09,2014

Diplomacy is an old profession. Over 2,000 years ago Greek city states used to send envoys to negotiate war, peace and trade. 

But surely with new technology, governments don’t need intermediaries? They can use the Internet, videoconferencing and Skype to talk to each other. And with multiple news websites, instant reporting and people uploading their own videos onto YouTube, capitals don’t need diplomats to tell them what’s happening.

And anyway, all we do is go to cocktail parties and eat Ferrero Rocher. Surely diplomats are irrelevant?

Of course, the reality is rather different. It goes without saying that the world is increasingly interconnected and interdependent. No country can solve its problems by itself. The big challenges of security, terrorism, migration, the environment all require international solutions.

Those solutions have to be negotiated and implemented by governments. And those governments need representatives abroad to promote and protect their interests: to secure our collective security, stability and prosperity. 

How? A good example is the challenge of Daesh. Around 500 British citizens have fought in Syria and Iraq. People from other European and Arab countries have joined the extremist groups who brutally murder anyone who disagrees with them. We all have a common interest in dealing with it to maintain our collective security. 

The associated problem of refugees also requires international collaboration. Jordan has demonstrated massive generosity in hosting so many Syrians. International donors have to help, not only in the camps, but also to support the Jordanian towns and villages where the refugees are living. The UK has thus contributed $340 million to Jordan since the Syria crisis began. 

Working together on terrorism, humanitarian help and development projects needs people on the ground who have the understanding and the contacts to help the international wheels of mutual support go round.

But like any other profession, diplomacy has to change. Not just to adapt to new technology. But to exploit it.  Here are some examples:

First: Dig deeper. To operate effectively we need to get under the skin of a country, learn the language, culture, politics and history as well as have access to decision makers and opinion formers. That doesn’t just mean the government, MPs and businessmen, but also civil society, youth leaders and women’s groups. 

In Jordan it can also mean Mansaf Diplomacy: travelling to areas to meet tribal leaders, members of municipalities and community leaders to hear their views. Some people might see this as interference. But if I sat in my office in Abdoun and tried to pretend that I understood Jordan, I would rightly be accused of being unprofessional. 

Second: Broadcast, don’t just receive. Modern technology gives us an unprecedented set of tools to talk directly to people, explain what we are doing and correct misperceptions. This blog is an example. Twitter and Facebook are also essential parts of the modern diplomat’s toolbox.

Take the Tweet-up we organised this week: nine Jordanian Tweeps round my table, enjoying some falafel and hommous, discussing some big questions submitted via Twitter in the preceding two weeks. We covered internal and regional issues including questions sent in advance. And the discussion was live-streamed by the web TV channel Aramram. 

Third: Focus on skills, not knowledge. Our young diplomats are not recruited because they have a deep and comprehensive knowledge of British history or political science. We look for a diverse workforce that has the key skills we need to operate abroad: leadership, communications and interpersonal ability, powers of analysis and service delivery. 

I spoke on these lines at the launch of the Model United Nations at the International Academy of Amman last week. The young delegates were eager to learn how real diplomacy worked and full of penetrating questions about current affairs. I’m glad to say that they agreed that the world does need diplomats. 

The writer is British ambassador to Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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