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The naked diplomat: Tom Fletcher (photo: Francesco Guidici)

Diplomacy used to be so straightforward. A British ambassador’s job was to cultivate close relations with the ruling elite of the country to which he (and in those days it always was a he) was posted, and then exploit those relationships to deliver outcomes for HMG. A private meeting with the relevant minister, perhaps a bit of polite horsetrading, some hinted threats or promises, and with luck an issue could be resolved quietly and quickly, and with little need to refer back to London for instructions. Meanwhile back in Whitehall, before the internet age, ambassadors to most countries had a near monopoly on the supply of detailed political news and judgments back to London, which gave the Foreign Office natural dominance of most foreign policy questions — it knew most, if not always best.

The internet revolution has changed all that. Today anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can, in principle, research and draft a policy paper on pretty well any detailed foreign policy question.  International relations are not just about what states think but what non-state groups, businesses and even the public think. Elites are not over, but are less powerful: even in the relatively less democratic countries where they still dominate there is greater transparency, making them sensitive to their own domestic public opinion and less able to sort things out in private with that charming British ambassador. 

So how then should British diplomats and the Foreign Office adapt to the digital revolution? Tom Fletcher was foreign policy adviser in No 10 under Blair, Brown and Cameron, after which he was ambassador to Lebanon from 2011 to 2015, when he became the leading Foreign Office user of Twitter and social media. He also led a recent review of the Foreign Office — “Future FCO” (which is, naturally, available online).

His book, Naked Diplomacy, is partially written in Twitterese (short sentences, fewer verbs than are generally considered necessary by Standpoint readers, slangy, very personal), regularly patronises his Foreign Office predecessors and the conventions of 50 years ago, and name-drops immodestly.  It is nevertheless an important one. The Fletcher thesis is that digital technology has caused tectonic shifts in communications and therefore in how societies work, leaving traditional diplomacy floundering. The balance of power is shifting from hierarchies to networks. As the UK’s military and economic power declines relatively, we must harness the tools of “soft power”. Diplomats need to become “digital interventionists” in order to influence the countries in which they work.  The old division between politicians who present policy in public, and civil servants who prepare it behind the scenes, must be blurred if the UK is to achieve anything at the pace of the digital world.

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