Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age by Tom Fletcher review

A British diplomat waxes evangelical about the effect of new technology on world affairs

Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age
Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age
Author: Tom Fletcher
ISBN-13: 9780008127565
Publisher: William Collins
Guideline Price: £18.99

Of all the impressive officials with whom I worked during my two happy years as a foreign office minister, Tom Fletcher was among the best and the brightest. After running my private office, he went on to greater things: four years as a foreign policy adviser to three prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – before being appointed, in his mid-30s, as ambassador to Lebanon.

Fletcher is a diplomat in a somewhat different mould from the traditional image of a British ambassador. Youthful, energetic, optimistic, he embraced the digital world with enthusiasm, blogging and tweeting with gusto, and soon endeared himself to at leastthe younger generation of Lebanese. So much so that when he left Lebanon his valedictory letter went viral.

His book is in three parts. Part one is a brief history of diplomacy, starting with Shen Weigin, the unfortunate adviser to a third-century Chinese emperor who, having disappointed his master, ended up being sliced into little pieces. Happily, that is not a fate that awaits today’s diplomats, whatever their shortcomings.

The high point of European diplomacy is generally reckoned to have been the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which laid the basis for a century of peace in Europe, enabling the growth of empire.


Vienna also led to the birth of a professional diplomatic corps. Witness that when Queen Victoria came to the throne, Britain had only three permanent ambassadors; when she died, there were 100. It all ended in tears , of course, with the outbreak of the first World War leading to the Treaty of Versailles, which sowed the seeds of the second World War.

Part two examines the changing role of the diplomat in a world that has been rapidly transformed by the rise of the global market and the birth of the internet. The British foreign office has had some catching up to do. As late as 1970, a “diplomatic handbook”, by one RG Feltham, offered the following advice to diplomats: “Your wife should develop a pursuit such as tennis to give her a wider conversational reach beyond servants and the weather.” One has to pinch oneself to recall that until 1972 women diplomats were obliged to resign if they married.

In the good old days British diplomats were toffs, educated at the same handful of schools and universities, at ease in the company of other elites, and possessed of a sense of entitlement and (justified or not) utter self-confidence. In those days the key qualification for an ambassador was an ability to write an elegant telegram for the enlightenment of a small elite of other toffs in Whitehall.

Today all that has changed. Although the toff count in the British foreign office is still relatively high, the modern diplomat must engage with a far wider audience and the advent of the digital age gives him or her the tools to do so. He is also expected to be in the front line when it comes to promoting his country’s business interests, culture and values to audiences young and old, rich and poor, and of all faiths, creeds and sects.

Along with other professions, politicians and diplomats are having to adjust rapidly to the brave new world of globalisation and digital revolution. And the pace of changes is accelerating. Nothing stays secret for long in this age of transparency and Wikileaks; and as the jihadi recruiters have demonstrated, digital technology is a weapon that can be used against us. But, whether we like it or not, it is here to stay and, used wisely, it can be a force for good.

The author is positively evangelical. “Diplomats,” he argues, “should be among the pioneers of the new digital terrain . . . for the first time we have the means to influence the countries we work in on a massive scale, not just through elites”. Hmmm. Up to a point, Lord Copper. As it happens, the author’s tenure in Lebanon seems to have been an outstanding success, but, as he concedes, “getting it wrong could start a war”.

Overall, the book is a lucid and delightful blend of intriguing fact, argument and anecdote, mercifully free of jargon (with the notable exception of “Tweetup” – ugh). What shines through is the author’s empathy for Lebanon and its people, and the enormous effort he made to relate to this small but complex country.

In conclusion, the author identifies three great challenges for the 21st-century diplomat. When and how should we intervene in other people’s wars? (Still scope for improvement here, if recent experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria is anything to go by.) How do we build international institutions that are fit for purpose, notably the UN, which is often rendered powerless by competing big-power interests? And how do we reduce global inequality without destroying the plant? To which I would add a fourth: how do we cope with the rise of failed states, which are generating refugees on a scale that threatens the stability of much of the developed world.

The tone is relentlessly upbeat, but there is one somewhat topical warning: avoid the temptation to pull up the drawbridge, focussing purely on domestic issues. “There is no global challenge today to which the answer is to build a bigger wall,” Fletcher writes.

Alas, at least so far as the UK is concerned, the horse seems to have bolted. One result of the recent EU referendum is that, for the foreseeable future, our diplomats are going to be preoccupied with explaining and justifying this decision to bemused foreigners – and with coping with the consequences.

Chris Mullin was the Labour MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010 and a minister in the Blair government