DIPLOMAT 2.0. TRADITION AND INNOVATION

by Stefano Baldi

 

Presented at TEDx Trento (Italy) on “The Pulse of Innovation” April 20th, 2013

 

You may well ask yourself what innovation has to do with diplomats and why?

 

In fact I am convinced that innovation is at the heart of Diplomacy.

 

Many believe that diplomats are more closely associated with tradition than with innovation.

As a career diplomat for many years I discovered that what a diplomat really is and does are not well understood

 

It is likely that for many of you the image of a diplomat has been formed from novels, films or advertisements. Besides, you may have come across some of the many quotations about diplomats and diplomacy that are not always flattering:

 

“A diplomat is a man who thinks twice before he says nothing” (Edward Heath)

Or

“An Ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the commonwealth” (Henry Wotton)

 

These are just two of many sayings that try (and fail) to summarize a complex and multi-faceted profession.

 

Maybe the best way to explain what a diplomat does today is to briefly mention how it all started.

 

By the way you know that when somebody says briefly referred to history, you run the risk to start from prehistoric times

 

In fact diplomats started as a profession when the enemy understood that it was better to hear the messenger than to eat it!

 

The profession had evolved since then and continues to do so…

 

But some diplomatic activities remains related to negotiations and this is part of the image people have of diplomats. In addition there is the concept of protocol (you know … official visits, receptions, cocktails).

But do diplomats spend all of their time negotiating or going to official receptions?

 

Fortunately not. I can tell you, from experience, that attending cocktails can be fun at first and then when they become too frequent, they can be harmful to your feet …. And your health! Ask also a diplomat’s spouse what they think of this aspect of the profession where they are often also engaged…..

 

Anyway there are many other activities and tasks that a modern diplomat has to perform to represent his or her country, which constitutes the fundamental task of a diplomat.

 

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For example, on top of negotiations and protocol, diplomats have to manage resources and manage information.

 

Managing information is not new but is one diplomatic activity that has greatly changed in the last 20 years and the one most subject to innovation

 

Let me give you a personal example about this. In the early nineties I was posted to the Italian Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was my first diplomatic posting, the one that you never forget over a lifetime you have to change city, house, habits every three or four years….

During my stay in Tanzania there was no Internet.

Therefore in order to read the Italian newspapers I had to wait for the weekly diplomatic pouch (a nice package with a diplomatic seal) bringing the previous week’s newspapers … The only Radio programmes in Italian I could listen to were 3 minutes per day of Italian broadcasting for eastern Africa on short wave. And no satellite TV was at that time available in Tanzania.

The result was that it was not easy to be fully and promptly updated on what was going on back home!

 

At the same time at the Ministry, our headquarters, they were relying mostly on our reports from Dar es Salaam, to know and understand what was going on in Tanzania.

 

This was the situation only 20 not 200 years ago!

 

Today all of this has completely changed. There are large numbers of sources and the information spreads at such speed that diplomats have had to completely change the way they work.

 

Let me give you another example to illustrate this changes and how we got to diplomat 2.0.

 

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30-20 years ago – Diplomatic documents were usually transmitted using the diplomatic pouch. For rapid messaging, but not documents, we used telexes. Depending on the country it could take from days to weeks before the document could reach headquarters.

 

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20 - 10 years ago. We used faxes and you could hear strange noises when transmitting documents. The distance was not anymore an element affecting delivery time. Only the quality of telephone lines and the length of the document could affect the transmission time. Still you needed five or 10 minutes for some documents to reach headquarters.

 

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Today. E-mail with attachments has become the main system to send documents. In few seconds you can send dozens of pages. Few seconds, no excuse!

The result is that expected reaction time has been being reduced to seconds.  This is difficult and sometimes dangerous because there is too little time to think. But that's the way it is in all businesses and there is no difference for diplomats.

 

There is no doubt that technological changes are reshaping the nature of diplomatic work.

 

Since the time available to react to an international crisis has been greatly reduced and diplomats remain a prime point of reference, they are always among the first who must be able to react also in communication terms, when such a crisis (being it natural, political or else) erupts.

 

But can innovation completely replace the traditional role of a diplomat accredited to a country to represent another country?

 

Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia and other have definitely changed working practices, but cannot replace the value derived from the analysis of a situation and the knowledge of a country and its people that an experienced diplomat can acquire.

 

So information technologies represent an amazing opportunity for innovation by diplomats, whose work relies so much on information and communication.

 

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But here is always a big risk round the corner: that of being controlled by technology rather than being in control.

 

To avoid this risk learning and training are vital. The challenge is to be able to determine which of the currently available tools will be most relevant for the future of the profession.

 

As director of the Istituto Diplomatico, the training structure of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this issue is particularly important to me and is reflected in current training programmes.

 

As a matter of fact any fast changing profession needs particular attention to learning.

The idea of lifelong learning is not new. What is new are the opportunities and the techniques that the Web offers to support continuous learning. Webinars, video lessons, online modules are only a few examples of easily available tools.

TED Talks have become a very valuable tool for learning purposes.

 

But the main challenge for exploiting these opportunities is the attitude of adult learners, such as diplomats, who need continuous learning. Everybody is convinced that learning is key for personal and professional development but most people take the so-called NIMBY attitude [Not In My Back Yard]: “learning is needed by everybody except me. I do not have time for this.”

 

Would you trust a doctor, graduated 20 or 30 years ago, who has not updated his knowledge since then? The same could apply to diplomats. While the basics stay the same, all the tools, the techniques, the world keeps moving. Like medicines, new tools need to be tested, experimented and continuously adapted to needs. That is why diplomats should continue to learn if they want to be able to represent their respective countries effectively.

 

There is another key issue when talking about teaching and learning in relation to innovation.

All diplomatic training institutions are striving for resources. But this can be seen as an opportunity. In fact in this context the possibility of sharing online training is a major opportunity to keep the quality of training at an adequate level. In the case of diplomats this is even more so. If you consider the fact that diplomats keep changing the place where they work (and live) every four years, the possibility of sharing training resources become even more relevant.

 

The diplomat 2.0 needs to be familiar with social media tools to stay updated and properly informed. He has to be smart enough to reconcile public diplomacy with discretion, transparency and respect for privacy.

 

If we take twitter as an example. The diplomat 2.0 follows people and institutions on twitter that he considers the best providers for the information that he needs to process for his or her analysis and reports. Finding the right and reliable sources is a skill that needs to be developed.

 

Twitter diplomacy or twiplomacy as it is sometimes known, can hardly be considered as a replacement for traditional diplomacy. But certainly it can be a valid help for diplomacy to be more efficient, more engaging and more inclusive.

The number of heads of State, of Foreign Ministers or Head of International Organizations who tweet is constantly increasing. Twitter is sometimes used to provide information to the public or the press replacing or even anticipating the traditional press communiqué. Many Ambassadors are on twitter.

 

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This map of AFP shows all the global embassies the US is in touch with on Twitter. Clicking on any of them it is possible to visualize the latest relevant tweets between the two countries, and learn more about the mood of the social media sphere.

 

Can we say that twitter or other social media are replacing the traditional diplomacy? certainly not. But we can definitely say that diplomats cannot ignore (and are not doing so) twitter (and other social media) for their activities. And they are learning it quickly!

 

The diplomat 2.0 will continue to be an extremely versatile professional with good traditional manners and emotional intelligence to defend national interest while acting for a peaceful world.

 

Diplomats have to be able to mix elements of tradition and of innovation in the proper way.

 

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It is like a cook. If you have two cooks who work with the same ingredients. If the cook is a good one, he will be able to get from those ingredients a very nice dish. If he is a bad cook, even with the same ingredients, he will not get a good plate.

 

It is the same for diplomats. They should find a way to mix properly the ingredients of tradition and of innovation.

 

Diplomats are one of the best examples of how tradition and innovation can be a winning mix. The more diplomats will be able to master this mix, the more their work will be effective.

 

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All original illustrations by Diplofoundation

 

 

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