What makes a good diplomat? After a long diplomatic career and a year at the Court of St James’s the Marshal has narrowed it down to a few key ingredients
I have just celebrated one year as Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps. This is a good time to reflect on the role, and on the job of a diplomat more widely.
The work of a diplomat varies depending on the country he or she represents, and on where they are posted. My career included three bilateral postings in three very different contexts. From my experience, and observation of diplomatic colleagues in London, I have drawn a few conclusions about what makes a good diplomat:
- Firstly, a diplomat needs to be a good networker. Networking is the lifeblood of diplomacy – it’s how diplomats gather information, and how they make an impact. Accepting invitations is one key to success (and I have spoken occasionally about the importance of attending all events for which one accepts invitations).
- Then, a diplomat needs to be a competent event organiser. This isn’t as easy as it looks. Most outsiders think diplomacy is one long party, and that organising parties is easy. I know from experience that it isn’t. Getting the food and drink right are only half the job. Ensuring the right mix of guests is vital. Judging how many speeches to have, and what to say, is equally critical. My own feeling is that the speeches at a party should not last more than ten minutes, all told. I have never been at an event where everyone said the speeches should have gone on longer. All the essentials can usually be said in a few minutes.
- So a good diplomat is a good public speaker. That is a skill that I am still learning. For example, my wife tells me that I don’t make enough eye contact with the audience. Really good speakers do that effortlessly, speak loudly and clearly enough to be heard and understood, and make their points briskly and with a touch of humour.
- Public speaking is just one way in which a diplomat can be a powerful advocate for his or her country. But more often than not a private word makes the bigger difference. I learnt most about advocacy during my postings in New York at the United Nations, where I could do business with colleagues quickly in the corridors, even while the great public debates were going on in the General Assembly or the Security Council.
- Diplomacy is not a one-way street, so a diplomat also needs to be a good listener. Capitals want to be confident you have put across your own government’s views. But at the same time they want to learn from you what your hosts think about a given issue. Listening, and picking up the key messages, isn’t always easy, particularly if an issue is complicated and views vary between ministries and individuals.
- So, bearing all the above in mind, a diplomat needs to be a great analyst who can think through issues and present their capital with the results. That means understanding the politics of the country where you are posted – never easy, and UK politics is passing through a particularly interesting and complex phase at the moment. But a diplomat also has to analyse the international situation, which these days seems more complex than ever.
So the good diplomat is a paragon, perfect in many different arts, and ready to multi-task to get lots of different jobs done at the same time. Does the perfect diplomat exist? Probably not, but I should say that my colleagues here in London seem to come close in a very exacting environment.
Coupled with which they are all exceptionally friendly and have been very welcoming over the past year. Thank you to everyone who has made my first year so enjoyable and worthwhile, and I look forward to the next few years with anticipation and confidence.