As embassies struggle to retain a foothold in a diversifying (and cost-cutting) world, the role of the diplomat is changing beyond recognition. We meet the next generation.
It used to be so simple. Cocktail parties on the terrace. Formal dinners with presidents. A quiet word in the minister’s ear at a national celebration. The art of diplomacy is changing, arguably at a faster rate than at any time in history. A combination of new technology, a shift in global power bases and budget cuts across the West are all contributing towards a rapid realignment in the way that governments interact with each other.
In an age of austerity foreign ministry budgets are an easy, populist target for an axe-wielding finance minister. “Who is going to rush to the barricades to defend diplomats?” asks Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington. Embassies are increasingly asked to cover several countries, reducing their presence in those deemed less important down to an honorary consul or a young diplomat armed with a laptop and a smartphone.
The major powers can perhaps maintain their influence – a US envoy is unlikely to ever struggle to get a meeting with a country’s prime minister – but for smaller nations a lack of presence has a major impact. “Presence is everything,” says Klavs Holm, undersecretary of public diplomacy at Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We don’t find it flattering to be covered from Sweden. Immediately they are one step behind when they want to talk to us.”
It works both ways. “If I were an ambassador in a regional hub in Riga and had to go to Estonia to solve a problem, it would be very difficult to identify who to speak to and to get the access,” says Holm. “If you’re there, you have the access, you know the adviser to the prime minister, you go to events, you have an understanding.”
While Holm is critical of laptop diplomats, others argue they have a purpose. Mark Malloch Brown, a former UN deputy secretary general and British foreign office minister, points to the UK’s missions in places such as eastern Congo, where there is no consulate. “Having someone hundreds of miles from Kinshasa allows them to get much closer to the story – enabled by new technology.”
New technology has dramatically reduced the importance of one of the ambassador’s traditional roles: reporting back to the capital. If Al Jazeera can show live pictures of the Egyptian revolution and correspondents can file copy within seconds from the front line in Libya, does a foreign minister need a weekly update from her or his man on the ground?
Yes, argues Malloch Brown, but in today’s world it needs to be different. “It puts a premium on diplomats to find things that others can’t report or offer a quality of judgment or analysis that others can’t provide.”
It also requires a network, which extends beyond the traditional circuit of National Day parties and discreet tete-a-tetes with senior ministers. And that requires the same skills that ambassadors have had since the first embassies were opened. “The old skills of persuasion and learning what makes a country tick are as important today as 500 years ago,” says Meyer. “Some things may have changed, but some really haven’t changed at all.”
When Germany reunified and relocated its government – and with it, the nation’s foreign diplomats – from Bonn to Berlin, most countries needed to find, or build, new embassies. Politically, the Nordic nations (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) had already co-operated as part of various institutions – such as the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers – so the idea of sharing an embassy had been considered. Now they took the bold step of actually building one together.
In 1996, Berger and Parkkinen, an Austrian-Finnish firm of architects, won a competition to design the new embassy concept – designing one building that would be used as a shared events space, the Felleshus. Each of the five countries then chose a national architect to design their own building – all of them surrounded by Berger and Parkinnen’s symbolic copper belt, 230m long and 15m high. In 1999, the €49.5m shared Nordic embassy was officially opened. Located in the city’s new diplomats quarter in Tiergarten, it covers 7,290 sq m.
The Danish building boasts an open glass façade; Finland uses slats of larch wood. Sweden imported Gotland limestone for its portion; the façade of the Icelandic building is made of red rhyolite; and a 15m-high granite plate weighing 120 tons is mounted on the façade of the Norwegian building.
However, it’s not only the architecture that Berliners took to; it’s also the open and transparent mindset this shared embassy conveys. “We host a lot of events,” says Per Poulsen-Hansen, the Danish ambassador in Germany. Sweden has hosted an exhibition on Ikea; Denmark on Verner Panton. When Monocle visits, Finland is hosting a show about lighting design. And a sense of community does wonders for the ambassadors’ everyday routines. “Often we and our staff meet informally, in the canteen,” says Poulsen-Hansen. Maybe, he adds, shared embassies are a model for the future.
“The embassy complex proves that five countries can work together practically, and symbolically, on a daily basis,” agrees Norwegian ambassador Sven Svedmann. His Swedish counterpart Staffan Carlsson chips in: “By being together and co-operating closely in Berlin, the five Nordic embassies make their countries a little bigger than they actually are. You can discuss endlessly whether there is a Nordic model, but in Germany the concept works.”
Most important tool
Open architecture, shared infrastructure
How to decide who gets how much space and who pays how much. The Nordic countries found a Solomonic solution with each of the bigger countries paying the same amount, and only small Iceland paying less.
Though the concept could work for other groups of nations, such as the Benelux states, it needs the kind of friendly open-mindedness that is – clichéd or not – so typical of Nordic nations. It’s probably not an ideal model for hot-tempered Mediterraneans or overly bureaucratic Germans.
An ornate red-brick building in New York’s gritty East Village – originally home to a 19th-century German clinic – may not be where you’d expect to find a team of experienced international diplomats. Yet this is the headquarters for Independent Diplomat (ID), the world’s first non-profit diplomatic advisory service. “The reason we are needed is because the system has been designed by those in power and it works very well for them,” says Andrew Lewis, ID’s representative at the UN. “But the smaller groups don’t have anyone to help them. They don’t know how to get things done or understand that talking shop at the UN does make a difference. We help them talk to people that they don’t know how to talk to.”
Founded by former British diplomat Carne Ross in 2004, ID now has 11 employees across its offices in New York, London, Brussels and Juba (from where Ross and his colleagues are currently advising the Republic of South Sudan), and has advised on situations such as the final phase of Kosovo’s 2008 independence. Monitoring diplomatic situations around the world where their expertise could be useful, ID has found that most of its clients – including the South Sudanese – come to the company having heard of its previous work.
Ross and his team are not involved in the business of mediating, campaigning training diplomats. Instead they work behind the scenes, sitting alongside rather than at the table, to help clients represent themselves more effectively within the existing diplomatic system. “We have experience that they may not have to assess and digest information,” says Lewis. “We pull it together into a strategy or a series of recommendations. But then we’ll put them in front; it’s their problem and it’s their country.”
If a client violates ID’s strict commitment to non-violence, democracy, human rights and international law, their contract will be broken. But, Ross points out, that is the most extreme measure. “We’re advisers, we don’t tell them what to do. That approach has been really important to establishing trust with our clients, because they are used to western NGOs wagging their fingers at them.”
Independent Diplomat’s financial position is precarious. Though funded predominantly by donations, clients pay a nominal fee according to ability. In order to maintain credibility in the diplomatic community, ID is committed to confidentiality. “We are very clear when we talk to people that only our clients are receiving information,” says Ross. “We scrupulously protect information. That’s very important as it’s key to how diplomacy operates.”
While ID’s specialised advice on diplomatic procedure is unique, Ross and Lewis say that the conduct of diplomacy is slowly but surely changing. As pragmatism begins to replace formality in the world of diplomacy, and with 80 per cent of the Security Council’s agenda dealing with intra-state conflict, important bodies are beginning to recognise the power of groups like ID. Yet there is still some way to go. “It would be wrong to say this shift in diplomacy has happened,” says Ross. “But it may be under way. We’re a sign of that change happening but by no means are we the end of it.”
Most important tool
The internet. Communicating across offices, keeping informed of global political situations and accessing what Carne Ross calls “hardcore, serious political information,” ID could not exist without the internet.
Funding. As a non-traditional organisation that takes the side of each individual client, supporters of ID are exposed to real political risk, making donors nervous.
As expert diplomats for hire, Ross and his team give disregarded yet democratic groups a voice within an increasingly antiquated diplomatic system.
Abubaker Karmos, newly appointed as Libya’s chargé d’affaires in Canada, is doing something few top diplomats ever have to do: rebuild an embassy almost from scratch.
The mission’s Ottawa offices are locked due to non-payment of rent. Though he was recently able to move into the ambassador’s residence and rehire two staffers, Karmos has little money for operations. The embassy’s accounts have been unfrozen but, as he says, “there’s not much left in them.” Even the mission’s fleet of half a dozen cars is gone – apparently spirited out of Canada by his predecessors. And this while representing a country that’s not quite finished its civil war, and whose deposed tyrant is still at large.
“We don’t have much,” Karmos says. “We have the ambassador’s residence, where we are working out of temporarily. The last diplomats just threw all the files in the basement when they were declared persona non grata. I’m still trying to find what’s there, [and what’s] not there. Meanwhile, I have quite a lot of other things to do.”
A 47-year-old father of two, Karmos had been working as a counsellor at the embassy in Ottawa for about a year when he quit last February in protest over Muammar Gaddafi’s violent crackdown against peaceful demonstrations in eastern Libya. Karmos was the only one among his colleagues in Ottawa to do so. Shortly after the remaining diplomats were expelled from Canada in August, the rebel-led National Transitional Council made Karmos its Canadian chargé. Nonetheless, he faced some wariness from Libyans in Canada about perceived ties to the Gaddafi regime.
“One thing people must understand was that Libya was the regime, and the regime was Gaddafi,” says Karmos. “So if you are working, whether as a civil servant or you’re in the health sector or financial or security – whatever the field – you are working for the state, and the state was this man. We have a lot of good, honourable Libyan citizens who were trying to do their best for their country and their people.”
There’s already a sense of routine settling in at the foreign ministry in Tripoli, under the auspices of an interim government, with whom Karmos communicates on a daily basis. And though he’s had some success in tracking down those missing cars (they were on a freighter bound for Tunis), he’s obviously limited by the lack of staff and an actual embassy. To solve that, he must wait until he gets funds from back home. “The good thing,” he says, “is that the money is there. It’s just a matter of getting at where Gaddafi put it as quick as we can, so we can stabilise the country. I’m hopeful the embassy can resume full operations soon.”
Most important tool
Karmos has a highly qualified population of Libyan expats in Canada who want to help. (The Libyan-Canadian Medical Association, for example, boasts 600 members.) That, and the goodwill of Canadians who want their government to support a post-Gaddafi Libya.
Securing funds from the foreign ministry in Tripoli to ensure the embassy can open again.
Karmos has already won promises of long-term assistance for Libya from the Canadian government and has raised the mission’s profile in the media. He also hasn’t shied away from suggesting, though not too overtly, that Canadian businesses could be rewarded.
When an earthquake hit Haiti on 12 January 2010, Alec Ross and his team were given a key assignment. As Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation at the US Department of State, he was tasked with enabling Americans to contribute directly to the rescue effort. The solution was a programme that allowed people to send a text with the word “HAITI” and donate $10 to the Red Cross. The programme raised more than $30m in less than two weeks.”
Ross is at the vanguard of a new kind of diplomacy that he calls “21st-century statecraft”. Technology – from mobile phones to Twitter – is shifting the locus of power from governments to people on the street he believes. Diplomats have to engage with a new audience. In Mexico, for instance, Ross worked with the government to set up a phone line for people to anonymously report drug trafficking. “We can’t just meet with traditional interlocutors like government ministers and CEOs,” he says. “We have to connect and engage more broadly with society.”
Ross joined the Department of State in 2009. As he sees it, the need for a new, more technologically inclined approach to diplomacy is self-evident. “Individuals have processing and distributing power that wouldn’t have been imaginable as little as five years ago,” he says.
Most ambassadors earn their positions through years of service, working their way up before finally being handed the keys to a palatial residence in a faraway land. There are other paths: being friends with the president helps, as does raising money for his election campaign. But few have got the job in quite the same way as Danish documentary-maker Mads Brügger, who also carries the title “Liberia’s ambassador to the Central African Republic”. He bought the job for €134,000. His bizarre diplomatic life in one of Africa’s most impoverished, yet diamond-rich, countries is told in his new film, The Ambassador, which is released later this month.
How does one become a Liberian diplomat?
There are a number of companies around that broker diplomatic titles. It’s an established practice – in the 1990s Liberia sold about 2,500 diplomatic titles.
Do you have official duties?
I am very much the official representative of Liberia in the Central African Republic. The Minister of Foreign Affairs has formally commissioned me, even though I’m back in Denmark now and have no intention of returning.
Describe a day in the life of a Liberian diplomat.
In the morning I would have meetings for my official work there, which was making a match factory, and then maybe I would have a meeting with this very sinister member of parliament who had a huge machete scar on his forehead. In the evening I might go for cocktails with other diplomats, and then to the local nightclub, Zodiac.
Was it dangerous?
One of the people I met with was later assassinated in a very public way that was not reported, which suggests assassins were working for the regime. With hindsight, I think I was in more danger than I knew.