Associate professor, PhD at the Department of Diplomatic Service and Communication of the Faculty of International Relation of YSU

Until sixty years ago, diplomacy was largely the preserve of an international aristocratic class, and the rules of behaviour that it adopted were very much the rules of their own society. However, after the upheavals of two world wars, society became more fluid and the Foreign Office began to make conscious efforts to recruit more widely:

My dear chap – these days it really does not matter which university you attended. Either is equally acceptable. Anon. The FO was nonetheless determined to maintain its own traditions. Manners simplify life by acting as rules of engagement for interaction between people who do not know each other and may come from different traditions, but they are also the basis for arcane rituals, which set castes apart, and the rules and regulations that governed Foreign Service life were no exception.

[…] Diplomacy is above all a theatrical performance, a comedy of manners, and when the conventions of society change, so do those governing the conduct of foreign relations. It is based on internationally acceptable norms and standards where the pace of change is much slower than at home, and on the necessity of putting on a brave show, so there can seem to be a time lag between diplomatic and contemporary life. It makes diplomats seem stuffy and old-fashioned for, as Sir Marcus observes, other people are much keener on ceremony than the British are. There is the story which has become apocryphal, of the French Ambassador’s wife who sat next to former British Foreign Secretary at a grand dinner at Lancaster House. As soon as dinner was over, she stormed into the lady’s loo, complaining in voluble French that he had propositioned her. "But surely,” her companion protested. "You expected this?” "Naturally,” she retorted, eyes flashing. "But not before the soup!”

[…] Diplomats believe passionately that their work is terribly important. Their tragedy is that, while this is true, most people have only the faintest idea of what they actually do. It is the question that you are always asked at parties, but even as you draw breath to give a balanced and articulate answer, the eyes of the questioner glaze over and shift to the other side of the room where he or she has just spotted someone much more amusing or important. Most of diplomacy is, in any event, pretty intangible and aimed at forestalling trouble, and it is difficult to find anything interesting to say about a disaster that did not happen, even if it kept you up all night. From time to time, however, there is a lasting end result. […] Indeed, it is possible that people do not actually want to be told earnestly about negotiations over aid quotas, treaty sub-clauses or, heaven help us, prison visiting; reality is so tediously pedestrian. They want to be able to visualise diplomatic life as endlessly glamorous – and to hate diplomats for enjoying it.

A Foreign Service exists to defend and promote its country’s interests and maintain its place in a precarious world, and to give advice to its Government. As ever, the key thing in diplomacy is to pick your fights. Once the decision on a course of action or policy has been made, its job is to pursue it with tenacity and intelligence, without resorting to open warfare. There are a lot of Big Beasts out there, not to mention hordes of marauding little ones. All of them are hungry and the balance of power between them shifts constantly, so diplomats are kept pretty busy. If it all goes horribly wrong, and it frequently does, the Foreign Service sweeps up the bodies and engages on damage limitation. Foreign Services have evolved over the centuries, accumulating along the way a body of conventions and practices known as diplomatic etiquette and they believed that they had the expertise to do the job.

But over recent years, an enormous cultural shift has taken place in the perception of what diplomats do and what they are for. Revolutions in travel and technology have altered the way they communicate and organise their work, but most significantly of all, diplomacy’s primary role has changed from representational, deeply rooted in the conventions of the nineteenth century, to service, ruled by key objectives, stakeholder surveys, indicators of success, capability audits and the familiar problems of finite resources (painfully more finite every year) and infinite demand. Outside management consultants have been brought in to produce blue-prints for change, and Special Advisers keep the line on policy. […]

There is increasing emphasis on multi-lateral diplomacy through bodies such as the EU, the UN and NATO, which engage the interests of the whole government machine and call for close ministerial participation and control.

[…] The FCO’s internal structure has been radically pruned, especially at the higher levels. It no longer sees itself as an employer for the whole of a career, and all jobs in the senior grades and many in the intermediate grades are open to the Civil Service as a whole. The concepts of a diplomatic service and of career diplomats are fast vanishing into the mists of time, and with them, for good and ill, the idea of a foreign service as a specialist case. The Foreign Office thought that it was stronger than the Ministers who ruled it. It was wrong. The days are long gone of steely-eyed Ambassadors who would thunder at their supposed masters: "You cannot seriously expect me to say anything so damned stupid to the Foreign Minister?” And get away with it.
Where is the verve of former times? I miss it, but we must move on. The Foreign Office needs to open up for new people and new ideas, to find better ways of working and of serving its clients, and to embrace change for the good things that it brings, preferably without losing the best of the past. It is a difficult circle to square.

C. Slater. Good Manners & Bad Behaviour: the Unofficial Rules of Diplomacy: xi – xix.
1507 reads | 05.04.2013

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