Week One – The Challenges of Representation

This is an overview of themes which have emerged from participants’ comments on Week One of Diplomacy in the 21st Century.

Diplomacy in the 21st Century is a course on FutureLearn provided by the Diplomatic Academy and the Open University.  If you haven’t already joined the course, you can register here (course open until 10 March).

We hope this blog will be useful.  Only seven days into the course, Week One has already received over 2,200 comments – not to mention 1,450 personal introductions.  Comments are an incredibly valuable resource but the sheer volume can make it hard to get more than a flavour of what people are saying.

To start with five general tips:

  • You can filter comments under each article etc by “newest”, “oldest” and “most liked”. The default setting is “newest”.  Try “most liked” to see what people are appreciating the most.
  • Reading the summary article at the end of each week – and the comments which people leave against it – can be a useful way of consolidating learning.
  • If you “follow” people – such as people whose comments or experience seem particularly valuable to you – you can also filter the comments to show only their contributions.
  • Bookmark comments which you found useful, and might want to come back to – otherwise you may never find them again..
  • If you want a link to open in a new tab, use CTRL-click (or CMD/⌘ on a Mac)

Anyway here are some specific themes which have come out of Week One – The Challenges of Representation.  (We would welcome suggestions for additions – this will be a living document.)

The “Who is a diplomat?” poll gave a clear consensus in favour of the First Minister of Scotland, but good arguments were advanced for the others.  Many participants would have preferred an “all of the above” option – but also appreciated that the forced choice meant some hard thinking about what exactly constitutes a diplomat (or “diplomat”) in the 21st century.  Many possible factors were mentioned: eg formal employment status in a Diplomatic Service, diplomatic immunity, whether you are representing a state or government, democratic legitimacy, your potential impact and influence, whether you are conducting actual negotiations, and even whether you have been trained to act as a diplomat.

These themes were developed in discussions of the evolution of diplomacy.  Participants discussed the implications of some key changes such as:

  • The speed of modern technology and communications, and the openness of social media.
  • The intense scrutiny to which this can lead – is confidential or secret diplomacy even possible?
  • The removal of the “middlemen” (eg journalists) when it comes to direct communication with the public – with President Trump’s use of Twitter a commonly cited example.
  • The reality of the modern diplomat working in a “crowded field” of messengers and messages, and to what extent this is a good thing.

Some raised the issue of whether the Vienna Conventions (dating from the 1960s) need modernising for the internet age.  It was also noted that some things don’t change – such as the need to resolve any conflicts of loyalties to state, Government, country and personal principles.  Many participants found the concept of three core aspects of diplomacy – representation, communication and negotiation – to be very useful.  Some commented that these aspects can apply equally well in eg the private and third sectors, and in international organisations.

The course introduced the concept of two flags diplomacy, looking at the specific example of how Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have developed their international activity within the overall context of UK diplomacy.  Participants compared and contrasted this with other systems – eg the provinces/states of Canada and Australia, federal arrangements in Germany and Belgium, and other arrangements across a huge range of countries from Spain to China to Ukraine.  Trade promotion and cultural ties were recurring themes, and the importance of clear constitutional agreements to underpin this activity.  The role of national diplomats in international organisations and overseas activity by sub-state actors such as cities was also mentioned.

The video on “working for the Brits” was, for many, a very welcome chance to appreciate the contribution of local staff to diplomatic missions.  It was pointed out that local staff are often a cultural bridge for an Embassy.

For many people, the video case study “Celebrating 469 marriages in Australia” highlighted the delicate balancing act between explaining positively – or promoting – the values of your own country, whilst taking into account the legal status of a diplomatic mission in a foreign country, and the principle of non-interference.  There was much praise for the High Commissioner’s deft handling of the issue.  Many people also pointed out that the successful handling of the situation also rested on cultural affinity and a strong relationship between the UK and Australia – and wondered how the same situation would play out in other countries (eg in the Gulf).  It was suggested that a case study looking at the UK promotion of human rights in countries with whom we have sharp differences of view would be (even) more illuminating.

The Australian case study linked to the material on representing values and diversity.  The articles included personal testimony from diplomats who have found themselves, in various circumstances, disputed as representatives on a very personal level – eg because of their race or sexuality.  This triggered a number of personal experiences and reflections from participants, and much support.  There were strongly expressed views about the need to support equal rights in practice as well as in rhetoric.  Some people felt uncomfortable about the values being expressed, or disagreed with them.  I think this illustrated the “live” nature of the debate – we cannot pretend that there is a universal consensus on values.

Across Week One, there were some suggestions that it would be useful to have more background information on diplomacy (eg the setup of an Embassy) and on the structure of the United Kingdom.  Here are some of the links which were provided as (hopefully) helpful suggestions in the comments, on those and other issues:

 We hope you’re finding something useful in the course.  See you in Week Two..

Jonathan Marshall


3 thoughts on “Week One – The Challenges of Representation

  1. I agree with the suggestion “that a case study looking at the UK promotion of human rights in countries with whom we have sharp differences of view would be (even) more illuminating”

    Interesting first week.


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