Swedish Embassy: Speech – Modern Diplomacy in the Digital Age


For me the three big long term drivers of relationships between the peoples of the world are:

1) Access to opportunity
2) Access to information and
3) Access to technology

And of course they are completely intertwined

Humans are good at reacting to shocks and events, but less good at spotting trends or predicting futures. So I guess our challenge here is to think about what is changing; and what stays the same in human relations in the middle distance.


At the British Council we have a lively group of external public policy, tech and networking thinkers we call our ‘Provocateurs’, to challenge us and give us new ideas for our medium-term strategy.

And when I asked them about this they said:

Watch out for Tech hubris: jet packs and personal hovercraft are less likely than an ongoing need for ‘connection’ and ‘authenticity’ aided by but not replaced by connected devices.

Don’t underestimate the lasting impact of symbols, institutions and ‘national moments’: The Olympics, The Royals, our global cultural institutions: the BBC, Universities, Museums and Theatres, The Premier League, plus London as a world city, and the British Council around the world – all these create a sense of connection, common ‘identity’ and attraction to things ‘UK’, way beyond our borders.

And finally encourage the search for ‘meaning’: Many young people are searching for more ‘meaning’ – authentic experiences, ‘Live performance’, craft, quality; but some are increasingly nihilistic – ignoring, even hating their future – and real world demographics and youth unemployment are huge issues here.

So what can Governments do in today’s world?

Mitt Romney says it’s jobs, Obama says it’s values – they’re both right, but I think a big driver of change readily available to us, is more positive engagement and interest from ordinary people – because in the Digital Age everyone is a potential ‘citizen diplomat’.

And the idea of ‘Government’, ‘Authority’ and ‘Diplomacy’ operating in a ‘protected’, ‘moderated’ or ‘orderly’ space is, I think, long gone.

We had a delegation over from China on Monday to talk about press and social media – and it was clear to all of us that pretty much everyone, everywhere can see or find pretty much anything they want to see – if they have a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop.

So much more of how governments and countries behave in the future will be influenced by the unruly, uncensored, viral and unforgiving world of ‘always on’ social media. And YouTube sparking riots amply demonstrates this. As The Economist asked the other week: ‘how long before a tweet starts a war?’

I think a number of Governments – including the UK’s and Sweden’s are adapting very well to these opportunities and challenges. But my theme for this evening is what can ‘we, the people’ do to help?

I’d say:

1) Up the number of people in this country who travel, study and work overseas; and increase the number who have languages,

2) Continue to be a welcoming, open country to those who would visit us, study here, work here and create art and content here,

3) Keep investing in our world class presence around the globe – especially our diplomatic presence, our contribution to international development and our cultural relations: sharing English, education and UK Arts and culture.

As our ‘provocateurs’ said: beware predictions of Ambassadors – cultural or traditional – dropping in wearing virtual jet packs. Face to face, getting ‘up close and personal’, and making a difference on-the-ground still matters.

But people helping, sharing and learning from other peoples and countries is even more important in the Digital age – because the world is watching – and mostly on Facebook and YouTube.




Watch out for tech hubris – engage with all things Digital yes, but ‘real world’ actions still matter, economic and demographic realities and making a difference to lives and life chances

Governments need our help – respect for and trust in authority are being challenged everywhere, not least in international relations. We the people need to get involved, travel, write, tweet, trade, engage; it builds the stock of trust for our nation.

People, culture and institutions matter more than ever – our people, cultural and educational institutions and (luckily for the UK) our language are our biggest assets.

Other Themes:

Who speaks for a country? Its people, its institutions and its government and they should be complementary. The challenge for each is to be ‘authentic’, interesting and to address the things people care about. It’s harder for government and diplomats to do all that ‘on the record’ so important to have other voices – cultural institutions like the BBC and British Council obviously, but also, UK teachers, artists, sportspeople, academics, commentators.

I’m for engagement and the freedom to express a view: it’s right to give a point of view – within a spectrum of responsible UK opinion. But the clear boundaries are the rule of law, which includes respecting other countries’ jurisdictions, whilst recognising we do represent the UK, its people and institutions, and the UK’s position on issues.

There are limits to ‘people power’ – as Lindsey Hilsum said on C4 News last week, countries need more than ‘people power’, they need the rule of law and institutions. The British Council delivers important International Development projects in Africa and South Asia which are all about empowerment; especially of women and girls; access to justice and developing cultural and educational institutions – these are long term stabilisers for rapidly changing societies.

I’m with Sweden on censorship of the internet – even potentially radicalising material – it’s a slippery slope and doesn’t work. I think it’s for governments to quickly condemn and rebut; and use the rule of law where it’s available. For the rest of us; we need to keep posting, blogging and tweeting and in the process share a fuller picture of what our countries are like – warts and all – to give a bigger context and an openness, which invites trust, to all those who are open to engaging with us.