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Diplomats as Writers – Marrying the Arts and Diplomacy

14 March 2017

In our March WebDebate, we explored the contribution of diplomats to literature and cultural heritage and also looked at how art and diplomacy can be usefully combined. We asked: What can we learn from diplomats who also engage in the arts? What role does creativity play for diplomacy? Are there are any overlaps between poetic and diplomatic language? Are there certain lessons in the diplomatic craft that can only be expressed through literature and art? Can we usefully marry the arts and diplomacy and if yes, in what ways?

To debate these topics we brought Dr Biljana Scott and Ambassador Stefano Baldi together. Scott was trained as a linguist at the University of Oxford where she obtained a BA in Chinese, and an M.Phil and D.Phil in Linguistics. She is a senior lecturer at DiploFoundation, University of Malta, where she has been lecturing in Language & Diplomacy since 2002. Baldi is a career diplomat and currently Ambassador of Italy in Bulgaria. Previously, he was Director of the Diplomatic Institute of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Baldi introduced his project ‘Through the Diplomatic Looking Glass’, which was motivated by the desire to learn more about diplomats who are also writers. One of the key questions he asked in this project was: What are diplomats writing about? Looking at the writings of Italian diplomats since 1946, he and his collaborator Pasquale Baldocci found more than 1130 titles published by 300 diplomats. They find that about 12% of diplomats were also writers and have written more than three books each on average. International relations and history are among the key topics that diplomats write about. While less prominent, poetry, theatre, and novels also feature among the publications of Italian diplomats. Most of these books are written after retirement. However, Baldi suggested that this trend is changing and more and more of his younger colleagues publish while being active diplomats. There are eight diplomats who have also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Baldi mentioned three career diplomats in particular: Alexis Leger (Saint-John Perse), Ivo Andrić, and Gheorghios Seferiadis (Gheorghios Seferis).

Given her background as a linguist. Scott began by posing the question: What are the similarities between diplomats and poets? She identified four: curiosity and openness of mind and heart, a sympathetic and creative imagination, redress, and the realisation that language matters. She referred to ‘Parting Shorts’, a collection of the final dispatch of British ambassadors. Scott argued that these diplomats resemble the poet or literary figure because of the candour that was possible in these final dispatches. They are often beautifully written and allow for a candour that is not usually available for practising diplomats. Scott illustrated this with examples from the book and reflected on the musicality of the language and the use of rhetorical devices such as chiasms and deliberate gaps. Through the use of such devices, diplomats can tweak language in order to address difficult situations or provide redress and solutions in seemingly intractable circumstances. Scott ended on the conclusion that language matters to both diplomats and writers. This concerns implicit communication and the use of images and gaps. She argued that by using implicit communication, ambiguity can be created, which presents an opportunity for manipulation and plausible deniability and also an invitation to broaden horizons, see the world differently, and be more inclusive.

In response to some of the questions from the audience, Scott re-emphasised the importance of language as a tool in the arsenal of diplomats and highlighted ambiguity as a particularly useful one. In the arts, ambiguity is intended to allow for multiple meanings and multiple interpretations. Constructive ambiguity in diplomacy takes the form of adding a word that is positively connoted to a term that might carry negative overtones, such as: just war, smart and soft power, and enlightened self-interest. From his experience as a diplomat working in a multilateral setting, Baldi related constructive ambiguity to the ability to allow for time to change attitudes and reach consensus.

Regarding diplomats’ writing on current affairs and recent events, Baldi emphasised the importance of showing self-restraint and the limits imposed by the practise of diplomacy. However he highlighted the usefulness or memoirs as crucial to pass on lessons-learned – a key motivation behind his project. He issued a call for continuing research of this kind in other regions, to unearth valuable lessons from and for diplomats.

Scott reminded us of the importance of creativity in combining different points of view that are not conventionally associated with each other. She highlighted the ability to see and create similarity in the dissimilar. Furthermore, she encouraged the use of images and stories in order to convey points more effectively and with lasting effect. In conclusion, Baldi reminded us of the importance of learning from our predecessors and reading at large. Scott argued that both diplomats and writers need to have a curiosity about the world and cultivate, in Primo Levi’s words, a cheerful energy.

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