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What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats (Book review)

Published on 03 July 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

Diplo Wisdom Circle

Referring to Prof. Geoff Berridge, we learn that ‘diplomacy is the most important institution of our society of states’. Further on, according to Sir Ivor Roberts, diplomacy is both ‘that funny old trade’ as well as a the ‘most rewarding of professions’. This is the frame where Brian Barder’s quite unique and eloquently written book What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats fits in.

As one knows, there are as many definitions of diplomacy as there are authors. Nevertheless, this book is a real handbook for a concise, comprehensive, and a thorough walk through what we for centuries refer to as diplomacy. Since the book is actually not just what we identify as a handbook, but portrays a lifetime in diplomacy, a personal and professional story that could almost be a kind of a diary, and serves as a highly useful complementary source to get to know and understand the discussed profession.

Barder, an outstandingly experienced retired diplomat, presents a fictional young man, Adam, by name who happens to successfully enter the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a junior diplomat (‘The odds are against you, but they’re against all the other candidates, too.’). Rightly so, this job can be either a matter of accident or of design.

From this point on we follow Adam through his career util his retirement, getting to know all that diplomats do, learn, exercise, and carry on. Life on a posting, in particular the first one, and during the first weeks  is not to envy (‘Adam is suddenly aware of a sharp feeling of loneliness. There isn’t a soul whom he knows within hundreds of miles.’), this even more on remote overseas destinations (the so-called submarine effect, since missions are by rule smaller than bigger). It’s a complex, invisible, but efficient web of relations, interests, and positions.

Diplomacy is a dynamic social process that absorbs its promoters. Besides, this profession is a round-the-clock one (‘A diplomat working in an embassy abroad is never really off.’). As it is not easy for beginners, it is also not for the head of mission (‘Later, when Adam became an ambassador himself, he found that being a head of mission is in some ways a lonely job, especially if you don’t have the kind of relationship with your number two that enables you to discuss sensitive matters frankly with him.’).

Diplomacy means to observe and report, to negotiate and persuade. In short, it means ‘to get its message across to various audiences’. It is also moving along with high society and media (there is no off the record with the media, concludes Adam prior to his retirement in a farewell interview).

It’s a detailed, tricky work at co-ordinating drafts, organising humdrum behind echoed international gatherings; it’s travelling around the globe without much real time to enjoy tourist attractions. But it also means having a family (‘Adam met, pursued, wooed, and wedded Eve while he was on home leave from Côte Noire.’), a spouse and kids, who accompany the diplomat (nowadays not that automatically anymore) from posting to posting not always exactly knowing what their father/mother is busy with. Barder devotes the book to his two grandkids, ‘in a case they ever wonder what kind of thing their grandfather used to do’). It is a nice and rewarding profession, but it is advisable to know when it is over and that it was fine: ‘We’ve had the time of our lives,’ declares Eve at the very end.

The book shows what diplomacy is all about and, to a point, what it used to be, since the profession has been changing according to the historical and social dynamics in which it operates. Additionally, it also teaches the reader about the organisational, procedural, and structural changes of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as a master example of a diplomatic organisation. But in spite of everything, ‘[T]he practices and procedures of the various national diplomatic services are in a state of constant flux, buffeted by changes in technology, by new international challenges […]  and by fluctuating managerial fads and fashions […] the substance of the job has remained much the same.’ We need such books since ‘[D]iplomacy is widely, but mistakenly, regarded as possessing a special mystique, at any rate, in the eyes of those who have never come into contact with his practitioners.’

A diplomat’s job is never done. It resembles an assembly line where actors bring together simultaneously three different types of cars without proper time for a break and without having much chance for clarification. They have to carry on instructions that sometimes do and sometimes do not.

Briefly, using the summarising language and style of diplomats, this book does fill the gap; it is worth reading and proves the fact that one has to examine books to understand and learn what diplomacy is.

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