Sir Brian Barder’s book What Diplomats Do offers comprehensive insight into the life and work of diplomats. It deserves to be read by practitioners and aspiring practitioners of diplomacy, by students and teachers of diplomacy, and by anyone interested in what diplomats actually do. It crosses genres as easily as it addresses and holds the attention of a broad audience.
The book’s location at the intersection between a textbook on diplomacy, memoirs of a former ambassador, and a fictionalised account of the life of a British diplomat at home and abroad gives it its unique character. This allows the book to fill a gap on the bookshelf between those books with a clear academic approach such as Geoff Berridge’s Diplomatic Theory and Practice
, on the one hand, and books that are first and foremost diplomatic memoirs.
The book follows the life of two fictitious characters, Adam and his spouse Eve, from Adam’s entry into the British diplomatic service to their retirement. Barder stresses that their ‘adventures in […] diplomatic wonderland are almost all fictitious, although always based on real life’ (p. 6). The names already indicate that they are meant to be examples not of an individual experience but of experiences broader and deeper than would fit any one diplomatic career. The fictitious elements of What Diplomats Do
give Barder creative licence to draw the reader’s attention to key elements of the diplomatic craft. By sometimes disguising identities of people and countries, Barder is also able to speak more frankly and add points that would be controversial were they to be identified with any particular individual or state. Taking these points into account, I believe that the book is best described in terms of creative non-fiction, an emerging, boundary-crossing genre.
Each chapter begins with a brief summary of the main points covered. It then proceeds to take the reader on a journey, following in the footsteps of Adam’s experience. Each chapter is interspersed with comments, always beginning with ‘As an example …’ and set apart from the rest of the text being set in italics, in which the author reflects on Adam’s experience and relates it to his own encounters and lessons learned. This kind of commentary helps the reader to pin-point key insights of the particular section and lends credibility to the fictional account by reminding us that Adam’s life, while it might be fictitious in some of its aspects, is based on years of experience of a seasoned and now retired diplomat. There is no doubt, that Adam is the alter-ego of Sir Brian Barder and that many of Adam’s convictions, such as his doubts about increasing privatisation (p. 19), bureaucratisation, and the increasing role played by private sector management consultants in reforms of the service (p. 224) can most likely be attributed to the author himself.
All the main themes one would expect to find in any textbook of diplomacy are covered: work in the ministry, work in the embassy, relations between the ministry and the embassies, work in multilateral settings as well as hostile environments, and consular and commercial activities. Yet, Barder’s approach also allows for insights into the personal struggles and implications for the personal life of a diplomat: relations with colleagues, the impact on social life and family members’ lives (see especially the chapter ‘A dog’s life for the spouse and kids?’). It is also important to note that no background knowledge is expected. The author treats his readers respectfully by explaining details such as the workings of United Nations secretariat (pp. 85‒87) and the role of the so-called Permanent Five of the Security Council (p. 75). This underlines again the fact that What Diplomats Do
is aimed at a very broad audience. Yet, Barder manages to convey the subtleties of working in the diplomatic service as well. He gives insight into recruiting and promotion practices (pp. 36‒37) as well as everyday working situations and relations with colleagues (pp. 38 and 43) and points to possible solutions to exceptional and even dangerous circumstances (pp. 96 and 116ff). It is these passages that will get the attention of the diplomatic practitioner and scholar of diplomacy.
The fictionalised elements of What Diplomats Do
also allow for an additional layer of lighter entertainment. Adam’s career takes him to a number of places, some of them real and some of them imaginary. It is not hard to guess what the fictionalised country of Cote Noire in West Africa with its capital Cameko (pp. 61 and 212) stands for. Pazalia, a Turkish-speaking republic between Turkey and Georgia (p. 46) is less easy to attribute to any real country. Further, the jury is still out with regard to the real life counterparts of Hibernia, a Commonwealth country (211) and the former Communist-ruled, eastern European country, called Boronia with its capital Sifimar (p. 94). This creative licence given by the genre of creative non-fiction is a tremendous advantage of the book. Apart from being a necessary element to convey otherwise potentially controversial points, this adds to the charm of the book and its ability to be an entertaining as well as an educational read.
It is clear that What Diplomats Do
aims to be more than a memoir; it transcends the experience of the author or any individual diplomat. The author stresses the fact that hiring practices in the British diplomatic service have changed and that titles and promotion practices have changed as well since his own entry into the diplomatic service. Similarly, while the main protagonist is a man, the author is mindful of the fact that the number and role of women serving in all positions in the diplomatic service has increased (p. 8). Yet, these aspects mark the boundaries of what the book can accomplish of which the author himself is well aware. The interested reader will need to supplement the reading of Barder’s book with other accounts: accounts of the specific experiences of female diplomats and accounts of non-Western diplomats. It is a sad reality that the majority of these remain yet to be written and it would be a great accomplishment if these stories would get close to the engaging, enlightening, and entertaining read that What Diplomats Do
 A note on the terminology used here: ‘The words “creative” and “nonﬁction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.” Gutkind L (no date) What is creative nonfiction
. Available at https://www.creativenonfiction.org/what-is-creative-nonfiction
[accessed 8 December 2014].
Review by Katharina Hone