Previously published in the National Post on 12 October 2011.
The Digital Age represents a revolution in the history of the human race, a transformation in the way information is transmitted, processed and retrieved. The quantity of available information is approaching infinity, and access to it is increasingly direct and without intermediation. In international affairs, we are experiencing a revolution in the number and types of players and, even more significantly, their political empowerment. The reach and impact of individuals (witness Julian Assange and WikiLeaks) and crowds (witness Tahir ul-Qadri and the overthrow of the Egyptian government) are unprecedented, not least of all in their potential for challenging and changing the international order.
Thanks to technology and the social media, virtually anyone can be an actor on the international scene. So what does this mean for diplomacy and the role of the ambassador?
Traditionally, diplomacy connects sovereigns with sovereigns, governments with governments, officialdom with officialdom, not peoples with peoples. According to international law, codified in treaties less than a half-century ago (the Vienna Conventions), all official business must be conducted through the intermediary of the foreign ministry. Ambassadors and their embassies are the exclusive instruments for all official communications.
No more. So great has been the change that it is now commonplace to regard the ambassador's role as superfluous, as obsolete as the horse and buggy. When I first became a diplomat in the post-war era, the standard form of communication was the dispatch to headquarters, sent by leisurely diplomat bag, whose function it was to provide analysis for the home government. Remember George Kennan's "long letter" from Moscow on containment of the Soviet Union, a document that changed the course of history? It is hard to conceive of anyone even reading this type of diplomatic communication today.
So would it be right to conclude that the ambassador's role is passé and that the elaborate infrastructure for supporting his activities is an anachronism? My response in three words - wrong, wrong, wrong. The role of the ambassador has never been more vital to a country's national interests than today. It far exceeds in importance its role in the era of traditional diplomacy.
In traditional diplomacy, the core function of the ambassador was representation. He (always he) would undoubtedly agree with Woody Allen's dictum that 90% of life was just showing up. So central was the ceremonial function that Canada's first chief diplomat in Washington, Vincent Massey, regarded as one of his principal achievements the design of the diplomatic uniform that, as head of post, he wore at all official functions.
Today, the diplomat has a number of core functions and representation would not score high on the list (although the ambassador must continue to just show-up). What are they?
? Chief practitioner of public diplomacy and chief advocate. In traditional practice and protocol, public diplomacy was unknown. Confidentiality was the central prerequisite for the ambassador's work and his communications. But today, the dissemination of power means special interests, activists and crusaders, private commercial interests, bloggers and columnists, public relations operatives and experts can be powerful agents of influence. All contribute to public opinion and sooner or later, public opinion leads to decision-making. No better example of the need for public diplomacy and advocacy than the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.
? Chief Lobbyist. When I was posted to Washington, I soon called myself Canada's chief lobbyist in the United States. This shocked traditionalists at the time. After all, Congress had been regarded as off-limits for our embassy for decades. Direct contacts with the legislature were seen as interference in domestic affairs. Today, direct dealings with Congress are indispensable and the notion of the ambassador bringing the country's chief lobbyist is so widely accepted that it has become a cliché.
? Chief Interpreter of Information. Political leaders, officials, expert analysts are in danger of drowning in the infinite mass of information. What does it all mean? The ambassador, with the special access to power that his title provides, becomes the most critical single source of interpretation about what the information actually means. On the global scene, recent history has illustrated the enormous cost of mistaken interpretation of intelligence of all kinds.
? Chief Intelligence Officer. Given the variety of threats to a state's national interest, the intelligence functions of the diplomat cannot only be passive. There must be a pro-active pursuit of information that can identify issues on the horizon. Often, foreign activities - they may be protectionist or pseudo-environmental - are long in the making but are difficult to discover. They can erupt - and have done so - in the middle of the night in congressional committees. The requisite intelligence may emerge from thousands of sources and are often gathered in a social context. What is called gossip can be valuable intelligence. The infrastructure that will enable the ambassador to reach out widely - such as embassy entertainment - is crucial to the task. Targeted entertainment is not trivial and intelligence gathering is not, as is sometimes thought, an un-Canadian thing to do.
? Chief strategic officer. Once a threat to Canadian interests is identified, it is crucial to form a strategy to combat it. Allies on one issue may be enemies on others. Hence, each threat or challenge requires a micro-strategy. Perhaps the most critically important function the ambassador can perform is to be the architect of those strategies and use his personal relationships and special access to develop and implement them.
What are the implications of this analysis? The government must invest in the human resources that can perform these diplomatic functions at the very highest level of competence. It must reorganize the value of experience, expertise, knowledge of languages and cultures and of continuity. Its strategies for doing so must be longterm. It must recruit and retain the brightest and the best. It must treat with disdain any accusation of elitism and it must provide its diplomats with the funds and support that will help them address these tasks with distinction and success.
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