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Lessons from Great Britain on the Future of Diplomacy by Lord Triesman

Thursday, March 1, 2007
Millennium Challenge Series Eight: Lessons from Great Britain on the Future of Diplomacy

Event: Wilton Park Public Diplomacy Conference

Location: Wilton Park, UK

Speech Date: 01/03/07

Speaker: Lord Triesman

Thank you very much for inviting me to join you at the start of this second Wilton Park public diplomacy conference. Wilton Park always manages to bring together distinguished experts and at this conference I am delighted we are joined by some of the exceptional group who form the new Public Diplomacy Board which I chair. Those of us here have a lot to share together.

And we need to do so to make progress. Public diplomacy is vital to our foreign policy. We have to work hard to get it right.

At last year's conference, many of you discussed Lord Carter's review. Pat Carter was, in a constructive way, rightly critical of our public diplomacy approach. He argued, first, that we had an inadequate, outdated definition of what public diplomacy is. Second, we had as a result an inadequate tool kit. Third, as the public spends large sums on this tool kit, it was entitled to know if it was getting value for money, whereas there was little effective accounting for the expenditure.

What specifically did we aim to achieve? Did we have a means of measuring our progress? Could we describe our route of travel and how far we had gone? Did all of our public diplomacy partners - excellent as each of them is - work together coherently for a shared objective, or was each in a silo? Could we create shared objectives without interfering, for example, with the BBC World Service's complete editorial independence or the British Council's operational decision-making?

All these questions, and the Carter prescription for change, set some fundamental tasks and we have thought deeply about what public diplomacy should mean to a 21st century foreign ministry. The new Public Diplomacy Board has led this work. Its independent members, Chris Powell and Simon Anholt, have shone a penetrating light on our thinking and introduced a number of fresh concepts. The key partners, the British Council and BBCWS (the latter in observer status), have engaged with real enthusiasm that matches their expertise. The FCO officials have engaged with new determination. Our consultants on measurement methods - River Path - have made us define our objectives and consider new methods to great effect.

It has been a pleasure and exciting to be the Minister responsible over the last year.

But I do not want to ask you for anything other than a critical hearing. The issues are difficult and profound.

First of all, we have a new definition of public diplomacy, the basic demand of the Carter review. Traditionally, public diplomacy was seen as a branding issue. How should we promote Britain? The UK of Shakespeare or the UK of Tate Britain? The UK of the Beefeaters or the UK of the double helix, a nation that always reaches outward whether in science or exploration. The old idea was that if we project a more compelling picture, this would attract businessmen, visitors and students to the UK. And we tried to do it everywhere. We needed to reflect that the need for a huge effort in Eastern Europe when part of the Soviet bloc could hardly be justified - whatever the strong sentiment - once those countries were thriving democracies.

We have moved comprehensively from that notion. Public diplomacy is about changing perceptions of our country in foreign environments, of getting people to see the world a bit more like we see it. We continue to care about the general perception of the UK of course. But we recognise that we provide only a small share of the information moving around the market. People get floods of information about us that we do not source and cannot influence.

My nineteenth century predecessors may have had some success with information bureaux dotted around the world. That approach cannot work for us in the 21st century.

The telegram, the telephone, television (especially CNN) and the internet chipped away at the power of governments to influence opinion. The changes of the last century changed the globe - mass media has helped overthrow dictatorships and launch democracies. Now a talented blogger can challenge the most powerful political propagandist anywhere in the world.

Indeed, each time we think we have rolled the boulder of technological change to the top of a hill it rolls back down and reveals a new technology emerging. It is like the myth of Sisyphus to believe you can overcome such a process.

So we have redefined what is the most useful public diplomacy work we can do in a foreign ministry. Its ultimate goal must be to bring about changes in people's thinking that help us achieve our international goals. And it isn't only about us in the FCO. We need to understand the priorities in other ministries.

How can public diplomacy best support their work whether it is political, consular or trade promotion?

Can it help open dialogues between citizens round the world using new tools and new partners?

Can it challenge entrenched beliefs, whether radicalism in parts of the Muslim world or attitudes to climate change in the United States?

We think public diplomacy can achieve these goals. So, to start with, we have stopped trying to influence how every aspect of the UK is viewed - that is too vague, too diffuse and probably unattainable. We have given focussed attention to the strategic priorities of our ministry like conflict prevention, counter terrorism and climate security.

Of course, people will continue to promote tourism, but we don't think it is the best use of the resources of a foreign ministry.

This analysis brought us to a fundamental conclusion. Public diplomacy should never be an end in itself. It is a powerful tool to support the overall aims of the FCO.

Our new approach is now changing the way we work and the way we can work with you on public diplomacy approaches. Historically, governments have competed in this area. I hope in future that on far more occasions we can work together as partners, rather than as rivals, on the global issues that affect us all. There will be few nations without some common problems.

I am interested to hear today whether we can act more collaboratively both in our capitals and overseas embassies. We all care about climate security, fighting terrorism and combating poverty. We work together on this at the UN, in the EU, bilaterally. Can we do the same through public diplomacy channels? Could we do it here at Wilton Park in the next couple of days? There may well be areas where your country is more effective than mine in changing behaviour, but we all share the need to change that behaviour.

It will be obvious that once we redefined what we want to do, we had to look at our structures again and at the tools for delivery. I have overseen these changes as chair of the Public Diplomacy Committee with its outstanding members. Pat Carter highlighted three areas for reform. He challenged us to be:
more strategic
more collaborative
more accountable
We needed to find the right structure to re-engineer all three areas. Patrick called for stronger decision-making - I have to admit I didn't see at first there was much decision-making of any strategic consequence at all. The existing strategic body of sixteen members was far too large to take decisions effectively. I now chair an executive body of five members and one fully active observer whose task is to identify exactly how to bring about the behaviour changes we seek.

The BBC World Service and British Council remain key partners on this committee. The Council has an outstanding reputation overseas. Their approach has been based on the principle of building relationships and understandings by sharing art, literature and education with local populations. This has created a special rapport worldwide.

The BBC's reputation for integrity surpasses in my view any other broadcaster and it brings independence and worldwide authority. To protect the independence required by its Charter, the BBC is an observer.

In the FCO I believe we know what needs to be and can be achieved in different countries. We have the strength of a long history of close engagement and strength through direct relationships with decision-makers, opinion formers and commentators. And through the Chevening and Marshall Scholarships we renew these links generation to generation.

Because our executive committee includes two world experts from the marketing, advertising and public affairs industries, we can tap into the creative industries where the UK is a recognised world leader.

Nobody wants to lose the accumulated expertise from the past so we have retained a wider forum to help develop new ideas about public diplomacy and to help deliver them. This engages the essential voices of our development ministry, the BBC more widely, the devolved nations inside the UK and Northern Ireland, higher education, the trade missions and tourism business. For example, this group is working together on how we, as the foreign ministry, can assist in the preparations for the London Olympics in 2012.

Once our new structure was in place, we decided to learn to walk rather than run with the new approach. We have chosen target countries for new pilot projects. These pilots are in regions most closely connected with the FCO's strategic priorities. But we have also aimed to identify the environments where our public diplomacy might be most effective.

You will see I have repeatedly emphasised priorities fitted to FCO strategy, a targeted approach rather than trying to do something everywhere. The pilot schemes will inform us about the most productive environments in which public diplomacy might work.

So we have chosen three thematic priorities for the pilot - climate security, promoting UK business and our economy, and supporting democratic development. We then decided on prioritising work in a small number of countries for each theme.

I believe we have made good headway although there is so much more to do. We now face one of the greatest challenges precisely because people like me have to get out of their well-rehearsed routines, their comfort zones, to take the next steps. We have to inject entirely new, vibrant, challenging, uncomfortable thinking about how to deliver the targets in this strategy.

Of course there are well-tried methods for successful public diplomacy - we know the value of scholarships, visits, seminars, Shakespeare performances, and so on, and we will continue to use these approaches. But we must find the new tools that push the boundaries and establish new methods that respond to a world of advanced communication technologies, a world in which our platforms are not just electronic methods of publishing but environments in which there is a global conversation.

So we have launched two other initiatives about which I am very excited to build onto our reforms:
Firstly, we have set up the PD Lab. You will hear more about it over the next days. In fact, like it or not, we will all be guinea pigs for an international PD Lab workshop tomorrow when I look forward to your reactions and views. It is a forum to bring really fresh thinking to our pilot projects and to inspire greater innovation. The range of thinkers and practitioners from the world of communications - media, marketing, advertising and public diplomacy - is inspiring in itself.
Secondly, we are turning our attention to learning from the communications sector. We are in the process of identifying innovative and experienced experts with whom we can work on communications technologies. We need this transfusion of new blood to refresh our existing portfolio of tools. This simply illustrates my assertion that we need to be radical and accept a degree of creative risk when we think about delivery. We need to understand how to reach a public who may spend much of their leisure time developing a virtual second life, who download material from Youtube and who use podcasts rather than traditional materials to learn about their world. This is all changing so fast. If we in government are to keep up with the pace we need more help from the industry. We need the people who can advise us on how to keep ahead of the technology wave.
Finally, as I said at the outset, we have to get to grips with the tricky problem of how to prove our public diplomacy efforts delivers results. Greater accountability is - quite rightly - a fact of life for all of us. We must demonstrate we use public funds wisely. Personally I think we have a good story to tell but I also think we have been very poor at telling it. We don't sell our successes.

Public diplomacy does provide a route to saying something about our values. Of course, there are other ways as well. Let me give you a brief example. We are well known to object vigorously to the harm being inflicted by Robert Mugabe on his people. It is not an old colonial dispute but an argument about democracy and human rights in the most fundamental sense. We seldom report that we are also the largest donor of food aid to the country - we keep nearly one and a half million people fed. That many people not starving although the relationship with their government is poor to say the least is a success for values and less of a disaster for those with the food.

For the future, we have to be less coy about what we do. We have brought in expertise to develop a new system of performance measurement. In future we will be able to identify costs more accurately as we evaluate projects. We need to establish, in today's world pretty quickly, the immediate benefits any project brings us. This should replace large-scale opinion surveys that look formidable on paper but may tell you far too little.

Rather, if we have identified an opinion former and have sought to have an impact on a subject like, for example, forced marriages, has their opinion changed? Has he or she made a difference by acting a multiplier by giving an interview or supporting new legislation on the issue? Through this we hope to compare the effectiveness of different tools delivered by different public diplomacy partners.

We will be able to report more thoroughly and clearly to Parliament and the Treasury on how we spent our funds.

I hope this gives a picture of our aspirations and progress so far. I believe it is a groundbreaking approach in the UK. And we confidently expect to be able to report more changes - including results from our pilots - at next year's conference.

So, here we are. Please take he opportunity over he net couple of days to really push the boundaries. Let us identify the new ground we should break.

I tell you straightforwardly that in a world where too many difficulties are thought to be solved through tough measures, it is more important than ever to achieve the maximum possible impact through our public diplomacy efforts.

This work can help deliver societies and cultures that are just, respectful of differences, prosperous and secure. Not a bad goal.

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