It’s apt that Tom Fletcher finds himself living and working in Abu Dhabi. Its location – at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa – reflects his life and career as a very modern diplomat. Not for him the confines of a permanent office desk, his professional journey has included stints in Paris, Nairobi and, aged just 36, serving as British ambassador to Lebanon, a role he held for four years.
“You don’t truly realise what being an ambassador is all about until you get off the plane and it becomes reality,” he concedes. “There’s that line in The West Wing where ‘you don’t learn the presidential voice, you earn the presidential voice’. Even the theatre of it – how you stand, how you speak, how you present yourself – much of this, you can’t really study in advance. A lot of it really does come down to empathy, emotional intelligence and curiosity – you can’t really teach that, but you can pick it up through learning from other people and on the job.”
Fletcher, though, had years of top level experience to fall back on. In addition to his time in Paris and Nairobi, he clocked up several years in 10 Downing Street as foreign policy advisor to three prime ministers. Quite a résumé – especially for someone who had no lifelong calling to diplomacy. “I tried lots of other things first – teaching, door-to-door selling, boxing, singing in a band,” he says. “It was only when I was getting into my final year at university that I really thought about it. I wanted to do something which had real social value and involved exploring the world.”
Fletcher is no longer in government service – he stepped down after the completion of his four years in Lebanon – but that doesn’t mean he has stepped away from diplomacy. A year ago he published his first book, The Naked Diplomat, which clocked up glowing reviews almost as fast as Fletcher ascended the Foreign Office career ladder.
“The book is very much about how technology is changing power and statecraft,” he explains. “But more important than technology is ensuring we are properly in touch with the real value and purpose of diplomacy. This has sometimes got lost along the way amid the protocols and paraphernalia of summits and conferences, titles and communiqués. But that is what we are really here for, to build mutual coexistence.”
He goes on to say that diplomacy is more important than ever before. “It’s much clearer after 2016 that we are in a huge battle in the 21st century between those who support collaboration and partnership and those who think coexistence comes down to building bigger walls between us,” he says. “And then you also have the extremists who want to attack those places where we interact socially and culturally. For me this is the essence of diplomacy, and has been this way since the very first caveman persuaded a neighbour to team up and go hunting together – that instinct to collaborate for resource and not compete for it.”
Added into this turbulence, though, are the twin developments of rapid technological change and fragile global institutions, not to mention a crisis of legitimacy. “We’re going through this era of extraordinary technological change at a moment when there is huge public distrust of institutions, economic uncertainty and inequality globally, and our institutions – the UN, the IMF and the World Bank and so on – are very fragile,” he says. “I used to live one hour from Damascus, and the tragedy in Syria shows what happens when diplomacy fails and why it matters so much that we learn from it. It’s not an academic exercise. This stuff really matters to our survival as a species – I’d put it as dramatically as that.”
Downing Street discourse
Fletcher’s time in Downing Street – between 2007 and 2011 – predated much of the intense instability we are encountering today. Nonetheless, he is keen to stress that this period – while thrilling – had its own set of challenges. “Working in Number 10 was exhausting and exhilarating,” he recalls. “But however shattered I was, I can’t remember any day when I didn’t get a thrill walking through that big black door. And I know this is a slightly naff thing to say, but all three prime ministers I worked for are people who wanted to make the country better. They weren’t doing it just out of a sense of egotism or ambition. So watching these guys close up actually made me less cynical about politics.”
He goes on to say, though, that the pressure and spotlight were unrelenting. “A big challenge we had was the sense of time speeding up,” he says. “When I arrived, we increasingly defined policy by the words on the Sky News ticker – but by the time I left, Twitter had taken over and it was defined by 140 characters. And with the 24/7 media cycle, it felt like we were playing for a team which had been relegated, because of the constant abuse the whole time. You try and get stuff done, but you’re buffeted in all directions.”
As a result of these issues, Fletcher believes that the business of government is becoming far more difficult. “It is simply becoming harder and harder to govern – particularly in the West – and this was even before the latest bout of post-truth politics. We need to do more to establish trust. There is clearly a big gulf between politicians and the population at the moment. Part of it is about executing policy, sticking around and delivering stuff, which I think – across different administrations – we’re getting worse at. Living in Abu Dhabi, I see it’s easier for non-democracies to take the longer approach, whereas we tend to think in shorter timeframes with lots of ministerial turnover. This type of churn is one of the reasons the public gets fed up with politics.”
A prime portfolio
So, what is Fletcher up to these days? Unlike his former colleague, Jules Chappell, his may not be a temporary move away from the UK’s diplomatic service – civil service rules meant he had to resign in order to publish his book. That said, he has maintained close links to his former life. For example, he has completed a review of the Foreign Office which, among other things, took aim at the constant churn which has afflicted the department.
“I recommended that we move from people being in jobs for two or three years to them doing it for four years,” he says. “Ambassadorships, for example, have moved to being four years because, by the time you have got yourself set up in a country and understand how it works, it would be time to come home again. We want to deepen the expertise and ensure that they use their newfound networks before moving on again.”
And he will shortly complete a review into the UN and how technology can help it deliver on its mandate. “It’s not seen to be in the frontline of dealing with all these big challenges at the moment, but we need it to be because who else is going to work this stuff out?” he asks. “So we have been looking at the balance between liberty and security on the internet, how drones and other technology can assist with humanitarian response, how artificial intelligence can be an opportunity rather than a threat, and much more, looking right across the tech spectrum.”
These are just two examples of what is clearly an eclectic array of roles. Others include helping train the next generation of ambassadors for the Foreign Office, serving as visiting professor of international relations at New York University, chairing the international advisory council of the Creative Industries Federation, his ongoing work to get millions of Syrian children back to school, blogging as the Naked Diplomat, and much else.
“The classic model for a Foreign Office career was that you worked until 65 before joining some boards and having a portfolio,” he says. “With the retirement age moving up to 70 sooner rather than later, that seemed to me to be a long time just doing the one job. So I figured that I’d experiment by doing the portfolio now at this stage of my career. I just wanted to spread out, freshen up, and learn new things.”
He’s clearly enjoying this current chapter, so much so that he has no wish – for now at least – to return to London to work on Brexit. “Would I want to be back at the centre working on Brexit? I have huge admiration for those who are, and thank goodness they are there. But I don’t wake up in the morning and wish I was there myself,” he concludes. “But I still write ‘diplomat’ as my profession when I fill out those forms at airports – it’s just what I’m doing now is in a different form.”
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