Tom Fletcher CMG Visiting Professor of International Relations at New York University and Senior Advisor to the Director General at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, author of
"Naked Diplomacy, Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age" and Global Strategy Director at The Global Business Coalition for Education, talks Soft Power, Art and Culture, Technology, the Future of Power, Brexit, Lebanon and Coexistence
I wanted to start off by asking you what was the defining moment where you thought art and culture could be used as good tools for diplomacy?
For me it was being in Beirut and seeing close up the way amazing pieces of art could reach people in ways that diplomacy couldn’t. And in particular looking at the work of Tom Young who found a way to capture the craziness of Beirut through art that I thought was extraordinary. So we had an exhibition of his paintings at my place because we thought that they needed to be seen by a wider audience as he had tapped into something that diplomats couldn’t tap into.
You went on to bring about the concert in Lebanon "One Lebanon", do you think culture could weather the storms of an unstable economy in Lebanon? Do you think the hope of coexistence can persist through culture and art?
I think it can play a massive part, but it can’t do it all alone. The inspiration for the idea of "One Lebanon" was the Live Aid concerts in the UK, how they cut through to people, again in a way that politicians and diplomats couldn’t do and it really got people rallying behind an idea. Our worry at the time of that first "One Lebanon" concert was that there was a climate of increasing polarisation and suspicion and we thought we needed to find some way to support people who wanted to get a different message out of there.
I think art and culture does have a major impact but it can’t do everything by itself, you still need a political process and negotiations alongside it.
Back in the UK do you think a void of a strong cultural exchange with Europe led to a lack of common identity, and therefore “othering” and then Brexit?
I think it is very hard and it is too soon to work out what Brexit was all about, there were lots and lots of issues and different people voted Brexit for different reasons. For many it was a sense of being left behind by globalisation, for some it was more a traditional sense of British Independence and liberty, for some it was frustration with Brussels, there were all sorts of different reasons that played through it. I don’t know how much culture played a part in that because I think if you ask many of the people who voted Brexit, they always made a point to say they love Europe, or many of them did. Particularly the libertarian Brexiters, they are often people who would feel a connection with Europe but just not with the European Institutions.
There is a lot of tension now between states, do you think the creative industries through soft power can rebuild a bridge with Europe, as well as recapture that 2012 moment Danny Boyle did with the Olympic ceremony?
I think the creative industries are utterly an essential part of the fight back. Particularly for the UK, they are the best way for showing that we were not voting for isolation or intolerance back in June. Our creative industries have such a good reputation worldwide but I always remember going to universities in the Middle East and being really attacked for British foreign policy but by people who were wearing Premiership kits. So there’s that sense of real sympathy and affection for our creative industries, and I really think you have to lead with that strength. When you ask people what are Britain’s strength, they often say the creatives, the histories of trading nation and the education system. So I think those are the three things I would want to put right infront of our post referendum message to the world.
You mentioned the logo’s you would see people wear on their shirts and I guess Soft Power was once for the USA McDonald’s, Brit pop and the BBC World Service for the UK, amongst other things, with the fact that there has been a sort of backlash against globalisation, can Soft Power today lead the way to Peacekeeping and Peace Building or is the future really Smart Power, something which you mention in your book?
I think it is Smart Power, because it is that mixture between Soft Power and Hard Power, you can’t do everything just by writing a nice song or painting a nice picture. I think increasingly as more and more people come online, they will have access to culture that they never had before and that can only break down barriers. It will be much harder for politicians to say "that group of people, that country over there is different to us, we need to fight them or compete with them because they are so different to us", when in reality, people are online exchanging ideas, creating things together, seeing what other people in the world are capable of, and it makes it much harder for people to be divided when they have access to that kind of material. So I only feel confident about the way the internet can help spread cultural understanding.
There is a focus on technology and the digital age in your book, you tackle important and difficult subjects, from the history of diplomacy to building new forms of power with a sincere and open approach, and a real engagement with the reader through your style of writing.
It probably came from the fact, that in a way that book was written on Twitter. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but it is a book that is about engaging social media and it was kind of written on social media throught Twitter and through blogs in the first place before I even ever thought of it being a book, so the ideas were developed in that way, which I hope that means it does make it more accessible.
You mention in your farewell letter to Lebanon, “So Yella Bye” that someone should write a book on diplomacy, what made you bite the bullet and do it?
By that stage, I started thinking about it and then started sketching out some ideas. In my last year in Lebanon I was under quite a lot of security restrictions, so I couldn’t get out and about as much as I wanted to and so starting out by writing a book was a way of working out excess adrenaline, but also I more and more felt that the issues we were dealing with in Lebanon around coexistence, around modern communication, around the balance between liberty and security, that these actually had a wider worthwhile interest, I felt they went beyond keeping Lebanon stable and in a way 2016 has only confirmed that, this kind of crazy year we just had, it is not even over yet, could get even worst next week, for me that just demonstrates that these are important issues. How we use digital technology to live together rather than live apart seems to be more important than ever.
You do say in your book that you “realised that if we cannot win the argument for tolerance and diversity in Lebanon, we will lose it everywhere” Is that what you mean?
I think people in Lebanon would laugh at this idea, but I think Lebanon is quite an example. There are many things Lebanon is not a good example of, but it is an example of finding ways to muddle along different communities even when you are dealing with lots of historical grievances and hatred. The fact that Lebanon made it through these last few years when the Syrian war was ragging around it, is a miracle.
But how do you reach the communities who don’t engage, whether it is in the Middle East, or even in the UK, because I guess soft power, art and culture can be quite elitist or people are in their communities and disengaged, how would you reach communities who do not adhere to culture and art?
There is a real risk that we all live in our Twitter filter bubble and only listen to people who have the same views as us or look at the same paintings as people who like the same paintings as us and so on. I do think that people in public life have a responsibility to get out there and communicate in new ways, connect with people in new ways and not just do the usual circuit. If you think about it, great politicians have always done that, look at the way Churchill used his radio broadcasts for example to reach people who would have never listened to his speeches in parliament. So we are not having to make this stuff up, but we are having to exist in an age of dazzlingly fast changes in communication. So for me in Lebanon, i would not just go on the talk shows, but I would go on Arab Idol or on Arab’s got Talent, on those big game shows, as well as just on the classic shows. And maybe that’s part of the answer, maybe Ed Balls doing Strictly Come Dancing should be cited as a great example of popular outreach.
In your book, you mention that we should all be diplomats, citizen diplomats, and I was just wondering, as citizen diplomats we go through third party institutions like Google or Facebook who themselves hold power over us, so how powerful are we as citizen diplomats? And to what extent would we be allowed to be active or would we understand the diplomatic rules if we take that on?
I think it’s a two way process, I think those involved in diplomacy have to do much more to explain what is the value of it, otherwise they will find they don’t have the trust they need to do the job. When I talk about citizen diplomats I am thinking about people working in communities in Munich who are helping to integrate refugees or support refugees. What they are doing, is classic front line diplomacy, trying to help communities get along to coexist and trying to negotiate in a diplomatic way between different communities, that is citizen diplomacy, or a head teacher in the Bekaa Valley who is having to integrate a class that is more than half of Syrian refugees, again that is real front line diplomacy. So what I am not thinking about so much is learning the Geneva Convention and going to a diplomatic summit, I am thinking about day to day things that we do, which promote coexistence.
How about the technology aspect, as you rightly say, technology, social media it’s all growing fast and if we are all more linked to technology as citizens and our powers are through third digital parties, our power goes through them, so how powerful are we if they hold the strings, and if we don't have enough laws to protect citizens from how fast technology is going?
It’s true that we need a whole lot of work done online, we need a declaration of online rights – like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I am not so worried about the big tech giants partly because they understand that they only win if they make it easier for us to interact and engage with each other and do the things we want to do and when they make it harder for us they loose and they die pretty quickly.
I went to talk to Google last year about how empires rise and fall and one of the things we discussed is when you get hubristic as an empire or when you forget that empires need constraints as well, then that’s when you start to fall. So I feel less worried about the big tech giants being part of the problem. Now clearly there will be areas where their interests are different to those of individual citizens and certainly of governments, but I see them as part of the solution not part of the problem.
In your book, you come up with the word “armchair activism”, we are in danger of that, where we all 'like' or retweet, how as citizen diplomats, can we avoid this?
I do worry about that, when we just like something or retweet it and we think that we have done something, but also when governments and activists think they had a real success because 1 million people liked their campaign, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anything actually happened. So it is way more important to try to encourage people to actually do something. I am working with the Global Business Coalition for Education and we are trying to build an online database that allows companies and individuals to commit practical support to education worldwide, so you can teach a lesson online or provide text books and if you are a company you can provide paint for a school for example, all those sort of things which are much more practical and they don’t have to be huge 1 million dollar donations, they can be people’s time. We are trying to find ways to use the technology to change the way the humanitarian system works.
Does this relate to the work you did in Lebanon to get every Syrian child in school?
In Lebanon we were working to get every Syrian child in school and it is very complimentary to that. The work at the Global Buisiness for Education was already under way separately and is led by Sarah Brown and it basically brings business into the education sector and into the effort to get children in school worldwide, so it is not just looking at the Syrian crisis, it is looking at the 75 million children out of school worldwide.
There are many countries in turmoil or at war and I want to ask you on the survival of nation states, you talk a lot about the power of cities in your book, do you think nation states will survive? do you think Soft Power will play a part to save it?
States are definitely getting weaker and you see that particularly in the Middle East. Iraq, Syria and many states in the region are struggling, but they are not yet at a point where there is something to replace them with. No one has come up with a different way of dividing power up, so I think nation states will be with us for some time yet, but that whole structure, anything based on hierarchy, on institutions, on structures is just loosing power at the moment compared to things that are based on networks which are now gaining power. One thing I am talking to businesses about, are these changes, and the need to maximize networks rather than focus on where they sit on the organogram.
As you mentioned the Middle East, from your time in Lebanon, do you have one main memory there, that you are fond of?
I have too many, it was the adventure of my life, and I don’t know where to start. The "One Lebanon" concert was very special, I loved my last week in Lebanon I walked the coastline and had so many good encounters with people saying goodbye. I used to love going up to the mountains in the summer and in the winter for skiing. Probably for me being in Byblos, just sat there in the port of Byblos watching the boats coming in and out like they have done for thousands of years and eating large amounts of fish, those would be the magical moments.
What do you see the Future of Power to be?
To a large extent, power is shifting very fast away from nation states and towards individuals and away from regional bodies like the EU or the Arab League or the African Union. The more that people are empowered digitally the more they will want to take decisions themselves and have more liberty and more freedom. All of which is positive. The danger is that we lose any sort of sense of unifying global structure that can help to deal with all these massive global issues from Climate Change to economic uncertainty that do still require some of those structures and institutions which are kind of falling away, but power is hitting fast towards the individual and that’s the positive.
Tom Fletcher was British Ambassador to Lebanon (2011-15), and the No. 10 Downing Street foreign policy adviser to three Prime Ministers (2007-11). He is Visiting at New York University and the Global Diplomatic Academy, and an Honorary Fellow at Oxford University, from where he graduated in 1997 with First Class Honours in Modern History. As Global Strategy Director for the Global Business Coalition for Education, he is working with the private sector to get millions of children into school. He blogs as the Naked Diplomat, and chairs the International Advisory Council of the Creative Industries Federation, promoting Britain's most dynamic and magnetic sector overseas. He was made Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George in the 2011 New Year Honours list, for services to Prime Minister David Cameron.