I was really flattered when Parin asked me to write a guest blog post. But I have to admit that it was matched by an equal sense of fear. I looked at his most frequently used labels - funny, entrepreneur, technology, organisational behaviour - and broke out in a cold sweat. Diplomats are rarely funny; we have seldom been called entrepreneurs; we have only just moved on from sending faxes; and our organisational behaviour has often been described as the art of eating a Ferrero Rocher with one hand and holding a glass of fine wine with the other. That said I am very grateful for the opportunity to try it out.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself in the hope that you might read further. I am a British diplomat currently posted to Malaysia. I have previously served in Iraq, just after the war in 2003, and then in Uganda from 2004 for three years. In Uganda, I spent the majority of my time working on the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. My mother was thrown out of Uganda in the early 1970s by Idi Amin’s forces so being posted there, and working with Idi Amin’s son, was particularly surreal. But equally surreal (and considerably more pleasurable) was meeting Gillian Anderson during the filming of the Last King of Scotland! It’s strange to meet someone in person after spending several years staring at their poster on your bedroom wall...
Parin kindly offered me a blank canvas to write about anything topical but I thought I would use the opportunity to promote gratuitously my own blog, http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/nikeshmehta. I am the British Government’s official blogger in Malaysia and one of my roles is to raise the profile of the work that we do across the High Commission to a wider audience. If you’re interested, there are a couple of blogs with a behind-the-scenes look at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to Malaysia last year.
My latest blog on digitalising diplomacy focuses on what a diplomat actually does and how we might use digital tools to become more influential. Diplomats have traditionally relied on collecting information from a relatively small pool of politicians, the media and government contacts but social media and the arrival of ‘citizen journalism’ have completely changed the landscape. Anyone who followed the events in North Africa in 2011 will have seen the direct impact of digital networking. You could argue that the catalyst for the Arab Spring was that people across the region were fed up with unaccountable, authoritarian regimes but the speed at which these governments were toppled was largely due to the power of social media.
I would argue that for diplomats, this presents incredible opportunities: now, if I want to know where the upcoming election in Malaysia will be most closely fought, I can tweet that question and receive a response from our Twitter followers across the country in minutes. Or if the High Commission wants to launch (say) its Chevening Scholarships programme, we can promote it on our digital channels far quicker than we could through a press release.
I think social media will also help diplomats to challenge the perception that they are somewhat disconnected from ordinary people. I honestly believe that most diplomats are committed to helping the countries where they are posted and to creating opportunities for people back at home. Now, through Twitter and Facebook, it is possible for diplomats to show that they are active, accessible and above all, altruistic.
But we need to use social media with our eyes wide open. There are risks. Can you imagine the consequences of a misguided tweet from a diplomat on the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video? It’s not always easy to get the nuance right in 140 characters.
There will never be a substitute for private, confidential discussions with decision-makers, and this will remain a key part of our role, but diplomats cannot afford to stand still and hope that the digital revolution will leave us unscathed. It won’t.
That is why the British Foreign Office has set itself the ambitious target of being the world’s leading user of digital tools to enhance foreign policy. It will take time but our policy formulation will be better for it.
If you want to know more about how social media is already being used to influence British foreign policy, have a look at Tom Fletcher’s blog. Tom is the British Ambassador in Lebanon and was previously Private Secretary to Gordon Brown and David Cameron. He has used his blog and Twitter feed to lead the debate amongst the Lebanese Shia, Sunni and Christian communities about what the country could be like in 2020.
I hope you’ve found this post interesting. And Parin, many thanks again, for this opportunity.