Reaching a wider audience (above: a cat listens to the live broadcast of the BBC Today Programme on Radio 4 at the British base in Basra Palace, 2006)

Friday, 8 May 2009

Citizen Diplomacy

It is clear to me that since I left the Diplomatic Service, not only do I still represent my country, but that I can sometimes do it better. Similar to the way that community journalists (bloggers) are often more trusted than traditional print media (which is plagued by “agenda”) an individual has credibility. An individual is independent, not in the pay of the state, and the way they represent their country may be more subtle and more giving – they may be involved in sport, business, or culture for example. As a social entrepreneur, an artist and a writer I have been able to engage with people at a more genuine level. Using my trip to Afghanistan last year as an example, I was finding out more about Afghanistan than I would have been able to from behind the closed doors of an Embassy and I was listened to far more than if I had been an official. And yet I never lost my British-ness, nor pretended to.

Last week Twitter lead me to discover the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy who say “Citizen Diplomacy is the concept that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations, “one handshake at a time.” Citizen diplomats can be students, teachers, athletes, artists, business people, humanitarians, adventurers or tourists. They are motivated by a responsibility to engage with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialogue”.

I am not sure about having the “right” to help shape foreign relations, but the responsibility is there for sure. Yesterday I visited a local school in rural Hertfordshire, to talk about my experiences as a British Diplomat. As a result of talking to the US Center, I changed it a little and had great fun talking with a bunch of 10 year olds about how they felt about the countries they had visited, how they could represent Britain (and why it was important), and what people other than Diplomats represented their countries. Some insightful quotes:

“When I saw people hitting their children in one country I went to, I thought that they must not be very nice people”

“It is best not to get drunk too much when you are in another country or people will think British people are all silly”

“If people came to our village they would think we were very friendly – unless they met the teenagers!”

“People who fly planes and work at airports are like Ambassadors really”

This week, I am going to explore what the British government are doing about Citizen Diplomacy. I know they have a programme which promotes British Islam abroad. They have specific reasons for this, but I don’t think it is going nearly far enough to promote this diverse, multicultural, smart nation to which I belong. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Muslim First, British Second

This was the title of BBC Panorama show on 16 February 2008. However the show did not present any real new discussion on the issue of identity for Britain’s approximately two million Muslims. What it did do is shine a spotlight on a slim minority. I shouldn’t be surprised, when I met the presenter, Richard Watson at The Frontline Club a couple of months ago he seemed bent on uncovering all that is bad about Islam – he presented a truly tabloid take guaranteed to marginalise. When I told him that the images he painted did not look like an Islam I recognised or had experienced (having lived in Muslim countries) he scoffed that I perhaps had not seen the dark side of Islam in Britain. I have lived in Iraq, Richard. I have seen plenty of dark sides – but I have seen equal amounts (more in fact) of good – it just doesn’t sell stories. Investigative journalism and uncovering truth is a vital element of any free media , but in the name of balanced journalism (another ethic I believe in) can Panorama please show both sides of the story?

My experience of Islam is that it one of the more peaceful religions – so let the media a) take religion out of the extremist debate - it is not useful to continually link Islam to extremism (this plays right into the hands of Al Qaeda branding). As I have written before (see the X Factor) – extremism is a human condition found in many parts of society and not always fuelled by religion. And/or b) pay proportionate attention to all that is good about Islam.

I don’t even know where to begin on Richard’s insistence on asking every Muslim cleric he comes across their views on homosexuality. Is there evidence to suggest that those intolerant of homosexuals turn to terror? I could find you handfuls of Christians and Hindus who reject homosexuality and know that homosexuality is categorically forbidden in the Torah. So how is this useful?

The fact is that the terrorist threat in Britain was actually reduced last month is also a significant point missed. I challenge the BBC to commission me to cover this story. And I ask The Panorama producers the same question that Richard asked A.R. Green in the show “Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?”

Not for the first time I feel a need to inspire the media to take some responsibility and to take a fair and balanced approach.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Obama, Galtung and Bigger Picture Diplomacy

On 20 January 2008 I found myself dashing to a business meeting somewhere near the Marylebone Road in Central London. Tourists, newspaper salesmen and smokers jostled me as I paused to look at the time outside Baker Street Tube station. It was nearly five o'clock and I realised if I didn't get to a TV screen pretty soon I would miss the big event. I lunged across the street avoiding honking cars, black cabs and big red buses and dived into a bar. The Globe was full of quietly muttering patrons and a screen which hung above them showed a rather regal looking Barack Obama gracing the steps of the White House some three and a half thousand miles away. After a text message or two and some buying of wine, the meeting was reconvened and instead of talking business we raised a toast to the man who has provided hope to millions and changed the public perception of America almost overnight. Even the most stiff-upper-lipped Brits in the crowd clapped and cheered at the astonishing transformation in America's politics.

I barely had time to dry my eyes before we rushed off across town to the Palace of Westminster to listen to the words of another eminent speaker; Johan Galtung was talking at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Conflict Issues and Obama had made us disrespectfully late.

In the field I work in, Galtung is a legend. The 78 year old Norwegian socialist is the grandfather of peace studies and has mediated in over 40 conflicts around the world. He has been a peace activist most of his life – in his teens he was sent to prison for insisting that he be engaged in peace making activities rather than serving in the military. As a former diplomat I was interested in Galtung’s take on diplomacy, but a little disappointed by his view on the effectiveness of diplomats, "a diplomat has as his priority the promotion of his national interests", he snapped, revealing perhaps the depths of his unfortunate experiences with diplomatic activity (or lack of it) over the years. Well, I mused, of course promotion of national interests is one of the functions of a diplomat, but using Galtung's own Transcend method (where everyone feels like a winner when a conflict is resolved) it is quite clear to me that the forward thinking diplomats of today understand that a nation’s interests are often best served by looking at the bigger picture. The new slogan of the British Foreign Office is "Better world, Better Britain" – the order of which demonstrates the logical priority. Whether it is applied in practice and whether diplomats of countries like Britain are the ones to deliver world peace is another thing, but the underlying ethos is there. I did agree with Galtung when he said we were getting into a world where "the old nation diplomats have less and less importance.” But, so long as we are all facing in the right direction, we can each play our part.

Although shamefully tipsy and tardy, I am not too annoyed with myself for missing the beginning of Galtung to witness the beginning of a new president. I like to think that Obama is not simply about rhetoric and that as one of the most powerful men in the world he will make a difference, not just in his own homeland. Outlawing torture, and closing the Guantánamo detention facility is a huge signal to those inside and outside of America. In December last year Obama vowed to renew American diplomacy - speaking at the national-security news conference in Chicago he talked of "the fundamental reality that in the 21st century, our destiny is shared with the world" – a clear challenge to Galtung's perhaps tarnished view. So, I raise my glass in the hope that new leaders and old wisdom can come together to realise that bigger picture diplomacy serves everyone's interests.