The Job of a Diplomat

Diplomat Oliver Miles

Diplomat Oliver Miles

In an article written nearly a decade ago, retired British diplomat Oliver Miles wrote a full, yet openly metaphorical list of what a diplomat does overseas. The job of a diplomat isn’t as prescribed in duty unlike a surgeon or a technician. A diplomat must be willing to stay flexible yet committed to the call of duty – to serve their government in any means possible.

Diplomacy can change very quickly as illustrated by the activities of Britain’s exit of the European Union. However, others may argue that diplomacy never changes and the role has remained stagnant over the past decades. The latter is untrue, given the increasingly numbers of new non-state actors and communication tools available to us. As a result, there is no official guide for diplomats. There is no instruction book. There is no set to-do list that diplomats need to complete to play the part.

Apart from language training, which is a special case, Miles insists that courses on security, regional geography, economists and semi-specialist subjects could help take a diplomat far in their role. However, training is not fundamental and what you learn now may not be useful in the future. But as a diplomat, you must be able to negotiate, to win the confidence of the powerful and influence them, to understand what makes a foreign society tick, to analyse information and report it accurately and quickly, including what your own government does not want to hear; you need "a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a warm smile and a cold eye".

Miles, only heartedly, comments that other qualities such as good horsemanship, good looks and a good head for alcohol may be just as important. In short, the more qualities you add, the less it looks like the specification of a good diplomat. Having a mixed cocktail of skills and attributes will always be welcomed when operating as a diplomat.

Miles admits that: “Diplomacy has changed. Probably the biggest single change was the introduction of the telegraph in the middle of the 19th century, which meant that ambassadors were no longer truly "plenipotentiary", as they are still formally described, since they were within range of instructions and no longer had the necessity or the authority to stand in place of their sovereigns.”

The British system of recruiting people into the diplomatic service closely follows the system of recruitment into the home civil service. Both recognises the need for many similar qualities, such as: a balance between prudence and a can-do attitude; having an understanding for leadership and scrupulous respect of the democratic process; and versatility in facing intractable problems.

Miles adds: “When I worked in Belfast, I was warned by a home civil service colleague not to "trust" the Irish government. It made me think about diplomacy. Do we or should we trust the American or French governments? Should they trust us? It's the wrong question. One of the arts of diplomacy is to find solutions to problems that depend not on trust but on interest.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents a comprehensible list of skills and attributes that they are looking for on their website:

Breaking the stereotype of Ferrero Rocher diplomacy, many diplomats have made note that their work mainly desk-based, conducted in English, and lack the lustre and glamour as depicted in the chocolate advert.

Here is a short list of some of the more interesting work Miles had conducted while operating as a diplomat:

  • Persuading the local government in eastern Yemen to install toilets in preparation for a visit by some United Nations VIPs.

  • Passing a secret message from the Luxembourg monetary authority to the Bank of England about the need for tighter regulation of the BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International), which later collapsed.

  • Interceding with a Saudi prince to get a British lorry driver's sentence for release.

  • Obtaining the release of a CIA double agent's British sidekick who had been tortured by the Libyan revolutionary committees.

  • Leading a seminar on export promotion in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations immediately after the end of the Soviet Union.

  • Influencing the Greek minister of foreign affairs in the middle of the night to urge restraint in a military confrontation with Turkey.

What do you make out of some of these “diplomatic” activities?