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Monday, November 2, 2009

Consultancy as Diplomacy

In The Rules of the Game (TLS, 28 Oct 2009),  Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former ambassador to the United Nations, has written a review in praise of Satow's Diplomatic Practice, described as an "internationally acknowledged authority on the practice of diplomacy" and first published in 1917.

Is this elderly tome still relevant? Greenstock argues that it is, saying "we need to know what constitutes good practice." So I was intrigued to compare some of these snippets of best practice in diplomacy with what might be regarded as best practice in consultancy.

"To adhere to a standard formula, often during a tense situation, has a reassuringly businesslike quality to it. As with legal language, it sounds strange but it is effective."

"Listen more than you talk; stay calm in every circumstance; don’t show off that you are privy to secrets."

"A diplomat carries few weapons, but the most important of them is his or her own credibility, both with the government at home and with colleagues and sparring partners out in the field. Words have to be wisely chosen, of course; and a radical openness, while engaging, is a tactical risk. But straightforward deceit rarely pays."

Why are diplomats needed at all, in these days of modern communication and summit meetings? Greenstock is clearly convinced that professional diplomacy is an important complement to the political rough-and-tumble. "What could be more sensible and efficient than direct business between the experts concerned conducted in plain language? Someone, however, has to pull the threads together and take a strategic view." In Greenstock's opinion, that person is the professional diplomat. I know consultants who have a similarly high opinion of the consultant's unique ability to take the strategic view.

There is always the possibility of tension between diplomats and their political masters, and Greenstock gives some interesting examples where he and his peers took the initiative and went beyond their official brief. The ability to take such initiatives may be partly justified by his observation that "Experienced diplomats swimming with the flow of global events have as good a chance as anyone of spotting something better than a zero-sum game". In the same edition of TLS, there is a short article on Margaret Thatcher's German War, which reveals a mismatch between Thatcher's largely anti-German values and policy and the rather more conciliatory diplomatic activity of her officials. (Perhaps an opportunity for a VPEC-T analysis?)

Clearly consultants have something to learn from diplomacy, but is best practice enough? Comments please?

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