Between walls and bridges: diplomacy in a new century - An interview with Lord Peter Ricketts

Between walls and bridges: diplomacy in a new century - An interview with Lord Peter Ricketts
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By Grégoire ROOS, member of the St. Gallen Symposium's global Leaders of Tomorrow Community

A freshly retired British diplomat, Lord Ricketts joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1974. After various positions in Singapore, NATO (Brussels) and Washington, Lord Ricketts was called back to London to serve as Assistant Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe. In the early 2000s, Lord Ricketts joined the Cabinet Office as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, before being appointed Political Director of the FCO. In 2003, Lord Ricketts was appointed UK Permanent Representative to NATO in Brussels. In 2010, David Cameron called him to become Britain's first National Security Adviser, before sending him to Paris in 2012 to serve as Her Majesty's Ambassador in France until January 2016. Lord Ricketts now sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher and serves as non-executive director for an international energy company.


Grégoire Roos (GR)- You have held various strategic diplomatic positions around the globe over the past 40 years (NATO, Asia, US, Europe...), which would actually lead me to start with this first very simple question: scientists have proved (so far) that there was only one humanly-inhabited planet, but is there only one world?...

Lord Ricketts (PR)- Let's say I thought, for most of my career, that there was at least one common context in which we were all working. I started working in the midst of the Cold War, at a time when there were clearly two halves, but a common set of rules, clear ones, which prevented the worst. Deterrence worked and, in the end of this competition between the two blocks, the Western liberal free-market world prevailed. And let us say that for a period it looked there genuinely was one world, with one set of rules and one economic policy that clearly worked. I think in recent years this has clearly broken down; we now have to do with countries like Putin's Russia, and with leaders, in Turkey or China, who are actually, for different reasons, not playing by the rules that we have known in the last 60 or 70 years, and who are forging out and heading in a different and somewhat more nationalist direction. So I don't think there is any longer one world as such; I think the world we have known since 1945 is fracturing.

GR- In this "fracturing world", in which the common set of rules you've just referred to is fading away, the very notion of diplomacy would be logically expected to evolve to adapt to a somewhat more complex, unstable and unpredictable environment (rise of nationalist and populist leaders and, beyond, the political implications of what Zygmunt Bauman called the late or "liquid" modernity, with individuals tending to move more often and more quickly from one position to another).

PR- I think we, diplomats (and I was one for more than 40 years), used to have a relatively limited number of circles of opinion to influence. Governments, the mainstream media, parliaments, civil society... they were all relatively organised. Diplomacy, therefrom, was about getting people to think your way or take your arguments. Now, with social media, it's possible - and indeed essential - to cut through direct to individuals; there is no longer the mediation of these more, let's say, classic and traditional forums. So diplomats, too, have got to get smart! And we need to have Twitter-diplomats and social-media diplomats. We need use of these new vehicles, so that we first of all understand what is going on among these ever-evolving circles of opinion in all the countries we're in, and so that we can be part of the debate, in getting the views of our Governments out into the new social media space.

GR- So that's the new disruptive approach to diplomacy, which deploys a 2.0 strategy?

PR- Yes! And the reason is actually very simple: if we do not do that, then we are not present in the forums where most people are absorbing their news and their comments. And it's actually a great opportunity, for the diplomats sitting in different countries, to be able to communicate directly with many people; if they do it cleverly and in the right catchy style, they can reach out to far more people, and make a much greater impact than when we used to write a press article for a mainstream newspaper.

GR- You worked with Geoffrey Howe, under the Premiership of Lady Thatcher with whom one couldn't say he shared a great deal of convictions with regard to her European policy; you were sent to Brussels after the fall of the Berlin wall... For many of us, disruption is still rather a new and little-familiar notion. But to diplomats like you, it seems to be something you both work in and with on an almost daily basis. To put it another way, one could argue that diplomacy is the wise tackling of political disruption for the benefit of the Government one works for and represents...

PR- Let's say that change is a constant in this world, certainly. And having lived through the end of the Cold War - which was definitely a period of change - I think what is different now is that concurrent change of so many different factors. Not only do we have a long-going and long-running economic crisis, but we also have huge instability in the Middle-East, we have upheaval in Europe with BREXIT, and we now have the arrival of a very different style of American politician who seems to be opening a number of fronts simultaneously, including what could cause tomorrow's big global diplomatic disruption -to say the least: a tough confrontation with China. So these multiple disruptions, all happening at the same time, are actually more than I can remember in my career. But you're right, it's never been stable. There's always been some unexpected event coming out, there are just more of them simultaneously nowadays.

GR- You've clearly had to face and deal with very complex issues over your rich career (both abroad as an ambassador and home at the FCO or the Cabinet Office). You have worked closely with Geoffrey Howe and served under several Prime Ministers, among whom the charismatic and determined Margaret Thatcher, incidentally... Which form of disruption is (or looks) more difficult to tackle: that caused by events, or that caused by people and their character?

PR- Events are principally what causes disruption. And that is my problem with horizon scanning and long-term planning; in my experience, however good your 4/5-year forecast, it's always thrown off by an unexpected event (think of the Falklands war, Saddam Hussein's grab for Kuwait, or the end of the Cold War, which actually came in a very unexpected way...). And it is, ultimately, against the backdrop of these unexpected events that characters and personalities make sense and actually matter -for better of for worse- for the course of History. Events define people and unveil their true nature. So events trigger disruption, and lot of the job of diplomats is of course to manage tensions between personalities, as personalities drive politics and, throughout History, politics and power have been the working out of tensions and differences between strong personalities. Diplomats are therefore at the heart of trying to manage those, and to make sure that tensions and pressures come out in a constructive way rather that the reverse.

GR- To understand, to prepare for, and - let's be hubristic for a minute - to predict disruptions, should we not pay greater attention to people and personalities, as people, after all, cause events? On a closer look, it all seems like a chicken-or-the-egg problem.

PR- For sure. But what is certain here is that History is made by people. If you do not understand people, you won't understand History. And if you're a diplomat, it's the putting-together of people in interesting ways, the bridging of differences, the creating of circumstances where human links can be formed and agreements can be made which matters most. But, as I said earlier, events keep breaking through, and oftentimes totally unexpectedly, for caused by a chain of minor other events and a more or less fortuitous addition of human decisions made independently from one another. To sum it up, I would say that History is very much made by people dealing with external events. It's all a question of combination.

GR- In his essay entitled Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch [Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf], published in 1795, which has had a tremendous influence over modern Western politics and peace theories, Kant argues that peace ultimately stems either from a deliberate and sound decision of men (in other words when men are actors of their destiny) or by a chain of events imposed on men unable to agree. Henry Kissinger, in one of his insightful wrap-up synthesis of which he holds the secret, asserts the following: "(...) Kant (...) argued that perpetual peace would eventually come to the world in one of two ways, by human insight or by conflicts and catastrophes of a magnitude that left humanity no other choice. We are at such a juncture." (On China, 2011). What shape has this juncture taken over the past, let's say, 10 to 15 years?

PR- Well, I would try to come out on the positive end of Kant's two choices. And it actually also makes me think of Fukuyama's "end of History" theory. We're certainly not at the end of History, that's pretty much clear. But among all the dramatic issues facing our tormented world today, it is also worth remembering how far the world has progressed over the past 50 years in terms of fight against poverty for instance. Billions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty and hunger by technological advance, agricultural improvements, better education, greater financial and political inclusion, etc., with a great deal of Humanity living much better today, in safer and healthier conditions, than it has ever been true in History. So, while and although politics is very turbulent at the moment, the fight against diseases, poverty and malnutrition has been very successful in the last 20 or 30 years. Let's not lose that as well in all the catastrophic predictions which are being made every day about the world and our common planet.

GR- We obviously haven't talked that much about Britain so far... How and where do you see your country in 20 years from now?

PR- Well... Obviously not in the European Union! I think that is clear... The question is rather "what will the EU look in 20 years time?". My own guess is that the whole construction will move more along the lines of a loose federation of countries than those of a tight integrated supranational group, because I think too many pressures are pulling countries into diverse directions. The EU has got to learn to live with diversity and different approaches if it is going to survive.

GR- Nothing significantly optimistic there...

PR- Well, I think there is still, fortunately and hopefully, some horizon for optimism. And my optimistic scenario would be that the EU does adapt, and that Britain can therefore carve out a role for itself in cooperation with the EU -whatever that EU will be-, but with many other countries as well. In this optimistic scenario, we will also come through this period of increased nationalism, protectionism and other forms of inward-looking temptations, with a world that is still open and where the liberal trading arrangements are still functioning. And I actually think that Britain can turn out to be a very competitive country in that kind of environment. Of course getting from here to there won't be an easy time, but Britain can be very successful if we can preserve that sort of open-trading system in the world as an attractive place to be doing business in.

GR- Your scenario looks as if uncertainty as regards the future lay more on the EU's side that on Britain's. Is it precisely not this lack of clear perspective, this absence of window on the future in Europe which fuels popular resentment towards the EU and gives ground to populism across the continent, and which, incidentally, underpinned the arguments of Brexiters?

PR- Yes. I think it was unhappiness with the way Europe operates, the difficulty Europe has found in adapting to this demand for more flexible and diverse ways of cooperating together, a sense that the Commission in Brussels was remote from realities of ordinary people in our countries... All of that gave ground for BREXIT, yes, indeed. And so ensuring that the EU can adapt in the future, and actually adapt to this popular disruption, will be pretty important in maintaining up a close and open relationship between Britain and Europe.

"The dilemma of disruption" will be debated at the 47 St. Gallen Symposium, held from 3-5 May 2017 at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Graduate and postgraduate students from around the world have the chance to qualify for an expenses-paid participation in the symposium by competing for the St. Gallen Wings of Excellence Award 2017. Submission deadline is 1 February 2017, more details are available at

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