Fréchette: Are diplomats needed in the digital age?

By: /
October 17, 2011
Former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations

In an age of over-abundant information, easy travel and instantaneous communications, some are tempted to conclude that the services of professional diplomats are no longer required. As Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau is reported to have said several decades ago, “Why pay good money to keep an army of diplomats abroad so they can report something I have already read in my morning newspaper?”.

Of course, diplomats do a lot more than just report on events in their country of accreditation and the smart ones have long ago stopped trying to compete with the media in this regard.  Their value-added is the profound understanding of the outside world that they can bring to bear on the consideration of issues of interest to their country. Such understanding cannot be acquired simply by watching the news on television, by exchanging e-mails with distant partners or by occasional visits to foreign lands.  It is the fruit of a life-long commitment to the field of international relations and a willingness to spend a good part of one’s life away from home, steeped in the realities of foreign societies and cultures. Professional diplomats will never match the knowledge of technical experts and should not pretend that they do. But they are best placed to map out the strategy and identify the tactics to achieve national goals internationally.