Be careful, because the world is more dangerous than it used to be…

February 6, 2014 § 9 Comments

It looks like the world is more dangerous for international policy professionals than it used to be. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the world is more dangerous for everybody. Nor should we allow alarming events we see on the news make our fears greater than the actual risks we face.

However, I do think that protection from diplomatic immunities and traditional inhibitions to violence against foreigners is down. Especially in global trouble spots.  After all, what is diplomatic immunity supposed to mean in a failed or failing state? Not much.

Diplomats need to work in dangerous places. Countries like Canada have global interests and need a global presence.  The civilian work Canada did in Kandahar shows that the Canadian public servants can deliver crucial civilian programs in war zones, especially when it is done in partnership with the Canadian Forces.

But why is there so much rage out there?

I think that there are some powerful psychological drivers of violence at work here. We don’t talk about it much. In a complex international equation, perceived insult leads to humiliation, which generates feelings of rage. This reduces cultural inhibitions to violence.

It gets dangerous when malign leaders exploit grievances against international actors in order to orchestrate violence against foreigners.

I remember April first, 2011 when Florida Pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran. This insult unleashed protests in Afghanistan that were hijacked for violent purposes. There were fatalities and property destruction in Kandahar, and also the tragic killing of seven UN workers in Mazar al Sharif.

Two observations. We know reckless acts like burning a Koran in Florida can have fatal impact on the other side of the world. So let’s keep alive the dialogue about the trade offs between freedom of speech, hate and incitement. We need to do so in a positive spirit of inclusion and responsibility. It would be great to have this conversation outside the crucible of crisis.

Secondly, there is no room for a casual attitude about security.  When an officer of an organization is the victim of insecurity, the objective of his whole effort is a victim, too. Lapses in the personal security of individuals can lead to catastrophic policy failures at the level of an organization. International professionals need to take their safety seriously, and organizations need to ensure they have the tools, resources and intelligence to do so.

Is your work getting more dangerous?

Looking forward to your comments.


Six Things I Learned after Thirty Years in the Foreign Service (Part 1)

January 5, 2014 § 20 Comments

Diplomats have the honour of representing their country, and the privilege of getting close enough to international affairs to touch them, and be touched by them.  When I completed thirty years and contemplated my retirement from the foreign service, I reflected on what I had learned along the way. This in turn led me to identify some general principles to guide diplomatic conduct.  I hope that they may also be helpful to others who work in this tough, but rewarding practice of international relations.

Looking back over the seven countries and 13 positions I have held since I joined the Foreign Service on September 6, 1983 I have drawn six conclusions.

  1. Be careful, because the world is more dangerous than it used to be.
  2. Trust is the most valuable diplomatic asset.
  3. It is fatal to let the prestige of your job contaminate your ego.
  4. When it comes to development, peace and security, it’s really all about governance.
  5. When tough choices are required, you have to do the right thing, because that’s what people remember about you and your country.
  6. The way you say good-bye is more important than how you said hello.

Despatches is a blog of reflection and analysis on diplomacy and international policy subjects. In the next six posts I will write about my personal take on these six critical issues.

I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your comments.


sudan, aid, tim martin, consultant