Truth, lies and diplomacy

Fostering co-operation in a fractured world

IN 1604, SIR Henry Wotten – an English diplomat travelling through Augsburg – composed an epigram for the guest book of the house in which he was staying. Legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum rei publicae causa, he wrote. ‘An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ Wotten was King James I’s ambassador to Venice at the time, and his remark – now infamous – was made in jest. But when King James heard reports of the comment some years later, he cast Sir Henry into disgrace.

In later years, when asked for advice by another ambassador, a more circumspect Wotton suggested that ‘to be in safety…and serviceable to his country, [the ambassador] should always and upon all occasions speak the truth’. A masterful reframing. Yet, despite Wotten’s clever change of tone and the long passage of time, his original statement is today the one most frequently quoted. And it’s a sentiment often echoed elsewhere, such as in Ambrose Bierce’s satirical definition of diplomacy as ‘the patriotic art of lying for one’s country’.[i]

Such statements reveal the complicated relationship that exists between trust and diplomacy. They speak to a common perception, echoed by Ruth Bereson in her contribution to the anthology Lying Abroad: A Critical Study of Cultural Diplomacy (Merrill Press, 2007), that ‘all usages of diplomacy and those who practice it have in common…a faint air of benign duplicity’.[ii] That perception is as alive today as it was at the turn of the seventeenth century.

I first heard Wotten’s words as a young diplomat serving at the Australian embassy in Mexico. I’d been recruited into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as an enthusiastic law graduate; it was a lucky break into the profession I had always aspired to join. And looking back, they seemed to be the halcyon days of Australian diplomacy. Under the charge of Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, Australia aspired to ‘good international citizenship’ and claimed to be ‘punching above its weight’ in diplomatic circles around the globe.

At any rate, I was in Mexico chatting with a group of expats at a reception. I was espousing the virtues of cultural diplomacy as a means of bridging gaps in understanding between countries – the embassy was planning a screening of the Australian movie Shine, and the potential for this event to engage a wider audience in a discussion about Australia was very much at the forefront of my mind. I don’t remember the exact terms of the conversation, but my companions must have felt it necessary to check my enthusiastic and somewhat uncritical embrace of the diplomatic post. Surely, they suggested, I could see that the use of culture was just another form of self-promotion and manipulation carried out in the national interest, as opposed to an exercise in building true understanding across cultures? Wotton’s quote was thrown in at the end for good measure. The conversation faltered, and I backed away in search of other company.

My naive confidence – perhaps worn too overtly – was shaken. In hindsight, it wasn’t such a bad thing. I believed diplomacy to be a noble endeavour, and to some degree I still do. But that particular conversation led me to take a more critical view of the profession more broadly, and my own role in it. I moved on, and ultimately left the diplomatic profession altogether. But I remain fascinated by the lingering perception – promoted through the media, in popular culture and increasingly by political leaders – that diplomacy sits alongside duplicity and deception.

Never mind that Wotton’s quip was made in the spirit of wit; it’s curious that diplomats and their practice are so routinely portrayed and perceived as duplicitous. On the one hand, perhaps it’s reasonable enough: the diplomat working overseas tends to conduct business behind closed doors. As a representative of their head of state, they might simply be seen as an instrument used in the pursuit of political goals on the global stage. And, given that they’re better known for tact and discretion over directness – and often bound by bureaucratic talking points – a diplomat rarely gives away the complete story. These traits speak to discretion, but might also be interpreted with suspicion.

Yet on the other hand, diplomats generate and receive trust on a variety of levels. They are entrusted by their political masters to serve and advance the interests of the state, and by their interlocuters to conduct their duties – representation, communication, negotiation and exchange – in good faith within the boundaries of another country. They’re also entrusted by the ordinary citizens they help overseas every day. Mitigating tensions, resolving differences and overcoming estrangement all turn on the capacity to elicit trust and an ability to trust in return. Cultivating reciprocity in trusting relationships is integral to the ability of the diplomat to succeed in the complex, contested and remote worlds that he or she invariably inhabit. It’s a task that is only likely to become more challenging and more necessary in the uncertain, divided and contested world ahead. And, as diplomacy continues to evolve beyond its traditional boundaries, to engage new actors, methods and media, it’s a skill we, like Wotten, may come to appreciate more readily when it comes to the profession.


TRUST AS A concept is most often viewed through the lens of personal interactions; it is inherently social and informed by the familiar. Tom Cargill, executive director of the British Foreign Policy Group, identifies it as the ‘bedrock of all strong relationships…and what allows us to believe in the reliability of others: colleagues, business partners, friends’.[iii]

And trust has long been viewed as a critical dimension of international relations. Even before the birth of the sovereign Westphalian state in 1648, Erasmus suggested trust was ‘essential to good relations among princes’.[iv] More recently, it has been described as the cement that holds peaceful relations between nation-states together and the necessary ingredient for solving serious conflicts. In the interactions between nations, trust is ‘often equated with the willingness to gamble on the behaviour of others’,[v] yet this in itself is an insufficient explanation for its currency. In his thoughtful book, Building Trust: Overcoming Suspicion in International Conflict (SUNY Press, 2006), Aaron M Hoffman challenges and extends the traditional line of thinking. He suggests there’s more to it, putting forward a two-part equation, based initially on the probability of another nation-state or global actor co-operating; and secondly on a belief in the likely preferences of that state or actor. For Hoffman, trust is not simply about taking a punt or placing confidence in the expectations of another actor (because co-operation can occur in the absence of trust), but more about placing confidence in the expectation that the other actor will ‘do what is right’.[vi]

In this way, Hoffman raises the threshold by which trusting relationships between states might be conceived. The problem, as he also notes, is that in an anarchic world of unrestrained competition, ‘trusting relationships are difficult, if not impossible to establish’. It’s a familiar trope. In this kind of environment, where the strong will do what they can and the weak will suffer what they must, trust is a scarce resource.

This is where the diplomat plays a crucial role. Charged, at least in modern times, with the dual tasks of advancing their nation’s interests while encouraging friendly relations with other countries, the diplomat’s challenge lies in taming the forces of anarchy that pull at the fabric of global society. It’s a task that demands the ability to engage in constructive dialogue while crafting, adjusting, monitoring and enforcing the norms and rules that enable governments to entrust their interests to one another – whether on a global, regional or subregional scale. Through their interventions, diplomats ultimately seek to alter their environment – the anarchic world of nations – and establish agreed frameworks upon which trusting relationships between countries might be constructed.


IT’S A CHALLENGING and curious space in which to operate. As brokers and facilitators of dialogue on the global stage, official diplomats trade in multilayered relationships of interpersonal trust: with colleagues and counterparts as well as domestic constituencies and foreign audiences. And here’s the rub. Much of the diplomat’s work is conveyed in secret, conducted out of public view. Their engagements in international summits and meetings draw on common understandings of official language and formal protocols that, though intended to facilitate smooth interactions between nations, can appear opaque to those on the outside. The diplomat’s ability to talk across a complex agenda of issues without necessarily holding expertise in any single area can strike as being superficial. And the demand to build strong relationships means that they generally spend a great deal of time away from home, enmeshed in what appears to be a never-ending cocktail circuit and imbued with privileges and immunities separating them from the ordinary citizen. These perceptions, when taken together, feed a convenient though largely inaccurate narrative of diplomacy as a slippery, frivolous and possibly even suspicious business.

Of course, in its early form diplomacy was not so much a noble profession as one bound up with nobility and aristocracy, steeped in pomp and ceremony and associated with power, privilege and prestige. For some it was a swashbuckling affair; for others it was fraught with danger. But all the while, it remained largely removed from the experience of the everyday person in the street.

The past century has seen diplomacy evolve to become a necessary feature of the modern nation’s public service with universally agreed functions set out in international law. Despite this evolution of practice, criticisms remain. Indeed, if they think about it at all, the general public continues to be wary of the value that diplomacy delivers to them. As global power becomes increasingly diffuse, some question who it is that the diplomat can claim to represent. And there are critics inside the profession too. Former UK diplomat Carne Ross, arguing that his profession had become tangled in the vested interests of politics and power following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, left the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to set up an alternative model: the Independent Diplomat advisory service.[vii] He is not the only disillusioned diplomat, but he is perhaps the most vocal in his critique and active in his resistance to traditional structures.

Over the past decade diplomacy has further developed its public persona by engaging civil-society leaders, artists, journalists, academics, students and even celebrities in the dialogue of nations. This twenty-first century style of ‘public diplomacy’ distinguishes itself from Cold War propaganda, emphasising two-way dialogue over monologue, relationships over transactions and mutual benefits over unilateral interest. It also recognises the significance of public opinion in global decision-making. Today’s public-diplomacy activities range from hosting major sporting events (the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics thawed inter-Korean relations) and sponsoring study (from Fulbright scholarships to the New Colombo Plan) to gifting exotic animals to foreign zoos (such as China’s much-loved pandas). These public diplomacy activities are not altruistic endeavours; they are intended to contribute to a country’s ‘soft power’, or its ability to influence without resorting to the use or threat of force. For many it’s a preferable alternative. Yet others remain sceptical and question the co-option of ordinary people, educational or cultural institutions – let alone animals – as bidders for the interests of the state.

Public diplomacy has its dark side. Sport, culture and education have all been manipulated and exploited in the unbridled pursuit of political goals. Perhaps traditionalists are right to be wary. Twentieth-century British diplomat Harold Nicolson thought it an ‘act of unimaginable vulgarity to appeal to the common people upon any issue of international policy’.[viii] And well-known diplomacy scholar Geoffrey R Berridge has more recently dismissed the ‘flabby blancmange term, public diplomacy’ as a euphemism for propaganda.[ix] Yet activities associated with public and cultural diplomacy can be profoundly effective. When executed sensitively, public diplomacy can reveal humankind’s shared vulnerabilities and insecurities far more effectively than traditional diplomacy, and in ways that break down conventional barriers, transform relationships and inspire political action. Nations like Australia that can neither buy nor bully their way in the world rely on the influence that these activities can add to their global standing. A far cry from the guns of war, the tools that operate person-to-person and across cultures have long been viewed, as Richard T Arndt put it, as ‘the first resort of kings’.[x] And, by their very nature, they demand a great deal of trust of, and in, the diplomat.


RECENT EVOLUTIONS ASIDE, the most significant challenge to the reality and perception of the diplomatic profession is only now coming to light. It is the challenge of diplomacy in a digital era. The spread of the internet and uptake in new media tools are reshaping global connections, interactions and realities in every corner of the world, and these forces are drawing diplomacy into the public domain at an unprecedented rate. Here, global audiences overloaded with information expect more input into and demand greater accountability from the dialogue of nations, all in a 24/7 time zone.

In this brave new digital world, political leaders make foreign policy in real time and on the fly (some using only the 240 characters of a tweet), while new actors, from Google to Bill Gates, claim greater power and influence than many nation-states. Perhaps the information revolution has simply accelerated the much-needed ‘democratisation’ of diplomacy. Indeed, the traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign audiences, elite and general publics, producers and consumers, are less relevant than ever before. Or perhaps, in the hyperconnected world, the diplomatic role of representation has become redundant. At the very least the diplomat’s voice appears to be crowded out in the cacophony of tweets and trolls. In this world, as UK diplomat Tom Fletcher recently observed, ‘diplomacy does indeed face a crisis of trust and legitimacy’.[xi]

While digital and social media tools offered much promise early on, the interventions and engagements initiated by some states, their political leaders and institutions generate new concerns in the digital domain. Uniformed officials promoting China’s position in the South China Sea on YouTube or Twitter evoke public distrust and fear about China’s intentions and ambitions in the region. The social media ‘warriors’ appointed by Philippines’ President Duterte to spruik his policies and build influence create layers of white noise. Fake news and misinformation abound. Meanwhile, US President Trump’s erratic and often aggressive tweets undermine the position and influence of American diplomacy and draw wide criticism from across the region; even worse, some White House staff are reported to mimic his ‘two-thumbs’ approach because it ‘cuts through’ and gives the impression of authenticity that resonates with his electoral base.[xii]

With unprecedented access and connectivity, some authoritarian regimes – including in Australia’s region – are tightening their grip on information flows. As a result, users are becoming more discerning, more cautious and less social than ever before, essentially reverting to new forms of self-censorship. Conversations that matter, including those for public diplomacy, are moving out of visible social networking spaces into the less visible private group chats, marking the emergence of a dark digital era. In this new environment, trusted public actors are in short supply. At the same time, many communities and individuals still live beyond the reach of the internet. The emerging digital divide reflects a new form of inequity and poverty that is a source of deep concern.

Diplomats in this uneven digital world are under greater pressure than ever to engage more widely in all spheres, at home and abroad, to explain, consolidate, support and promote foreign policy positions while correcting or contesting policy missteps and misunderstandings. Today’s diplomat must be more deeply attuned to the politics of the digital world itself, where culture, information and relationships are systematised through software, and where political discourse is tailored and channelled through a clever interplay between code and algorithm. To the untrained eye, much in the digital world is based on transaction rather than trust.

The global landscape is certainly more complex, fragmented and challenging. But don’t be fooled. Old-style chessboard politics hasn’t disappeared. Strategic rivalry between the great powers, coupled with new forces of fragmentation and populist politics and amplified by digital media, simply mean it has intensified and morphed. Grand strategy has been replaced by ‘radical incrementalism’; once secret negotiations between states are increasingly open to and informed by public opinion; and new horizontal networks of influence operate in murky and opaque ways. To return to Hoffman, it would seem that gaining trust in this environment is less possible than ever.

For a middling power like Australia, navigating this landscape is a difficult task. The demands on Australia’s powers of influence and persuasion have always been significant. And as a nation, Australia has invested (some would argue insufficiently) to ensure a diplomatic presence on the global stage. A founding member of the United Nations, Australia continues to place its confidence in supporting a rules-based order, and this strategy has benefited both us and our region for several decades now.

But the demands on diplomacy today are striking and varied in nature – from standing up for established global rules to bringing international rogues to justice; from engaging across the many forms of social media to protecting and sometimes rescuing citizens in distress or detention overseas. Such demands are also increasingly relentless in their frequency – all against a background of strategic geopolitical change. Through all this, Australia’s commitment to, and investment in, its diplomatic capacity is critical.


AGAINST THIS BACKGROUND of global disruption, distrust and uncertainty, the sentiment conveyed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in his 2019 Lowy Lecture ‘In Our Interest’ was particularly worrying. In language that bore an almost Trumpian tone, Morrison appeared to be feeding into a mainstream distrust about diplomacy and those who practise it. He suggested that we should avoid ‘any reflex towards a negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community. And worse still an unaccountable, international bureaucracy’.[xiii] As if forgetting Australia’s longstanding commitment to promote and preserve the ‘rules-based order’, including through the United Nations, Morrison told his audience, ‘we will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them’.[xiv]

The speech struck an odd tone. And the suggestion that DFAT must now undertake a ‘comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where we have the greatest stake’ sends an ominous signal to Australia’s internationalists.

Australia has sought to be a constructive, responsible and active player in the international sphere, not just by having a seat at the table, but by building trust through diplomatic endeavours and actions in traditional forums as well as the public sphere. Morrison’s claims will raise questions among our diplomatic partners and place a well-earned reputation at risk. More importantly, they will raise questions at home, causing us to question the value we as a nation should place in our global diplomatic presence and engagement going forward.

Can we continue to place our trust in the institution and its practitioners? My gut instinct tells me that we can, and we should.

But then, I’m an internationalist, writing at a time when fear and distrust of an international society seems to be reaching new heights. The ability to foster trust in the global sphere has been critical to establishing universally agreed institutions, rules, norms and standards on all manner of issues – from the standard size of a postal envelope to the storage and disposal of nuclear weapons materials. It is trust at work in the global arena that underpins the effective movement and interaction of services, goods, people, data and ideas across all domains: land, sea, air, cyber and space. More importantly, it is trust that can enable understanding and respect, and offer the possibility of deeper co-operation between people, societies and nations. In all this, the diplomat plays a pivotal role.

Today’s world is vastly different to that in which Sir Henry Wotten operated. I don’t think this would be lost on the seventeenth-century diplomat. If he were here today, he just might think differently – though I hope no less critically – about the way he described his craft, even in jest. The diplomatic role is complex: trust plays a central though not always clear-cut role, and the ‘faint air of benign duplicity’ is hard to shake. But more often than not, it’s a role conducted with the good of all in mind, and not simply an elite few.



[i] Bierce, Ambrose (1906). The Cynics Word Book. Washington DC.

[ii] Bereson, Ruth (2007). ‘Understanding Cultural Diplomacy’ in Ruth Bereson (ed.) Lying Abroad: A Critical Study of Cultural Diplomacy (p.13). Buffalo: University of Buffalo.

[iii] Campbell-Cree, Alice, and Lotton, Mona (2015). The Value of Trust. London: British Council.

[iv] Erasmus (1936). The Education of a Modern Prince. Translated by Lester K Born. New York: Columbia University Press.

[v] Ibid. p. 2.

[vi] Hoffman, Aaron (2002). ‘A Conceptualization of Trust in International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations, 8 (3), 375-401.

[vii] A diplomatic advisory service that works with disadvantaged and vulnerable groups – who despite legitimate political claims are excluded from the halls of the United Nations – to advance their claims through the application of diplomatic know-how practice and outreach.

[viii] Nicholson, Harold (1950). Diplomacy 2nd ed, (p.68). London: Oxford University Press.

[ix] Berridge, Geoffrey (2015). Diplomacy: Theory and Practice 5th ed (p. 198). Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

[x] Arndt, Richard T. (2005). The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc.

[xi] Fletcher, Tom (2016). The Naked Diplomat (p. 14). London: William Collins.

[xii] Relman, Eliza (2018). ‘Trump’s staff ghostwrites some of his tweets and inserts grammatical errors to make them seem authentic’. Business Insider, 23 May.

[xiii] Morrison, Scott (2019). ‘In our interest’, 2019 Lowy Lecture. Delivered to the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, 3 October 2019.

[xiv] Ibid

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