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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

In the digital age, anyone can be a diplomat. Increasingly, everyone will need to be

On the dangers of too much certainty and too little curiosity

Letters to a Young Muslim, Omar Ghobash's book, is recommended by Tom Fletcher. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Letters to a Young Muslim, Omar Ghobash's book, is recommended by Tom Fletcher. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

It is that time of year when many in the West are heading towards the heat and many in the UAE are heading away from it.

One of the books I’m recommending to those packing their holiday reading is Omar Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim. Omar pens a series of honest and thoughtful letters to his son Saif about the search for the voice of his father - a minister assassinated when Omar was just six. In the process, he reflects on his own faith and its place in the modern world, strongly rejecting the idea that the two are incompatible.

The new geopolitical dividing lines are no longer North/South, East/West or developed/developing. Instead, I think we’ll see more intense debate around three themes. First, between order and disorder. There are many, including at the head of some pretty influential governments, who are setting out to undermine the global scaffolding that has been constructed with great care over many decades. Second, between security and freedom. Every country is facing new dilemmas as to where to draw that line, particularly when it comes to the internet. And third, between coexisters and wall-builders, with those who believe in global cooperation up against those who want to retreat from it.

These are complex debates. If we are to resolve them, it is important to create and protect the space to debate and compromise. Ghobash puts it succinctly in one of the letters to his son: “I want you to be on the lookout for people who tell you with unerring conviction what you should do”.

Globally, we seem to be in a period where there is too much certainty and too little curiosity. People are finding themselves being drawn further into echo chambers, where they hear only the views of those with whom they already agree. I think success in the 21st century requires a different mindset.

So yes, let’s drain the swamp of those who promote intolerance, whether in tabloids or places of worship, and weaponise intolerance during political campaigns. Of those those selling hatred of difference as the snake-oil cure for globalisation. Of easy access to deadly weapons, and lack of justice for those who use them against civilians.Of policy by media cycle, and those hawking quick fixes for a complex world. Of the inequality of opportunity that provides a petri dish in which extremism and anger fester.

My business, diplomacy, is at its essence about promoting coexistence, or to put it more starkly, stopping violence. We diplomats are trying to provide the lubricant in the system as continents, states, armies and ideas rub up against each other. We are trying to find ways to agree how best to distribute resources and power without fighting. We are taking on those who argue that the answer to the 21st century is a bigger wall. Walls don’t tend to last long.

But whatever happens to traditional diplomacy, I believe everyone else needs to be in those arguments about coexistence, too. In the digital age, anyone can be a diplomat. Increasingly, everyone will need to be a diplomat. Diplomacy is not a creed or a code. It is a basic human reflex. Negotiating access and distribution of resource is as essential to the survival of the species as finding the resource in the first place. You don't have to be working for a foreign ministry to do that.

As anyone with an iPad knows, it can unlock extraordinary and exciting potential. But it can also make us idler and more apathetic or distracted. It is all too easy not to care, to see it all as too difficult, to swallow the easy conspiracy, or simply oppose. The internet gives a voice to the angry and intolerant. It becomes harder to find those ready to fight for something, as opposed to against something. It is often easier to destroy than to build.

The reality is of course that we don't have to know everything about everything. We don't need to have an emotional reaction to everything. But, with the world getting smaller, we do need to care. Why? Because the people in the news are also human. Anyone who thinks that foreigners are fundamentally different clearly hasn’t met many. We cannot allow ourselves to be removed from a sense of community with the poorest or most oppressed, just because they happen to have a different passport.

But we also need to care because it is pragmatic. We have got to find ingenious ways to fix the 21st century's mounting challenges if we are to thrive as a species. As a global civilisation emerges, our survival will depend to a greater extent to our ability to innovate and create across traditional boundaries and cultures. The threats to us no longer take the form that they did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Neither must our responses.

And we need to care because history hasn't finished. War has shown itself exceptionally resilient and adaptable, and able to survive technological innovation and globalisation. Technology is not just empowering the good guy: look at the selfies of beheadings by ISIL.

So we must also be ready to fight harder for the values we share than the intolerant - in all our societies - fight to destroy them. As Omar Ghobash puts it, “freedom is the highest partner in the construction of a moral world”. We can no longer take that for granted.

Last month at a stirring NYU Abu Dhabi graduation ceremony, Dubai Abulhoul, recently voted Young Arab of the Year, said in her welcome speech that the most important thing the students had learnt was not the right answers but the right questions. That is a mindset that should inspire and encourage us as we work to increase global security and prosperity.

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, is a visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age.

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