Good diplomacy is the foundation on which cordial and sometimes ‘special’ international relationships are built, and the architects of these ties are called diplomats.
Overshadowed by PMs, MPs and AMs alike, their work largely goes unnoticed by the 10 o’clock news; but that doesn’t make their work and presence any less important.
In November 2018, for example, the current Foreign Secretary and potential future Prime Minister Jeremy Hunt, with the help of UK diplomats in the Middle East, successfully persuaded the United Arab Emirates to pardon Matthew Hedges from a life sentence, after the British academic was suspected of spying.
In the build up to this specific intervention, however, Mr Hunt was in the news for a completely different diplomatic feat.
In September 2018, he spoke at a conference in Tokyo, where he impressed his audience with a commendable grasp of Japanese.
Back home, the political Twittersphere found itself in a spin over the fact the Foreign Secretary (the Foreign Secretary, mind you) could be fluent in a language other than English.
Mr Hunt’s multilingualism has since inspired some debate over whether the UK’s language skills deficit weakens its influence as a diplomatic power.
The good, the bad, the diplomacy
William Hague, Hunt’s predecessor in the Foreign Office, once explained: “The ability to speak, read, listen and write in a foreign language is one of the fundamental skills of our diplomats.
“Without it,” he said, “they cannot get under the skin of a country and really understand its people.
Even then Hague warned that Britain would pay a heavy price on the world stage for its poor language capabilities. And he was right.
According to a report published by the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, the lack of Russian speakers in the Foreign Office had left diplomats ill-equipped to anticipate Russia’s military incursions into Ukrainian territory back in 2015.
Though this absence of Slavonic know-how is perhaps the best example of the UK’s striking language deficiencies, there are countless others to choose from.
Research published in 2018 found that just one third of British diplomats working in Arab countries actually spoke Arabic.
The marketability of multilingualism
As well as being of benefit to diplomats, multilingualism also carries a significant amount of political weight for politicians. Take Rory Stewart, for example.
Rumoured to be fluent in around 11 languages, including Russian, Greek and Indonesian, Stewart was recently applauded for showing off his ability to speak multiple languages in the race to become the next Prime Minister.
Stewart wowed colleagues and voters alike with his use of Dari on the campaign trail, a sight which perhaps exemplified his capacity for communication and cemented his reputation as a ‘unifying’ personality in a divisive profession.
One belt, one road
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for British-Arab Understanding, said: “There have been times when certain missions in the region have not had even one trained speaker, which is ridiculous.”
But a large amount of time and money is being spent by the government to remedy this worrying skills shortage.
The Foreign Office opened a foreign language centre back in 2013, which, in 2017, provided full-time language training to an estimated 122 diplomats.
Like other pressing issues, however, when it comes to preparing its diplomats for the linguistic challenges which awaits them, the UK is not alone.
In a sustained effort to improve international relations with Africa, China has been pushing its diplomats to learn the local tongues of important ‘strategic’ areas on the continent.
At the Beijing Foreign Studies University, a state school which provides language training to China’s next generation of diplomats and businesspeople, has started teaching African languages such as Tigrinya, Ndebele and Comorian – all of which will be key to their ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.
Recognising the role languages play on the world stage, China has committed to investing more on the development of diplomatic skills such as language learning. Surely, when it comes to diplomacy, the time has come for the rest of the world to follow suit.