Review: What Diplomats Do – Sir Brian Barder (Rownman & Littlefield)

What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats 

By Brian Barder
Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2014

Diplomacy has captured imaginations since The Prince, and remained opaque to public understanding despite the modern push for transparency in government. 
Brian Barder, a British diplomat in his working life, insists that this mystique is a mistakenly held perception held by “those who have never come into contact with its practitioners”, though it may be by reason of Whitehall that many have never engaged in tête-à-tête with serving members of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Corps.
Barder aims to provide an answer to those who have asked the question “But what do diplomats actually do?” but also explores experiences of what diplomats are and what diplomats feel throughout the diligence of their careers. 
The author becomes something of an occupational archaeologist in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, guided by a fictitious British diplomat whose career conveniently serves as a model of variety and distinguished resentment. The protagonist glumly fulfils his duty to his country, carefully elucidating his inner workings and reasoning for the decisions and manners in the key roles of the junior and senior diplomat. The book also highlights the effects on family life and spouse of the job, and the alternating mental stimulation and strain for the post-holder. If by the chapter two you thought Barder might be verging on the conservative in his family values, you might be right. Still effort is expended highlighting the problematic sexism and lack of diversity in elite politics.
What Diplomats Do shows that diplomacy for a modern professional is both “just a job” but also unrecognisable beside many nine-to-fives. Barder compiles moments of fear, international embarrassment, posturing, and deep, sincere viscerality. It evokes pity, curiosity and envy of those who are aspiring diplomats. The book is extremely revealing of Whitehall and FCO culture, and ultimately reflects some of the public mysetery of elite international relations and relationships. 


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