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AWalk in His Shoes:

A Fictional British

Diplomat Gets Real

What Diplomats Do

Sir Brian Barder, Rowman &

Little eld, 2014, $44.00, hardcover,

226 pages.



Many retired American diplomats

wonder what can be done in our

country to rectify the woeful lack

of interest in and understanding of

professional diplomatic service and

its many contributions to the nation.

We write books, lecture, lobby and

generally proselytize, but we are still

falling short.

What Diplomats Do

, based on Sir

Brian Barder’s experience in the British

Diplomatic Service, can make that e ort

more successful, and should be useful to

universities and libraries, as well as inter-

esting and enjoyable for the general pub-

lic. It is a remarkably thorough account

of the many dimensions of diplomatic

work and life—not a turgid manual, but

a simple story; not a novel, but almost a


Sir Brian creates a ctional man,

Adam, who applies to the UK Diplo-

matic Service just as he graduates from

university. After going through a rigorous

battery of tests and interviews, he is

accepted and goes on to serve in a variety

of assignments in Africa, North America

and the Middle East. Along the way, he

marries a woman, Eve, who is similarly

new to international relations. Together,

Adam and Eve work their way around the

world and up Adam’s career ladder, shar-

ing their experiences and their “on-the-

job” education with the reader.

We learn about the Diplomatic Ser-

vice from Adam and Eve’s experiences,


and from the education and advice that

others (supervisors, friends, British

colleagues and foreign counterparts)

give them.

is is very e ective, because

the author creates additional interest

through the personality of the adviser. He

or she may be a

clever character

who is charming

and compel-

ling, or a boring

and pedantic

character who

is ridiculous or

shocking—but the

reader remains


In addition, the

author periodically

takes the reader

aside and interjects his own actual

experiences to expand the perspective of

ctional narrative. Some of these asides

are impressive, such as quietly talking

the Ethiopian government out of bomb-

ing unauthorized relief convoys during

the famine. Some of them are amusing,

such as trying to explain to an Austra-

lian businessman in Sydney that as high

commissioner in Canberra, Sir Brian is

supervising the British consul general in

Sydney, not working for him.

e book addresses most of the

elements of diplomatic work and life:

competing to get in and arriving at one’s

rst overseas post; life and work in over-

seas posts; life and work at home; dealing

with host country o cials overseas;

dealing with home country o cials from

overseas; consular and commercial work;

entertaining; and the impact on spouses

and children.

ough the author is talking about

life and work in the British Diplomatic

Service, the descriptions are remarkably

similar to what one sees in the American

Foreign Service.

e two major di er-

ences are size (the American presence

is substantially larger) and the need to

deal diplomatically with the Americans.

Concerning the latter, Sir Brian is gener-

ally complimentary, though he has some

critical—and sadly accurate—things to

say about inexperienced and clumsy

political appointee ambassadors.

Reading this, I sometimes wished that

in my own career I could have crafted

some of the clever and sophisticated

word dances that he and his characters

use to rebut accusations and still allow

their counterparts “face” and the room

to back o ; or that I had his patience to

achieve the mix of clarity and ambiguity

necessary for multilateral consensus.


What Diplomats Do

, Sir Brian sticks

to his subject. He describes the interac-

tion of British diplomats with di erent

parts of their own government, but does

not digress into politics. He hints on

several occasions that various reforms

of the diplomatic service have not been

improvements. And at the end of his

career, Adam blasts private management

consultants, perpetual reform, budget

cuts, increased workload, responding to

circulars and questionnaires, etc.

For prescriptive solutions—either

bureaucratic or diplomatic—you need to

go to Sir Brian’s blog (

ephems), which also o ers a 30-percent

discount on the book!

Marshall P. Adair retired from the Foreign

Service as a minister counselor in 2007 after

a distinguished 35-year diplomatic career.

He is the author of

Lessons from a Diplo-

matic Life: Watching Flowers from Horse-


(Rowman & Little eld, 2013). He is a

former president of the American Foreign

Service Association (1999-2001) and current

retiree representative to the AFSA Governing