He sat in the corner of the bar, a rumpled suit and red rimmed eyes. In his mid-60s thinning gray had been scraped back from his forehead. His decline seemed to reflect that of his country, but I had been told I could learn from him. I picked up the pint and whiskey chaser from the counter and carried them across to the table. I set them in front of him and sat down. He lifted the pint to his lips and silently toasted me before sucking greedily on the beer. Definitely in decline, I wondered how much he would be able to remember. A retired veteran giving valuable advice to a new generation of digital diplomats, or an old soak well past his sell by date?
“So you want to know about diplomacy” he began. The soft, cultivated voice took me a little by surprise. I had expected something rough and cracked to go with the face. But the tone was mellifluous and clear. He waited for me to indicate assent and then began again.
“You talk today so much about the VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. You think you’ve discovered something new, or are suffering some wicked inheritance we have bequeathed you. But the life of a diplomat always been VUCA. By a diplomat I mean a good one. Someone who really tries to engage with the country he serves in and with the foreign policy issues. Not the kind that thinks it is enough to sit around in an office all day, tweeting the official line while they maintain their Facebook page.”
He noticed my look of surprise.
“Oh yes”, he said, “I keep up with your new digital technologies. But let me get back to the VUCA world of a diplomat. Because it is important. If you never know what will happen, you need to be adaptable. You need to be able to interpret instructions in ways that their authors never thought of. Let me give you an example.”
“When I worked in the embassy in China I pulled a bit of a fast one. As the internal reporting officer wasn’t much interested in Tibet, I managed to convince the ambassador that I should report on all China’s minorities, not just the Tibetans, and the border areas. Nobody in the Ministry could care less, but it meant that I got to travel a lot through the more interesting parts of the country. As I spoke Mandarin, I travelled alone, accompanied only by a driver and an official from the minorities commission, to make sure that I behaved myself, and didn’t discover anything interesting.”
He sucked again on his beer before continuing.
“On one occasion I hatched a scheme to investigate the Tibetan living in North West Sichuan. I had, of course, noticed that they live near a stunning scene of natural beauty, Jiuzhaigou. It would also mean a couple of weeks travelling in one of my favourite provinces. Accordingly I flew down to Chengdu, where I was picked up from the airport by a driver in a Cherokee Jeep and an official from the local minorities office. I won’t bore you with details of the trip to Jiuzhaigou. It was a long drive, and we managed a couple of minor accidents en route. Jiuzhaigou was beautiful, and the Tibetan people living there were of course all “very happy” with their lot under the communist government. It was on my way back to Chengdu do that I had my VUCA experience.”
“We decided to stop for lunch in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant was a shack. But in China you should not be fooled by appearances. Especially in Sichuan the food was almost always excellent. We indeed ate well, spicy chicken and pork dishes washed down by an acceptable local beer. My Chinese escorts were delighted to be able to eat at a better level than they could usually afford, as I was paying, but for me it was cheap anyway. Once lunch was finished I asked where the toilet was. Smiling, the waiter pointed out the window to a hut in the middle of the field next to the restaurant.”
“I got up from the table and went first to the Jeep. Opening the boot I extracted a roll of toilet paper from my bag. A good diplomat should always be prepared for all contingencies. I then marched purposefully into the middle of the field. The toilet was much as I had expected. A hole in the ground with two planks of wood laid across the top. You had to stand on the planks and do your business into the hole. When the hole was full it would be covered up and a new hole dug a few metres away. The hut, of course, would just be moved. That’s basic hygiene combined with the fertilisation of the fields. Clever eh?” he chuckled.
I interrupted him. “Excuse me, this is no doubt a fun story, but what has it to do with a VUCA world, or indeed diplomacy?”
He looked at me, before taking a slug this time from the whiskey. He grimaced as it hit his throat. “You are a very literal generation” he said, with something like pity. We will get there. Just be patient.”
He continued his story.
“I lowered my trousers and underpants around my ankles and squatted on the two planks, toilet paper in hand. I had just finished my business when slowly the door to the hut began to open. “Wo zai zheli!” I said “I am in here”, thinking that perhaps it was one of the workers from the restaurant. There was no response and the door opened even further. Then I saw it. A large brown nose entering the toilet. The nose was followed by the head of a bull. We stared at each other. The bull moved further into the shack. I wondered what to do. I was squatting on two planks over a hole half full of human effluence, confronting a bull. Was this a contingency covered by Diplomatic service procedures? I was pretty sure it was not. I continued to stare at the bull. The bull continued to stare at me.”
“By a process of inadvertent genius I arrived at my strategy: masterful inactivity. After a while the bull either got bored, or decided that the smell of a foreigner’s effluence was beyond bearing. For whatever reason it slowly withdrew from the hut. I waited nervously. I deployed the toilet paper and then pulled up my underpants and trousers. Cautiously I approached the door of the toilet and look through it. The ball was now in the far corner of the field and seemed to be ignoring me. I set off walking back to the car with as much dignity at I could summon. My Chinese escorts and the restaurant staff, who had of course known all about the bull when sending me off to the toilet, were doubled over in helpless laughter. I treated their amusement with disdain. Returning my toilet roll to my bag, I then got into the car ready to continue the journey to Chengdu.”
He stopped and took another slug of whiskey, with the same grimace as before. I looked at him and then spoke, “As I said before, it’s a great story, but what has it got to do with diplomacy?”
He stared at me for a moment, before he spoke. “You really don’t get it, do you?” he asked. “It was one of my VUCA moments as a diplomat. I arrived in a situation I thought I had under control, well prepared with my toilet roll. The bull which entered the toilet was undoubtedly volatile and the outcome highly uncertain. I had to take account of a complex variety of factors, and my relationship with my Chinese escorts and the restaurant staff were, at best, ambiguous. Nevertheless the diplomatic instinct, or, if you prefer, the diplomatic mindset, prevailed. Masterly inaction, the persistent fallback of all good diplomats, won out in the end.”
“And now, young lady, you can get me another drink.”