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Recap: In Conversation With Lord Simon McDonald, 10 July 2021

The STEAR Board is happy and honored to have been able to host today’s event with Lord Simon McDonald! We were very pleased to see 50 attendees and we would like to thank everyone for their thoughtful questions as well.

Our Co-President Luke started off the discussion by asking a few questions about how the field of diplomacy has changed as a whole over the course of Lord McDonald’s career. We spoke about technology and how it has changed the establishment of contacts between politicians and policymakers and the general public, and about how it has increased the public exposure of the role that diplomats play. Another point that came up related to the different actors that are at play in the global political field today, as academic actors, think tanks, and various other non-state actors have started to establish themselves in the area of foreign policy.

But there have been other shifts in the last few decades that affect the practice and field of diplomacy as well, most notably significant geopolitical changes – the end of the Cold War, the rise of China from relative obscurity into a global player, changes within the European Union (with Brexit, of course, being especially relevant to the United Kingdom context).

After Luke and Lord McDonald spoke about these issues in some more detail, we moved to the Q&A section of the event, in which attendees were able to submit questions for Lord McDonald through Co-President Dao, who moderated this part of our discussion. Because we had so many young attendees with an interest in diplomacy, both academically and professionally, there were a lot of questions to get through!

We spoke about the experiences of being a diplomat today, both in terms of the changes mentioned above and in terms of the steps one would need to take to get into the field in the first place. Diplomacy (and foreign policy more specifically, for the purposes of this event) is a competitive field, but this also means that those who end up in diplomatic roles often have good ideas and are willing to commit to work with others to bring about change, even if they cannot do so by themselves – even if that change is not even visible to the public.

Other issues that were discussed at this time included the importance of language ability, as well as knowledge of history and literature, relevant to a country of interest for properly connecting with people there and understanding the circumstances that can impact the work of a diplomat.

It was a great opportunity to be able to talk to someone with so much experience in a field that so many of us are interested in, especially since we spoke at length about the experience of young people and what they can do to contribute to the issues they find important in the future. A final thank you to Lord Simon McDonald for his insights and thoughtful answers to our questions! If this summary sounds interesting, make sure to keep an eye out on our social media platforms or our website, as we have some more exciting events coming up during the summer period (and after that as well)!

Lord Simon McDonald is a former Permanent Under Secretary and Head of the UK Diplomatic Service (2015-2020), and a currently member of the House of Lords.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1979, he joined the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, where his jobs included speechwriter to the Foreign Secretary, Private Secretary to the Permanent Under-Secretary (PUS), Principal Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary and Director for Iraq. Overseas he worked in Saudi Arabia (twice), Germany (twice, including as ambassador), the United States, and Israel (as ambassador). He was Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown (2007 - 2010), and PUS and Head of the Diplomatic Service (2015 - 2020). In 2021 he was introduced to the House of Lords as Lord McDonald of Salford.

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