The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy

Coming soon: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy – the only diplomatic handbook you’ll ever need, and the most entertaining.

“These, however, are parsimonious days… The telegraphy has made a difference in the position of Ambassadors. When men can and do receive instructions hourly about the smallest details, and, indeed, ask for them as if anxious to escape responsibility, it is easy to conceive that the Foreign Office will not again insist on the Treasury behaving with boundless liberality.”

“The Times”, reporting on the debate about rebuilding Pera House, British Embassy in Istanbul, after the fire of 1870.

Leigh Turner Istanbul

In Istanbul, 2015

Introducing “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”

Diplomacy has been in flux for centuries. Who needs diplomats when you have the telegraph/the television/the internet? The Russia-Ukraine war has transformed the world and upended diplomacy again.


Leigh Turner Russian driving licence

1993: my Russian driving licence. Soviet photographers tended to make subjects look… a bit Soviet

Like many jobs, diplomacy is about making the best decisions based on the best understanding of the issues. Priorities will evolve. But the need to have diplomats who understand countries, multilateral organisations and the people who make both tick will never change.

Leigh Turner and Lady Diana

1986: photobombing The Princess of Wales 

Publication date

I started writing this book in 2021. The simmering Russia-Ukraine conflict, launched by President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Russia’s peaceful neighbour, Ukraine, in 2014, had already claimed 14,000 lives. Yet it seemed remote and obscure to many in Britain, the European Union, and the United States. Putin’s decision in February 2022 to launch a full-scale war of annihilation against Ukraine – a sovereign country larger than France with a pre-war population of over forty million – transformed the world and upended diplomacy.

This book sets the 2022 war in the context of events in 1980, 1989, 1993 and 2014. In chapters on Russia and Ukraine it explores the background to the conflict: what the world did wrong, what it did right and what Vladimir Putin does not understand.

Sections on the Berlin Wall and The Falklands, diplomatic immunity, espionage, the rusting of the iron curtain, women in diplomacy and how British politics prepared for Brexit in 1987-89 seek to place diplomacy at the start of the twenty-first in context – and to highlight the good times as well as the bad. How, where and why does real diplomacy happen, and what can it teach the rest of us?

What can Jonathan the tortoise on Saint Helena tell us about institutional stability? Why is diplomatic immunity a necessary evil? We explore why you can’t cure international terrorism; why unknown enemies are scariest; and why you should never over-estimate your opponents – neither Saddam Hussein nor Vladimir Putin. On the way, we meet some of the most fascinating people in the world, from HM The Queen, Vivienne Westwood and Jane Goodall through Paul McCartney and the wisdom of Deep Purple to General Lyn Sherlock, a US Brigadier dealing with Diego Garcia – and Satan, who I met one night in Moscow in 1992. More on him later. How to understand the Russians – or the Germans, or the Americans?

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Leigh Turner rocket museum

2010: the Ukrainian Strategic Missile Forces Museum

Something to read today

Need something to read today?  My thrillers ETERNAL LIFE  and BLOOD SUMMIT and my collection of black comedy shorts SEVEN HOTEL STORIES are available right now.

P.S. Until “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy” comes on sale, the “buy now” buttons on the left link to my author pages for the UK, US and Germany.

Diplomatic lessons 2, 1983-87: languages change everything

I was working in the personnel departments of the FCO when Judith Macgregor, head of my section, put her head around the door and beckoned.

An officer named John Everard had resigned from his post as second secretary (political) and press officer at the British Embassy in Vienna, she said. They needed a German speaker, fast. Was I interested?

One of my goals in joining the Foreign Office had been to drive a Jeep through wild terrain, in the manner of a corny cigarette advert popular at the time, in South America or Africa. Vienna – not so much. I asked friends. One replied ‘It means nothing to me’. Another, Louise Kroll, said ‘Vienna? You’d be mad not to’.

I had joined the FCO in 1983 from HM Treasury. My first job, as as desk officer for El Salvador and Nicaragua, consisted mostly of answering letters from Members of Parliament complaining about the support of the British Government for US policy in those countries. We received our reports from the region by letters in the diplomatic bag.

My department also covered Cuba.  Granma, the confusingly named newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, had curiously-scented printing ink and a predictable editorial line. When I visited Cuba in 2015, on holiday, it seemed to have changed remarkably little from how Granma had depicted it in 1983.

Early in 1984, my Treasury background – implying some degree of numeracy – led to me being assigned to write a review on how to use computers more effectively in personnel work.

I was also asked to explore why many women who had joined the FCO in 1983 had left within twelve months. Out of a graduate intake of 21, eleven had been female; I interviewed the eight or nine who had already left. The most common reason they gave was male partners who did not want to accompany them on an overseas posting.

Moving to Vienna on my first posting in 1984 felt a big deal. To mark the moment, and to sense the distance from London, I travelled there by train (I did the same when I took up my job as ambassador in Vienna in 2016). I remember sitting in my compartment watching the illuminated castles as we passed down the Rhine valley by night.

Although I already spoke German, the FCO arranged for me to do a month of “immersion training” with the wonderful Klaus family in Munich – a unique opportunity to build fluency which I have repeated with other languages.

My three years in Vienna were marked by political turbulence, including the Austrian wine scandal; the election of President Waldheim; the phenomenon of Green Party politician Kaspanaze Simma, who I met at an anti-dam protest in the Hainburger Au in 1984; and the takeover of the Freedom Party by young right-wing politician Jörg Haider, who I met in Innsbruck in 1986. I helped organise a visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales, accompanied by a festival of British culture, “Britain in Vienna”.

The lesson I draw from these four years is that learning languages changes everything. I’m not good at grammar – I scored possibly the bottom mark in the FCO Language Aptitude test when I joined in 1983. But I can pick them up; and over the years have spoken reasonable French, German, Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and Spanish, although not at the same time. This helped me get several jobs:

  • I was sent to Vienna at short notice in 1984, as described above;
  • I went to Kyiv as ambassador in 2008 because they needed a Russian or Ukrainian speaker quickly;
  • German also helped me get jobs as Counsellor EU & Economic in Germany (1998-2002) and as Ambassador in Vienna (2016-2021).

Speaking languages transforms your understanding of a country. It helped in Ukraine to be able to chat to President Yushchenko in Ukrainian, or Prime Minister Azarov in Russian. But it was life-changing to be able to talk to my security guards in Istanbul, or co-travellers on a bus in Anatolia, in Turkish; to communicate in Russian to local politicians and journalists in Novosibirsk or Vladivostok; or to participate in TV talk shows or give speeches in German in Berlin or Vienna. Exchanges in languages other than English are some of the experiences that have left the deepest impressions on me over the past forty years.

The system is not always consistent. It is a joke amongst diplomats that if you want to be sent to Brazil, the first thing you should do is learn Russian.

But that didn’t work for me.

Diplomatic Lessons 12: Tips for Diplomats and Ambassadors

Tips on being a diplomat

I’m fond of the rule of three.

  1. Be expert, whether in languages, cultures, geographies or other skills eg economics.
  2. Be wise. See your core task as knowing people, understanding them and building relationships of influence.
  3. Be long term. Deliberate and debate before you decide. The pace of social media makes this hard. But Talleyrand had a point when he said ‘pas trop de zèle’.

How to be an ambassador?

  1. It’s a unique privilege. People give you credit because you stand on the shoulders of giants. Live up to it.
  2. Your job is to have opinions about your country or area of responsibility. Get it right by being a good diplomat (see above).
  3. Identify and focus on the work you find most absorbing. You perform best when you’re doing what you love.

Coming soon: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy”.

P.S. For another excerpt from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy” see my post “Diplomacy and the Media“.

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