Reviews of ‘What Diplomats Do’

“I have no hesitation in saying that I know of no other book on diplomacy which is so instructive as to procedure, entertaining in its examples, vivid and engaging in its style, massively authoritative, and original in its structure. A few passages dealing with real events are also gripping, notably that describing Sir Brian Barder’s recommendation – in the event momentous in its significance – to recommend a green light for RAF relief flights to Addis Ababa during the great Ethiopian famine in 1984. I think it is a brilliant book and perfectly designed to capture the imagination of those contemplating a diplomatic career or already in its first stages – without giving them any illusions about it.”

G. R. Berridge, Emeritus Professor of International Politics, University of Leicester and Senior Fellow, DiploFoundation

“Brian Barder knows of what he speaks. His book describing What Diplomats Do draws on his 30 years of experience in that funny old trade. While books on diplomacy and diplomatic life are not a rarity, Brian’s offering fills a real gap in the market. It is neither a manual, though it offers excellent practical advice, nor is it a memoir though the text is interspersed with often entertaining and illuminating anecdotes. It does instead what it promises: it tells you exactly what it’s like to be a diplomat and what sort of challenges you face on an every-day basis. It cleverly follows an imaginary young couple, a diplomat and his spouse, up the ladder from earliest days in the Diplomatic Service to stepping down from an ambassadorial role. It strips away much of the flim-flam surrounding the image of diplomacy in the more ignorant elements of the popular press and brings out how unglamorous and indeed downright dangerous much of the work is.  Although written through a clearly British prism, it translates well into diplomacy generally. Thus anyone aspiring to join this most rewarding of professions would be well advised to read What Diplomats Do first.”

Sir Ivor Roberts KCMG FCIL, President of Trinity College, Oxford University, former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy

“No-one is better qualified to produce such a valuable account of what diplomats actually do. Sir Brian Barder’s diplomatic and political skills plus a first class intellect took him to the senior ranks of Britain’s foreign service. What Diplomats Do fills a major gap in the diplomatic studies literature.  I know of no comparable book, let alone one providing an insider’s view of what, from day to day, diplomats actually do, what this feels like, and what impact it has on the life of the diplomat and his or her family. I will be strongly recommending this most readable and interesting book as essential reading for all my diplomatic studies students ”

Dr Lorna Lloyd, Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, Keele University

“The concept of the book — the complete trajectory of a diplomat’s life, from entry into the service through mid-career into retirement, with pertinent recollections from the author’s own experience embedded in the broader story, imagined but realistic in its precise detail, of the diplomatic couple, ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ — is ingenious.  Barder’s account is informative, humanly sympathetic, distinctly British, and thoroughly engaging.  From a technical perspective, and as an American reader, I found particularly interesting (among many other things in the book) many of the institutional points. It is a very instructive book, filled with lessons, non-pedagogically taught.  And it is very ‘balanced’ on the key question (for some young readers):  Should I become a diplomat or not?   What Diplomats Do will truly help young persons – of any nationality, British citizens and others — think realistically about whether diplomacy is right for them.  It is a very humane book in that respect.  As well as educational and penetrating, with keen psychological insight and also sociological understanding of home country preconceptions and attitudes about diplomacy, as well as the mentalities of foreign places.  I think it excellent and certainly will plan to use it in my Diplomacy course.  I found reading its chapters irresistible, like eating peanuts. And it is candid and fun.”

Alan Henrikson, Lee E. Dirks Professor of Diplomatic History, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

“Brian Barder’s breadth of experience as a diplomat is one of his outstanding qualifications to write a book about diplomacy and diplomats. His other outstanding qualification for this task is his literary skill. He has a lively, fluid style which carries the reader along, engaging both his/her attention and his/her sympathy. There is, without question, a crying need for an authoritative but readable book about diplomacy and diplomats. At the same time, events during the past decade or so have thrust diplomats and embassies to the forefront of public attention, mostly for regrettable reasons — assassinations, kidnappings, the bombing or burning of embassies and consulates among them. This has increased public curiosity about a profession which has suddenly emerged as being in the hazardous front line of international affairs. An explanation of ‘What Diplomats Do’ could hardly be more timely. Barder’s methodology in offering this explanation is very well-conceived. What Diplomats Do will be read and enjoyed not only by university students contemplating a diplomatic career and by young men and women contemplating a career change; but also by members of the general public who wish to find out more about the people behind the headlines.”
Sir Bryan Cartledge KCMG, former British Ambassador to Hungary and to the Soviet Union, and former Principal (Master) of Linacre College, Oxford University

DiploFoundation:  What diplomats actually do: following the life of a fictitious British diplomat
What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats
Sir Brian Barder 2014, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Hardback, 216 pages ISBN 978-1442226357 $40

Review by: Katharina Hone
Sir Brian Barder’s book What Diplomats Do offers comprehensive insight into the life and work of diplomats. It deserves to be read by practitioners and aspiring practitioners of diplomacy, by students and teachers of diplomacy, and by anyone interested in what diplomats actually do. It crosses genres as easily as it addresses and holds the attention of a broad audience. The book’s location at the intersection between a textbook on diplomacy, memoirs of a former ambassador, and a fictionalised account of the life of a British diplomat at home and abroad gives it its unique character. This allows the book to fill a gap on the bookshelf between those books with a clear academic approach such as Geoff Berridge’s Diplomatic Theory and Practice, on the one hand, and books that are first and foremost diplomatic memoirs.
The book follows the life of two fictitious characters, Adam and his spouse Eve, from Adam’s entry into the British diplomatic service to their retirement. Barder stresses that their ‘adventures in […] diplomatic wonderland are almost all fictitious, although always based on real life’ (p. 6).
The names already indicate that they are meant to be examples not of an individual experience but of experiences broader and deeper than would fit any one diplomatic career. The fictitious elements of What Diplomats Do give Barder creative licence to draw the reader’s attention to key elements of the diplomatic craft. By sometimes disguising identities of people and countries, Barder is also able to speak more frankly and add points that would be controversial were they to be identified with any particular individual or state. Taking these points into account, I believe that the book is best described in terms of creative non-fiction, an emerging, boundary-crossing genre.[1]
Each chapter begins with a brief summary of the main points covered. It then proceeds to take the reader on a journey, following in the footsteps of Adam’s experience. Each chapter is interspersed with comments, always beginning with ‘As an example …’ and set apart from the rest of the text being set in italics, in which the author reflects on Adam’s experience and relates it to his own  encounters and lessons learned. This kind of commentary helps the reader to pin-point key insights of the particular section and lends credibility to the fictional account by reminding us that Adam’s life, while it might be fictitious in some of its aspects, is based on years of experience of a seasoned and now retired diplomat. There is no doubt, that Adam is the alter-ego of Sir Brian Barder and that many of Adam’s convictions, such as his doubts about increasing privatisation (p. 19), bureaucratisation, and the increasing role played by private sector management consultants in reforms of the service (p. 224) can most likely be attributed to the author himself.
All the main themes one would expect to find in any textbook of diplomacy are covered: work in the ministry, work in the embassy, relations between the ministry and the embassies, work in multilateral settings as well as hostile environments, and consular and commercial activities. Yet, Barder’s approach also allows for insights into the personal struggles and implications for the personal life of a diplomat: relations with colleagues, the impact on social life and family members’ lives (see especially the chapter ‘A dog’s life for the spouse and kids?’). It is also important to note that no background knowledge is expected. The author treats his readers respectfully by explaining details such as the workings of United Nations secretariat (pp. 85?87) and the role of the so-called Permanent Five of the Security Council (p. 75). This underlines again the fact that What Diplomats Do is aimed at a very broad audience. Yet, Barder manages to convey the subtleties of working in the diplomatic service as well. He gives insight into recruiting and promotion practices (pp. 36?37) as well as everyday working situations and relations with colleagues (pp. 38 and 43) and points to possible solutions to exceptional and even dangerous circumstances (pp. 96 and 116ff). It is these passages that will get the attention of the diplomatic practitioner and scholar of diplomacy.
The fictionalised elements of What Diplomats Do also allow for an additional layer of lighter entertainment. Adam’s career takes him to a number of places, some of them real and some of them imaginary. It is not hard to guess what the fictionalised country of Cote Noire in West Africa with its capital Cameko (pp. 61 and 212) stands for. Pazalia, a Turkish-speaking republic between Turkey and Georgia (p. 46) is less easy to attribute to any real country. Further, the jury is still out with regard to the real life counterparts of Hibernia, a Commonwealth country (211) and the former Communist-ruled, eastern European country, called Boronia with its capital Sifimar (p. 94). This creative licence given by the genre of creative non-fiction is a tremendous advantage of the book. Apart from being a necessary element to convey otherwise potentially controversial points, this adds to the charm of the book and its ability to be an entertaining as well as an educational read.
It is clear that What Diplomats Do aims to be more than a memoir; it transcends the experience of the author or any individual diplomat. The author stresses the fact that hiring practices in the British diplomatic service have changed and that titles and promotion practices have changed as well since his own entry into the diplomatic service. Similarly, while the main protagonist is a man, the author is mindful of the fact that the number and role of women serving in all positions in the diplomatic service has increased (p. 8). Yet, these aspects mark the boundaries of what the book can accomplish of which the author himself is well aware.
The interested reader will need to supplement the reading of Barder’s book with other accounts: accounts of the specific experiences of female diplomats and accounts of non-Western diplomats. It is a sad reality that the majority of theseremain yet to be written and it would be a great accomplishment if these stories would get close to the engaging, enlightening, and entertaining read that What Diplomats Do represents.
[1] A note on the terminology used here: ‘The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.” Gutkind L (no date) What is creative nonfiction.
Available at nonfiction [1] [accessed 8 December 2014].
Source URL:
Dr Katharina Höne, DiploFoundation and University of Aberystwyth
Published on DiploFoundation (

A book for those who want to know What Diplomats Do
Among my English-language students I have some who are studying with Diplotaxis to enter the Spanish diplomatic service. It is clear that such people have a very real need to know What Diplomats Do, and that the only way to achieve this is to rely on the experience of professionals for information and advice. Sir Brian Barder’s book draws on his own time in the British diplomatic service, in which he served as ambassador in several important countries, to provide a wealth of practical information that is hard to find elsewhere.
The book follows the career of a fictional British diplomat called Adam and his wife, inevitably called Eve. The British background is only natural but the work and life of diplomats has much in common no matter the country that they represent: dealing with foreign governments, dealing with your own foreign ministry, humanitarian work, consular activities, promoting trade, working in international organisations, it is all here in a readable presentation – and not only professional life but also vivid and informative descriptions of the personal and family problems and pleasures of living and working in an unusual situation far from home.
Not only do we follow Adam’s own career from entry to the highest levels of diplomacy. There are personal illustrations from Brian Barder’s own time spent in many parts of the world, including his personal decision to authorise the airlift that relieved the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. Spanish readers will be especially interested in his account of his participation in the UN debate over Gibraltar in the 1960s.
By combining a realistic description of Adam’s career with the factual events of his own, Brian Barder presents the ups and downs, the pleasure and the pain, of a diplomatic career. I recommend it strongly to my students and to anyone else who wants to know what diplomats actually do.
The author
Sir Brian Barder, KCMG, had a varied career in the British Diplomatic Service, serving in Moscow, Canberra and New York, as ambassador to Ethiopia, the Republic of Bénin, and Poland, and as high commissioner to Nigeria and Australia.
Sample chapters
Chapter 1 (Introduction) (pdf)
Chapter 8 (Dealing with foreigners) (pdf)
The book is available in paper and Kindle versions from all Amazon sites including, and For more information about the book and other options for buying it, click here.
What Diplomats Do is written by Sir Brian Barder KCMG and published by Rowman & Littlefield.
ISBN-13: 978-1442226357
This is an unpaid review of a book that I bought at my own expense. I have no connection, personal, commercial or financial, with the publisher of What Diplomats Do or with any bookseller.

Peter Harvey, teacher of English to candidates for the Spanish diplomatic service (among others), Barcelona.

LabourList: Review by Keith Morris: What Diplomats Do, By Brian Barder
December 7, 2014
Tags: Book Brian Barder Diplomacy Diplomats Foreign Policy
Brian Barder’s “What Diplomats Do” is far from the heavy tome on diplomatic practice and procedure that its title might imply. It is very readable, which will be no surprise to those who have read his frequent posts on LabourList or his blog. It is also original. It is not a manual of diplomacy nor a diplomatic memoir nor a novel of diplomatic life but an ingenious mixture of all three. Barder takes us through the career of Adam and his wife, Eve, and tells us about their life and work in a succession of posts. We thus learn how diplomacy works from the experience of a new entrant Third Secretary in the Foreign Office and then in his first overseas post all the way up to Head of Mission in one of the big Commonwealth countries. Each stage is illustrated by episodes from Barder’s own exceptional career: he was the only one of our contemporaries to head four senior missions – to Ethiopia, Poland, Nigeria and Australia.
It is not only the level at which Adam operates that changes but also the size of post and the kind of country. It is one thing to deal with EU or Commonwealth allies and another to serve in a dictatorship strongly opposed to the West or in a developing country riven with conflict where security is poor. We also learn through Adam’s experience how wide is the range of activity in which modern diplomats engage – not just the traditional political, economic and consular work but trade policy and trade promotion, environmental issues, development and humanitarian aid. Much diplomacy now is carried out not country to country by Embassies but by diplomats in delegations to international organisations like the one to the UN in New York where Adam serves.
As Adam’s career progresses he finds that dealing with foreigners is sometimes the easier part – dealing with senior officials and ministers while at home or with the Foreign Office while abroad can be even more frustrating. Relations within a post turn out to be trying too, both for the younger Adam with unsympathetic ambassadors or the older Adam having no one he can confide in when he is an ambassador, except in his case Eve.
Adam goes to his first post as a bachelor but soon marries Eve, who comes to play an ever great role as entertainment becomes an increasingly important element in their work. They have two children and have to undergo the wrench of eventually sending them to boarding school in the UK in order to ensure continuity. It is not just the separation but the difficulty of dealing with a crisis when you are several thousand miles away.
Having been a contemporary of Barder in the Service I can say that his fictional account rings true. (Full disclosure: I first met Barder 60 years ago at a meeting of the Cambridge University Labour Club, on whose committee we later both served, but our careers never coincided although we both served in Warsaw, a decade apart.) I must admit that I found the passages about his own career the most enjoyable of all. There are two very funny pieces. The first finds Barder in a much oversized borrowed dinner jacket stuck in the middle of the table in the British ambassador’s residence at Madrid without a word of Castilian completely ignored by the monoglot Spanish aristocratic ladies either side. On the other side of the world a Sydney businessman finds it hard to accept that his great friend Ray, the British Consul-General in Sydney, can have to answer to Barder, who is based out in the outback in Canberra. The highlight is an extended version of the account Barder gave on Sue Mcgregor’s Reunion programme on Radio 4 about the Ethiopian famine of 1982-86. He advised London to send 3 RAF Hercules on the basis of an unofficial call which he knew would be denied if it all went disastrously wrong, as it easily could have. Instead the RAF stayed for 14 months and innumerable lives were saved.
It is 20 years since Brian and Jane – sorry, Adam and Eve – retired from diplomacy and there have been changes in the way the British service is managed – on the whole for the worse as Barder chronicles – but what diplomats do remains very much the same. There are several places where the job has become much more dangerous, as the tragic attack in Kabul last month reminded us. Those considering a career in diplomacy or more widely in the international field are unlikely to be put off and could not have a better introduction than What Diplomats Do. It would be useful too for those in other branches of the British government who deal with “abroad.” I have HM Treasury in mind in particular. Treasury officials have always had their doubts about the value of overseas expenditure. They gave me the impression that they probably thought of the Diplomatic Service as “overpaid, overgraded, overknighted and over there.” (“Over there” to them probably meant hardship posts like Washington and Brussels, which were the only ones to which they were likely to go).
More seriously, this is a book by someone who admits he was an accidental diplomat – he joined the Colonial Office in London to help free the colonies and was only persuaded to transfer to the Diplomatic Service by being offered the chance to defend our decolonisation policy at the UN – but who passionately believes in the continued value of diplomacy. He makes the case, which is all the more convincing by coming largely from the narrative.
RRP £26.95 (hardback and ebook), Rowman & Littefield ( ISBN 9781442226357. Order with NBN International by 31 December for a 20% discount (
Sir Keith Morris ended his diplomatic service career as ambassador to Colombia. He is a Director of the British and Colombian Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Advisory Board, International Council on Security and Development.
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Satow in the Vernacular
Sir Brian Barder’s engaging book helps to demystify the world of  diplomacy, writes Sir Alexander Downer, former Foreign Minister of Australia and now the country’s High Commissioner to the UK.
For many, diplomacy remains an enigmatic profession. While the global challenges that diplomats are tasked with monitoring, analysing and responding to are changing every day, perceptions of diplomats and the diplomatic service are often fixed and outdated.
Sir Brian Barder’s text attempts to illuminate the roles, responsibilities and realities of the diplomatic service. The text provides an instructive ‘how-to guide’ for those working, or seeking a career, in the Foreign Service.  Barder draws on his experience of more than 30 years in diplomacy. From humble beginnings at the Colonial Office in London in 1957, he enjoyed a long career in the UK Foreign Service with various postings and appointments, including Ambassador to Ethiopia and Poland and High Commissioner roles in Nigeria and Australia. With this background, he certainly has the credentials to provide counsel on ‘what diplomats do’.
Rather than recounting career highlights, Barder frames his writing around a fictional character ‘Adam’ and follows his journey from joining the Foreign Service through to his appointment as Ambassador. Barder focuses on the human element of diplomacy.
He provides anecdotes from his own experience, including many from his time in Australia. I recall Sir Brian from his posting in Canberra and read with interest his account of attempting to conceal his personal opinions and political allegiances while representing the British Government!
What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats reads more like a self-help guide than a conventional foreign policy text, but perhaps that’s what diplomacy needs.
RRP £26.95 (hardback and eBook), Rowman & Littlefield (, ISBN 9781442226357. Order with NBN International by 31 December for a 20% discount
Alexander Downer  (Review published in ‘Diplomat’ Magazine and ‘Password’)

Stateless Diplomat Review: What Diplomats Do: The Life and Work of Diplomats
By Sir 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 mystery of elite international relations and relationships.
Stateless Diplomat, 22 November 2014,

Click here to read a major review of What Diplomats Do by Marshall P Adair, a distinguished former United States diplomat, former president of the American Foreign Service Association and current retiree representative to the AFSA Governing Board. Mr Adair’s review appears in the January-February 2015 issue of the Foreign Service Journal (  — click ‘Books’ on page 5).

Stop Press (16 January 2015): And now another insightful and highly readable review of What Diplomats Do, this time in the widely read Indian periodical Business Review, by the equally distinguished former Indian ambassador, Professor Emeritus, prolific author, teacher and honorary fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, Ambassador Kishan Rana.  You can read the full text of his review here.  

Further Update (16 July 2015):  Yet another excellent review, in The Round Table, The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, Volume 104, Issue 3, 2015, by the distinguished British and Commonwealth former diplomat, Sir Peter Marshall:  you can read the full text of his review  here.

Update 16 June 2016:  “Must tell you that I have lent my copy of your book to a friend: she is totally enraptured by it, and wants me to pass on that opinion. Amusingly, she tells me that she can see elements of me in your portrayal of ‘Adam’!” — extract from email from friend and former Diplomatic Service colleague