Why ambassadors are no longer just for nations

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Countries such as Denmark and Singapore have appointed thematic instead of geographic ambassadors.

Diplomacy is an age-old profession, but it is getting a reboot. New technology requires new approaches, encapsulated by the phrase ‘Digital Diplomacy’.
Increasing global complexity has led to nation states holding less importance, and private sector giants becoming more high-profile.

Consequently, this means new roles for ambassadors, who engage, encourage, and influence conversations around the defining issues of our time.


The Danish Government recently appointed its first Tech Ambassador. This move was in response to “the state of play” today, Casper Klynge, the incumbent, told GovInsider. “International relations is in transition,” he believes.

Facebook, Google, Amazon and their ilk can be “enormously influential in both positive and negative ways”, Klynge noted - as influential as nation states. “It's no longer only a question of relations between states or governments. You also have a number of very large tech companies that are assuming roles that are very similar, comparable to what countries used to do and what role they used to play,” he notes.
“It's no longer only a question of relations between states or governments.”
Other nations are now considering following Denmark’s lead. In September last year, the British Irish Chamber of Commerce (BICC) called for the appointment of an Irish tech ambassador. “By appointing a technology ambassador, Ireland is sending a very important signal to the world’s largest multinationals, and our own thriving start-up and scale-up community, that Ireland is unambiguous in its ambition to grow as a global technology hub,” John McGrane, director general of the BICC, said.

The tech ambassador, which would naturally be based in Silicon Valley, would work in a similar vein to a traditional ambassador - “showcasing Ireland” and working with the government to support Irish companies that want to export abroad, McGrane continued. Meanwhile, Britain has established a dedicated Consul General to perform ‘economic diplomacy’ in Silicon Valley, and Singapore has its own branch of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group posted there to attract new talent.

Design diplomacy

Economic diplomacy is increasingly important for ambassadors - representing the trade needs of their nation and promoting home-grown goods and services. These roles are typically performed in conjunction with a dedicated trade and industry group, but Singapore has this year appointed an Ambassador to represent a dedicated sector of its economy - design.

The government has identified design as a growth area for the city state, and appointed its first ‘Design Ambassador’ this year. Agnes Kwek, previously the Executive Director of the DesignSingapore Council, will be based in Paris, from where she will promote Singaporean creativity and attract talent and investment back to her home.

The country is an international powerhouse, but has a small domestic market, and “any Singapore design company or designer has to go global if they want to grow”, Kwek tells GovInsider. “For Singapore design to compete effectively and be relevant to the world, we need to be plugged into what’s happening at the leading edge of design around the world.”

The economy has traditionally thrived in the finance and biomedical sciences sectors, but this could change as the focus shifts to promoting design. The ratio of Singaporean firms that made design a key part of their business strategy increased from 27% to 31% between 2011 and 2015, which means a business spend of $25 billion, Fortune reported.

‘Open, democratic and inclusive’

As these examples illustrate, diplomacy today is fast changing due to an increasingly globalised and complex world. Tom Fletcher, the former UK Ambassador to Lebanon and author of The Naked Diplomat, has set out three trends that he thinks are changing the craft.

First, social media is a powerful tool that is helping to “influence on a massive scale” and enabling more open, democratic and inclusive diplomacy. Further, technology is creating more informal lines of communication, and enabling a new generation of ‘citizen diplomats’.

Second, diplomats need to consider the implications of artificial intelligence and automation, he believes. “How do we create the right global institutions to realise the potential, and manage the threats?” Fletcher writes. He has called for the United Nations to take the lead on this.

Third, service delivery is ready to be transformed, Fletcher shares. Consular and visa services should be much simpler and easier, benefiting from cloud computing and Big Data, he argues.

Mark Zuckerberg has said that, “in a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company”. In China, tech companies are performing foreign service on behalf of their governments - as seen with Jack Ma’s Digital Free Trade Zone initiatives in Malaysia and Thailand.

Diplomats should always be looking to those “thin wisps of tomorrow”, as Lord Peter Hennessy once argued. One indicator for the future is the increasing rise of diplomats who aren’t appointed to other nations, but instead work with global sectors of the economy. Like everything else, diplomacy is being disrupted.