Egyptian diplomat, Nabil Fahmy

Q&A: Nabil Fahmy on the Craft of Diplomacy

In the first of a two-part interview, John Bell the Director of The Conciliators Guild speaks with Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian Foreign Minister and founding Dean of of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at The American University in Cairo (AUC). Fahmy talks about his experiences as a career diplomat, the craft of diplomacy and how it has been impacted by the complexities of the digital age.

You’ve worked in diplomacy for close to four decades. How have you seen diplomacy change in that period given that the world has changed? Digital technology has played a role. We’ve had major geopolitical restructuring on the planet. Globalized economics has impacted every single human being. Those are huge variables. But in your view is diplomacy still the craft that you began practicing 30 or 40 years ago? Has it changed?

My definition or characterization of diplomacy is that it’s a science, and then an art. Not the other way around. You have to know the facts. You have to understand your interlocutor. You have to clearly determine what your objectives are and the cost and benefit of getting those.

The art part of it is the diplomat’s personal talent in how he expresses himself. Does he have charisma, is he responsive to people? That’s the art part. The individual non-objective elements are there. But I hate the term ‘the art of diplomacy’ – it’s actually much more science than art.

Or a craft?

The craft includes both of them. But the often used term that it is an art, I think, diminishes diplomacy. My most successful endeavours was when I was prepared for my interlocutor. My least successful was when I took him for granted.

Diplomacy today is much more complicated because there are many more facts out there that we didn’t take into account 40 years ago. And I say ‘we’ – both myself and my interlocutor. Those facts weren’t available. And I’m not even talking about not thinking about countries that lie so far away. But literally speaking, facts about topics: what is the weather going to be in Russia and what will be its affects on wheat in the next ten years? We (Egypt) are the first or second largest wheat importer in the world. And then the breakdown of the Soviet Union into countries. We import things from Ukraine, and so on.

Even more than that – what is the definition of power or sovereignty? Where is multi-nationalism? Where is the global economy? We joke about American multinationals building in Asia and selling all over the world. I can tell you there are Egyptian multinationals that are now based in Guangzhou, China. These aren’t things we took into account before – but today you have to represent all of them.

That’s very interesting.

The other example is media. In the past, when you spoke to the media in the west, it stayed in the west. If you talked to the media here (in Egypt), it stayed here. Now you talk to the media anywhere, it’s everywhere, and tweeted in 140 characters.

Because I was a professional diplomat I choose my words carefully. Those words may be professionally correct and sound right in Egypt, but they don’t in the West – or vice versa in the East. So when we were going through emotional times here in Egypt and I was being a rational diplomat, people here wanted me to shout a bit more. Some of the stuff I said became a tweet and made me look ridiculous. Now, you couldn’t argue that you didn’t say something – because you did. But you didn’t say it in 140 characters. You didn’t say it the way it sounds in a tweet.

So again you have to understand the media consequences.

Did you respond in Twitter yourself?

No, this was a radio interview. At the end of the interview I said something that every American can understand. A quick comment that snaps coherently in ‘American’. Try saying that in Arabic and bring it down to 140 letters and it sounds different. The point is you have to be careful. It’s a communicated world.

So the complexity levels, and the amount of information, has gone way up.

Complexity is up. Information is up. And it’s up for me, and my counterpart. Time is shortened. You wake up in the morning and you have to take a decision because the information flows so quickly. It’s not only that it’s more complex, but it’s available to everybody at a much shorter pace. So you are accountable to the public, the media, and your own officials.

I don’t want to waste your time, but I remember once I was in Washington and went to an event at the Aspen Institute. I walked into the hall and sat down and Walter Isaacson looks at me and says, “Let’s start with the Egyptian ambassador.” I had been to so many events that day and wasn’t sure exactly what the topic was. He asked me, “What’s the most difficult thing you face every morning?” There were a large number of people there. I didn’t have time to make up an answer. So, I decided to be honest. “I don’t have time to think. You wake up in the morning and ten seconds later you are accountable to somebody.”

So how did you manage this level of complexity when you were minister?

Great question. Let me add another element first. Besides the complexity and limited amount of time, there are many more stakeholders – because the information is available to many more people than it was in the past. In the past, not only confidential information, but basic information, wasn’t available except to an embassy. It wasn’t available day-to-day to so many people.

I was minister during an interesting and challenging period in Egypt. The public was very active politically. I always joked that we have 95 million Egyptians and 95 million Egyptian foreign ministers – because everybody has an opinion. They are stakeholders. It was their right. They had the right of expression, but they don’t carry the responsibility of action.

What do you do when you’re in a position of responsibility? Systems, systems systems, systems. You can’t do it all but if you can’t create a system, you’re in trouble.

Did you adjust your system for these realities to make it more effective? And how?

I planned to adjust it. And I say that seriously. Before I agreed to become foreign minister, which was only after… this was the fourth time I was asked to become foreign minister. So I only accepted the fourth time, which was the most difficult time. I literally sat down and thought the process through because I’d heard rumours that I might be asked. And my preliminary position was I’m not going to do this in the same way I had before. And then I said, ‘OK let’s think this through.’

I thought we’re going through a transformative period in Egypt. And the Middle East is in a difficult period. What would I have to achieve during that period next year if I was going to become foreign minister? If I’m comfortable doing that, I will accept. If I’m not, I won’t. I’m not going to do it for prestige, I’ve served the country with high honors for many years, and so my ego was satisfied. One of the elements was to transform the foreign ministry. Make the young diplomats more amenable to dealing with the future than I was.

When I joined the foreign ministry I didn’t know how to type. We had typists and people who did dictation. The Egyptian foreign ministry took 25 years to build. It had nothing to do with inefficiency, they just didn’t give us any money. I walked into my office in 1992 and I asked them, “Where is my computer terminal?” And they said, “There isn’t a computer terminal.” I said, “What do you mean?” They responded: “We’ve added one room on each floor where you can all use the computer.”

I was flabbergasted. A young diplomat who had studied architecture was standing beside me. After the senior engineer left he said to me, “There’s nothing impossible in engineering and architecture.” I said to him, “Okay, then how do you solve this?” He responded, “It’s very simple, you just put a wire along the wall and we’ll cover it with a piece of nice wood and bring it into the room you want.” And so we did that. You adapt.

The reality is you have to adapt to the system. And you have to adapt in terms of the skills. We created an assistant minister for neighbouring states. That was  my priority. The USA is a big power and as soon as I engage with them, it’s never going to go away. So that (new) position was for countries like Libya, Sudan, and the Israel-Palestine border, and beyond that into Ethiopia.

We added two special units on technology and environment. I created those immediately and my colleagues said, “Why in the world do you want something on technology?” I told them I need somebody to tell me things like how in 20 years we’ll have to deal with bioengineering in such and such a case.

And thirdly I trained the diplomats differently. 

And how did you change that training?

It’s not about content as much as how they think. Thinking is more complex and much faster than in the past. You want judgment. You can’t know everything. So if I have to choose between judgment and knowledge, I’ll choose judgment. If I can get both, great. What I would do was try and make sure that these diplomats, psychologically and mentally, could make the right decisions. And then if they also specialize in one area, great.

From my own experience, and the reason I’m doing what I’m doing now at the Conciliators Guild is because I found that my own judgment improved over time, not only by experience and watching others, but by learning how to think better. It’s exactly what you’re saying. And I certainly noticed that – and this happened to me when I was a young diplomat stationed in Egypt – if I was too emotionally involved with something, my thinking was impoverished. So I had to train myself over a long time to observe my thinking, to get out of those emotional traps, and become more flexible.

So, it’s terrific to hear that you believe that that’s an important aspect of diplomatic training because I don’t think traditionally diplomats are trained that way. Whereas, I couldn’t agree more that in a rapid world, where judgment has to improve all the time, you’re thinking has to become better and better. And I’m not talking about a purely rational creature. Nobody is. But overly emotional states aren’t going to help.

Let me add to that. Diplomats, just by the function of the job, deal with changing circumstances in different areas. So you are bound to face surprises. You’re bound to face things you’re not prepared for. Therefore what’s most important is the issue of judgment.

Let’s say you’re designated as a negotiator. Nobody goes into negotiations knowing exactly what the other guy is going to say. There may be offers on the table that are actually interesting, but not the ones that you are authorized to accept.  So you may reject them, even though the balance and what you want and what’s been offered is in your favour. While what you actually want turns out to be a no-deal, and vice versa.

You have to have the ability to actually reject something, even if it looks good, because it doesn’t serve the purpose that you want, or because you know the offer is not going to go through. And I’ve been in both of these situations. I’ve also been in situations where I wasn’t well prepared for my interlocutor and therefore from experience, I was able to postpone taking a decision.

When you negotiate do you make a conscious effort to get into the mind of your counterpart? Is that possible? And if you do, how do you do it?

I do it even before I negotiate. I used to literally hold simulation sessions where I’d get an Egyptian to play the role of the Israeli, say. It’s a form a rehearsal. I used to ask my Egyptian counterpart afterwards to play them and think like them. I don’t want to be surprised in the meeting. We used to do this. It wasn’t a matter of just thinking about it. Our team would study the topic from every angle, from the perspective of the counterpart, and then decide how we we would approach the meeting.

Let me add a point here. Besides the rehearsal, what we have in mind is, ‘what does the counterpart really need?’ Because that determines the cost-benefit analysis of whether this is worthwhile, or not. Secondly, okay, what does he want? Thirdly, what is the process that he’s going to negotiate with?

And when you look at what he needs, do you look at it from a materialistic interest standpoint? Or do you also look at the symbolic, more intangible dimensions? Both?

What does he need from these negotiations, period. If he’s coming to the table, he may come to the table only because he has to appear to be coming to the table. So what he needs is to satisfy the Russians and the Americans because they are the conveners of The Madrid Peace Process, for example. Or he has a domestic need because he has elections coming up.

Then you look at the question of what does he want. And with those two elements you deal with the cost-benefit analysis. My determining factor, ultimately, is: what do I need? But I know what I need. So in studying my counterpart I’m trying to see what he needs, what he wants, and how he wants to get there. And then I look at the cost-benefit analysis.

Let me ask you something related to that directly. It’s about an issue you know inside-out even though you are only indirectly party to it, and that’s Israel-Palestine. Let me take a practical case. My guess would be that Palestinians need, and not want, some recognition of either the plight of the refugees or the right of return in order to close a deal. Would you agree with that? Or do you think it’s completely an issue of compensation?

I don’t think it’s a compensation issue at all. The whole issue is they want recognition and respect for their national identity. That involves land, and it also involves the idea that they are Palestinian refugees, and they have rights there. If you accept that, we can look at the details of how many go back, how many get compensated.

But that’s step 1.

It’s associated directly with the land issue. It’s basically the same point but one of them is, ‘How am I recognized and compensated.’ The other one is, ‘Well, since I have a national identity, that’s my land.’

And the third issue is the religious component of Jerusalem because, again, it relates to my national identity and that’s where my capital is. 

And I suppose there’s a mirror-set on the Israeli side. Again, the religious and historical attachment to Jerusalem as well as recognition of the Jewish presence of Israel in the Middle East.

Let’s go back around 80 years. The first UN resolutions on resolving this issue include both. And it even has Jerusalem. There was a resolution on Jerusalem which basically says that both sides are there, but that the religious part is managed by an international system.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like for those parties to negotiate with what we just mentioned as the starting point, instead of the end point: the recognition of those most important needs? And then, the details. Is that impossible?

The reality is, there is an imbalance of power. And as long as there is an imbalance of power, greed precedes rational thinking. And, also because the international community is not standing on principle.

Back then it was two states. The landmass then for the Palestinians was much greater than what we’re talking about now. If you were to come to me today and tell me we could negotiate two states, and that Jerusalem would be dealt with in a certain way, and that you could negotiate which villages you want to put on either side, and that they’re two states like the landmasses in the past, or like in 67, and you could give me a commitment to that before we start, you will have a tremendous momentum to negotiate.

The reason we’re not getting that is the Americans aren’t pushing the Israelis, and the Israelis have no incentive to do it. And of course, the situations domestically are complicated on both the Israeli and American sides. And quite frankly the Palestinian side is also a mess.

But it’s not about re-inventing the wheel. The template is already out there.

How much in your own career did you learn from your mistakes? From, if I could call it, failure? Was that an important element for you? And if you did learn like that, was that a conscious process? Or did you just soak it in indirectly? Can you remember some cases where you realized this was not done right, and how important do you think that is in improving diplomatic processes – learning from failure and error?

My answer is going to be a bit complicated. I judge leadership by how you react to failure rather than how you react to success. We’re all happy with success and then we move on. What matters is how you react to how you fail.

I don’t have any specific examples of failure that were fundamental in my changing my approach. But I have examples where because I failed, and I immediately recognized that I failed, I didn’t pursue that process again, or was more careful later. They were mostly small steps. And they were mostly about negotiations.

You need to give the process time to ferment. At one point post-9/11, the Middle East was a mess. The situation in Iraq was difficult. There was no peace process. There was the whole debate about reform in the Middle East. And (Minister Fahmy was then Egyptian Ambassador to the USA),  I remember American colleagues were discussing something, and they asked me to give them talking points. And I did later. I’m a professional diplomat and so I report everything to Cairo. After I sent the points to the Americans, I thought to myself ‘this is wrong, something doesn’t appear right, here.’ And I reported it to Cairo.

Ten minutes after reporting it, our foreign minister phoned and asked me, ‘Why in the world would you give them that paper?’ It wasn’t a big issue. I admitted it was wrong before he said that, and the minute he asked me about it I conceded it was wrong. So, to his credit, he said, “OK, let’s drop this.”

Now the Americans didn’t accept it. It didn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t pay a big price for it. But after that I was always much more careful. If you ask me for something now I’m going to be a bit cynical about it, where it’s going, and how useful it is.

And that’s a point I always told my younger colleagues: think the process through. Think not only about what you’re getting, but also what happens the day after. What are the implications of what you’re doing? It may be worth it. And by training we are proactive internationalists.


Nabil Fahmy is a former career diplomat who served as Foreign Minister of Egypt from July 2013 to June 2014. He is the founding Dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at The American University in Cairo (AUC), where he is also a distinguished professor of practice in international diplomacy.

He is the author of the new book, Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace and Transition, published by Palgrave Macmillan.