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Ian Proud - Blog - The Kremlin
  • Writer's pictureIan Proud


Updated: Feb 26

My first living memory is of Germany where my dad served in the British Army.  As a child I was fascinated by being a foreigner in a much bigger, European, universe outside of the camp.  Some weekends, we would go shopping in the nearby Netherlands (when border checkpoints still existed). Holidays often consisted of camping in Austria or Italy. As a family of five we didn’t have much money but living overseas enriched me in so many ways. 

Returning to England with schoolboy German, I was annoyed to discover I’d need to wait a few years to study foreign languages at secondary school.  My first new friend – with whom I remain close – was an immigrant from Kenya.  I’d walk to his house before school and his mum would feed me puris and teach me basic Gujurati phrases in her kitchen while he got ready.

While I am Proud (literally) to be British, I’m relentlessly curious about people of different nationalities, faiths and cultures.  That’s one big reason why I became a British diplomat. There are many urban myths about what diplomats do, some of them involving Ferrero Rocher, dastardly plots and seductive spies. I like chocolate as much as the next person, but diplomats exist to improve relations between countries in the interest of peace.  

The ’how’ rests on two critical activities. First, gathering insight into what is happening in the countries where we serve so that we can give good advice to government Ministers on policy without guesswork and/or reporting what the newspapers say.   Second, influencing decision makers in those countries in the interests of finding common ground - especially on areas of disagreement - and mitigating risks of escalation.  To be good at both, it’s vital that you can speak persuasively in the ‘host’ language.

Anyone who has ever travelled abroad – even to a safe and pretty European country – would acknowledge that each country is different, linguistically, culturally, politically, and they don’t always act in predictable ways.  In the here and now, we stare across the channel from foggy Albion and ask how immigrant-bashing Geert Wilders won the biggest share of votes in the moderate Netherlands?  To what end is Victor Orban is blocking Ukraine’s EU membership bid?  Why does Vladimir Putin still seem so popular in Russia?

The answers to these and many other questions are complex, and you need to be in those countries to make sense of them.  Sitting out in cafes, passively dialling in to the conversations around you.  Watching the news and chat shows.  Taking up pastimes that are popular, observing local religious and cultural celebrations. Building relationships with people who, over time, are willing to discuss more than pleasantries. Having formal meetings with Government officials who may genuinely think the UK hates their country (memories of Moscow come flooding back). 

In twenty four years as a diplomat all of my best relationships were built face to face, over time, speaking their language. Walking into the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Police in Bangkok for an impromptu lunch to discuss golf, karaoke and the murder of British backpackers. Or asking a sceptical Rector to let Boris Johnson (as Foreign Secretary) make a speech to impressionable students at his University in Moscow. 

Diplomacy is a people business. Making sense of when “yes” means “no” and when “no” means “maybe”.  Knowing when to ask for a favour (influence) and knowing how to offer a favour in return to keep the conversation flowing (insight).  Cancelling people whose views are unacceptable to you is the quickest way to lose all the insight and influence you have.  So you have to find a comfort and moral accommodation with difference, while remaining focussed on your core purpose; promoting British interests.   

The challenge today is that British influence globally is in decline following Brexit, and our diplomats need to work harder than ever to have an impact.  With war raging in Ukraine and tensions between the world’s biggest powers at their highest this century, we need more diplomats who speak the languages of those countries with whom we have the most troubled relationships. The Foreign Office disinvested in Russia-specific knowledge after the Soviet Union collapsed and has never recovered that deficit. And this erosion of language capability has taken place against a depressing backdrop of a long-term decline in the study of foreign languages in Britain.  

So, more than ever before, the UK needs its best foreign language students at University to think about pursuing a career in diplomacy.  If, like me, you are concerned by world events, fascinated by difference and diversity, and desperate to build greater mutual understanding, then Britain needs you!


Ian Proud was a member of HM Diplomatic Service from 1999 to 2023, having joined under the graduate FastStream entry programme. He served overseas in Thailand, Afghanistan and Russia, is fluent in Thai, has C1 Russian and a smattering of other languages at varying levels. His final role was Vice Principal of the International Academy, responsible among other things for the Foreign Office’s extensive foreign languages teaching programme.    


Why all diplomats should study foreign languages



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