Skip to main content

The future of diplomacy

Update from Wilton Park CEO Tom Cargill, August 2021

At times over the past 75 years Wilton Park has been referred to as ‘the alternative United Nations’, and while I don’t think we would quite agree, or aspire to that role, the reference does point to how important our diplomatic work continues to be.

The tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan reminds us that we all need to work harder to build consensus and outcome focussed dialogue in an era of growing multipolar competition. That includes talking and building relationships with those we vehemently disagree with.

Despite the success of our move to online work, diplomacy will remain a ‘contact sport’, and Wilton Park’s role as a convenor of choice to handle the honest, tough and complex in person discussions required to address the big global issues will become ever more vital. This news update summarises some of the more public work we are undertaking in this space.

The future of diplomacy in an online world

Digital diplomacy is not new, but the rapid shift to the online world, precipitated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, has accelerated discussion about ways of conducting diplomacy. The practice of meeting face to face, shaking hands and carrying out in-person diplomatic functions has been replaced by virtual video conferences, without the close personal interaction traditionally deployed, reducing the opportunities to build trust and rapport and supplement formal negotiations through informal ‘corridor diplomacy’.

Digital diplomacy has the potential to enable greater transparency, wider engagement with non-traditional actors, and reduce the environmental impact.  However, there are risks that the increasing digitalisation of international affairs could exacerbate existing inequalities. Some stakeholders may be disadvantaged by the lack of technology, resources and digital literacy and skills. Civil society organisations engaging online may be at particular risk of reprisals from states and other actors. Overall, there are concerns about the confidentiality and security of online discussions.

Our June meeting on The Future of Diplomacy in an Online World, concluded that, beyond the pandemic, the goal should not be to replicate previous diplomatic activities in the online space, but to recognise and capitalise on the new opportunities that technology has to offer to diplomatic practitioners. Key recommendations included the need for diplomatic training to include online facilitations skills; protocols and procedures for online inter-actions; protection of data with a principle of ‘do no harm’; criteria for what types of meeting work best in different contexts; and technical training and capacity building for online interactions underpinned by the goal to ‘Leave No-One Behind’.

As we continue to run a range of topical and productive events online, we are looking forward to the time when we can reconvene our in person residential meetings facilitating frank and open exchanges across a diverse spectrum of policy makers and opinion formers. Open dialogue, thoughtful problem solving and innovative strategy development to address and resolve global challenges have been at the core of Wilton Park’s success since 1946. We’re looking forward to the next 75 years and beyond.


As part of the diplomatic preparation for the November COP26 in Glasgow, Wilton Park hosted a virtual conversation between Pacific Leaders and Alok Sharma, COP26 President. Pacific islands are at the forefront of climatic impacts, and Leaders shared their priorities for a successful outcome in Glasgow. They were joined by an inspiring youth leader from the Solomon Islands who spoke passionately about the impacts of climate change, including her personal story of sea levels rising to submerge the island home of her grandparents in the Solomon Islands. Read the High Level Dialogue Chair’s summary

We also hosted an expert workshop for faith leaders on how greening the assets that faiths hold – from land to buildings to investments – could contribute to meeting the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees. Given the estimates of around 40 million churches, 5 million mosques and dozens of millions of temples around the world, a commitment, for example, to green houses of worship could make a sizeable contribution to COP26’s Race to Zero ambition.

We are continuing to support climate diplomacy ahead of COP 26, including through:

  • The Zero Emissions Vehicles Transition Council, with a series of outreach regional events over September promoting the transition to ZEVs, understanding the challenges of developing nations and the support required from developed nations.
  • FACT Dialogues (Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade) co-hosted by the UK and Indonesia, to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable land-use practices and reduce deforestation. Wilton Park recently hosted and co-chaired two rounds of governmental working groups across the four working groups (Trade & Market Development; Traceability and Transparency; Smallholders; and Research, Development & Innovation).
  • The Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI) – with a recent launch event.

In July, Wilton Park also convened private sector technology experts and civil society representatives for a virtual dialogue to consider how innovative technology can support equitable outcomes in pandemic preparedness and response. Following decades of rapid progress, technology – including Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and machine learning – holds great potential to support pandemic preparedness and response. These opportunities must be balanced against risks and concerns, from data protection to ensuring access to new knowledge and tools is not limited to a small number of wealthy countries. This dialogue initiated a discussion on the benefits of co-creation between the private sector and civil society and how such cocreation can be achieved.


We held a three-part series with partners at Ditchley Park and Sunnylands on the overall theme of Revitalising Democracy, the first time that our three organisations have worked in tandem on a series of events.

The Wilton Park session focussed on how COVID-19 has undermined global democracy by fostering distrust in democratic institutions, whilst Ditchley focussed on political support for action on climate change and Sunnylands on addressing the crisis in democracy by revitalising local news. This series will provide a springboard for a range of future events.

Ahead of COP26, Wilton Park will be convening an online forum on behalf of the Green Grids Initiative, an ambitious new UK- and India-led coalition for smarter and more interconnected electricity networks to accelerate the transition to a renewables-powered world. The virtual event will be open to all, more details to follow next month.

Wilton Park’s series of dialogues on peacebuilding in Africa will turn to Mozambique in late September, examining the relationship between state and society and exploring how to break cycles of violence via sustainable, non-military means. The previous meeting in the series, which took place in May, focused on Northern Nigeria. An open, virtual Town Hall event, featuring a keynote address by the Governor of Ekiti State, preceded an invitation only round table dialogue. This dialogue stressed the importance for building peace of inclusive and forward-looking leadership, investing in marginalized communities in ways that promote dignity and justice, and creating space for locally-rooted solutions. The meeting report can be found here.

In July we hosted the Global Launch of the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC)’s first Strategy and Five Year Implementation Plan, with 200 virtual participants made up of officials from ERC Member States, civil society members and key stakeholders, aiming to increase international action to promote and defend the rights of LGBTI people around the world. The ERC is co-chaired by Argentina and the UK; the FCDO Minister Wendy Morton and Lord Herbert, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on LGBT Rights spoke on behalf of the UK government. The UN’s Independent Expert for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Victor Madrigal Borloz, gave a keynote address setting out the background on his latest report on Gender Theory. The write up, includes the full text of the keynote speech.


We are planning a dialogue on Trusted Research, supporting the British Embassy Stockholm’s outreach to Nordic nations and building on UK work enhancing security to support international collaboration on research. We are also continuing to contribute to dialogue on climate security, working with German think-tank, adelphi, proposing briefings and workshops and planning climate security dialogues at the Berlin Security Conference in October.


Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, made the keynote address at our SussExport meeting held at Wilton Park   Co-hosted by our local MP, Andrew Griffith, the event brought together over 30 local businesses and organisations, Members of Parliament and representatives of UK Embassies and High Commissions.

Sponsored by West Sussex County Council and the Wiston Estate and supported by the Department of International Trade, the event included workshops, presentations, and a showcase of Sussex based  business. Wilton Park is committed to further engagement in our region and we are already planning for SussExport 2022, supporting local business, government and civil society to connect to and benefit from greater global engagement.

British German Forum 2021: send us your nominations

We are seeking nominations for this year’s British German Forum (BGF).

Taking place on 27-29 October at Wiston House, it will bring together future leaders from both countries to engage in critical dialogue and build new networks. They will explore the common challenges which both countries are facing, and the common goals that shape British Germany relations.  Now in its 36th year the Forum will be part of a week of UK Germany strategic dialogues for the 21st century, organised as part of Wilton Park’s 75th Anniversary celebrations.

The Forum offers an opportunity for participants to build a lasting network with 30 fellow young leaders and connect with other leading figures at the UK and Germany 75th Wilton Park Anniversary Lunch. They will have the chance to gain new insights, creating a career enhancing experience culminating in a set of recommendations and routes forward which they have informed and shaped.

Participants can be nominated by a colleague or can self-nominate. Please complete a nomination form by 8 September. Successful participants will be selected and contacted during early September.

Want to find out more?

Sign up to our newsletter