Friendships and memories to last a lifetime: the Diplomatic Studies programme celebrates its 50th anniversary

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You’ll be hard pushed to find a more distinguished group of alumni than those who have graduated from Oxford’s Diplomatic Studies Programme. They include the late prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto; the king of Bhutan; and the prime minister of Tuvalu – as well as a number of government ministers and ambassadors from countries all over the world. This year the programme, run by the Department of Continuing Education, celebrates its 50th anniversary.

When the Foreign Service Programme, as it was then called, was launched in 1969, there was nothing else quite like it anywhere in the world. The aim of the one-year postgraduate course was originally to help leaders and future leaders of the newly-independent commonwealth countries acquire the diplomacy skills, strategic thinking, capacity for leadership and knowledge they would need for a successful diplomatic career. ‘These days there is a plethora of diplomacy courses but ours is unique in being so applied,’ says programme director and former diplomat Kate Jones. The practical elements of the course include written and spoken skills, critical thinking and negotiation.

The programme is highly competitive, taking only 20 to 30 students a year. They come from countries all over the world, says Ms Jones, including China, South Korea, Ghana, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

An increasingly connected world

So, how has the programme changed over the years? ‘The core subjects have remained remarkably consistent,’ says Ms Jones. They include courses in international politics, international law and international trade and finance. The area that has seen the biggest change is diplomatic practice: ‘We have quite a lot of focus on digital diplomacy, on the challenges of technology and on economic diplomacy, which weren’t really issues years ago.’ The course continues to last for one year full time, but students can now complete either a Master of Studies or a PG Diploma in Diplomatic Studies.

In an ‘increasingly connected’ world, says Ms Jones, the programme has a particularly important role to play. ‘We live in a world that is facing new threats from new technologies and challenges to the global commons, such as to our environment and health and in migration, terrorism,’ she says. ‘We live in a world where the new prevalence of social media is leading to changes in the way that democracy operates, and government has got to get to grips with that. And diplomacy has to face these international challenges, so we’re aiming to equip people to do so, both bilaterally and multilaterally.’

For students, a place on the programme offers not only the prospect of learning from brilliant teachers in one of the world’s great universities, but the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences with their peers from other countries. ‘The diplomats forge amazing connections on this programme which stand them in really good stead for their whole careers. Sometimes we have diplomats from countries which have frictions between each other, but breaking down those barriers at a human level gives them something they can always go back to,’ says Ms Jones. ‘If they have to deal with people from that country in the future they may find they have a friend in common and these human connections are just invaluable for diplomacy.’

Long hours at Checkpoint Charlie

Former students can vouch for the programme’s value. Pooja Kapur, now the Indian ambassador to Bulgaria, describes it as ‘an extraordinary year in many respects – I gained knowledge, experiences, friendships and memories to last a lifetime.’ Many have particularly happy recollections. For Li Quiao, formerly Chinese Consulate General in New York, the standout experience was the European study tour: ‘I remember vividly every moment of that journey. By now I can still feel the sweet taste of the warm apple cider we shared in the Belfast farmers’ market.’

Jhabindr Aryal, now Nepalese ambassador in Egypt, also recalls the study tour andparticularly the visit to Berlin where the wall to separate West and East was demolished.’ He remembers ‘waiting long hours in queue at Checkpoint Charlie. It was very cold and started snowing. We found a small restaurant to have refreshments and coffee.’ Mr Aryal describes the programme as ‘the foundation of my confidence throughout my diplomatic career’.

For Ms Jones, leading the programme and teaching such a distinguished group of students has brought its own rewards: ‘You never know where our current cohort are going to end up, or what sort of leadership roles they’re going to occupy in the future, but it’s really exciting seeing them head off for these promising careers.’

Published 3 June 2019