Age of laptop diplomacy dawns as power moves to East and Africa

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Make way for the "laptop diplomat": change is coming to the rarefied atmosphere of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Foreign Secretary David Miliband warned the diplomatic service of a power shift yesterday, involving a transfer of resources away from Europe towards the emerging powers of Asia and the Middle East.

"Power is moving from west to east, with the integration of China and India into the world economy," Mr Miliband told 350 ambassadors and Foreign Office officials in London. The second trend he identified was what he called a "civilian surge", or power moving downwards to citizens as witnessed by phenomena ranging from the internet to asymmetric warfare.

Mr Miliband said: "If we aspire to being a global hub, we also need to strengthen our presence in emerging powers." He announced the move of some policy staff from Europe to Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the world. For a country like Afghanistan, that means more Pashto speakers, anthropologists and governance experts, he said.

"This doesn't mean Europe matters less: it's where we live, and it will always be fundamental to British interests. It does mean that we can now operate differently there, exploiting travel and new technology, in ways we can't elsewhere." But he added: "The FCO's future footprint is likely to be heavier in the developing world. One of our great strengths is being able to do what other parts of government can't, where they can't. We will need more than ever before to put our people into the parts of the world where others find it difficult or impossible to operate."

The nature of Britain's presence overseas would also change. "We will still want the classic bricks and mortar embassy in many places," he said. "But we will increasingly need to deploy staff away from our permanent fixed assets. We are already sending consular Rapid Deployment Teams to help Brits caught up in a terrorist attack or natural disaster, and laptop diplomats to hotspots like eastern Congo."

Britain is not the first country to consider the effects of globalisation and the new political and economic realities on its diplomatic strategy. In early 2006, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced plans to transfer diplomatic staff from Europe and Washington to Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

France is undergoing a similar reflection on its colonial-era relationship with Africa. President Nicolas Sarkozy announced in South Africa last week that Paris would renegotiate all its defence contracts with African countries, saying that defence agreements "must reflect the Africa of today and not yesterday".

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