British Council Chief Executive to Speak on International Diplomacy

Alumnus Ciarán Devane’s discussion highlights International Education Week at GW.

November 11, 2015


Elliott School of International Affairs alumnus Ciarán Devane will speak Monday about international diplomacy. (Frank Noon/For GW Today)

Elliott School of International Affairs alumnus and British Council Chief Executive Ciarán Devane, M.I.P.P. ’06, will help kick off International Education Week on campus Nov. 16 when he delivers a guest lecture on international diplomacy at Jack Morton Auditorium.

“A World in Crisis—How Can Smart Power Make a Difference?” will focus on the diplomacy tools countries can use to improve international stability, Mr. Devane said in an interview prior to his visit to the United States.

International Education

Sir Ciarán Devane

When: Monday, Nov. 16, 5-6 p.m.
Where: Jack Morton Auditorium

“It’s the cluster of things which make up soft power,” he said, “whether that’s public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, cultural relations, nation branding—whatever you want to call it—and how it can be used effectively.”

Mr. Devane spoke about a few other topics, including his experience as an international affairs student at GW, in an interview with George Washington Today’s James Irwin.

Q: Why did you select this particular subject for your discussion?

A: If you go back to the founding of the British Council, which was in the 1930s, diplomats in the foreign office and politicians were saying, “Look, you’re actually what we need.” It was an organization and an approach that creates what they called “a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding” and “neighborliness” between countries. If you can think that in the middle of the Second World War, then it applies equally well here. If it was true in 1940, then it’s certainly true in the Middle East and North Africa today.

Q: It’s timeless.

A: Yes, exactly. And it raises questions: What is it like if you don’t do that? You have countries that are isolated and don’t speak to each other, and it doesn’t take much to trigger a conflict. We know in the absence of this that bad things happen. We know what not trying causes.

Q: What was the value of studying international affairs in Washington?

A: There is so much international policy that takes place in the town. That context was important. It also was a very international experience. More than half of the people in the class at any given time were from outside the United States, anywhere from Bhutan to Austria. And I think that’s part of the richness of a GW education and an Elliott School education—having all these perspectives in the room at the same time. And outside the university, there was always a talk at a think-tank or embassy. So, it’s the combination of the good education itself at the university, and also Washington being the city it is.

Q: What advice do you have for students who aspire to careers in international affairs?

A: I think it’s about being open to opportunity. Try things out and see where you end up. If you asked me if I envisioned 10 years after finishing my master’s that I would be chief executive of the British Council, I’d have probably seen it as a step too far or something you needed to take a particular route to achieve. It’s always good to have a career plan, but it’s more important to be open to a good opportunity when it arises. It may not be what you expect or when you expect it—and it may take you somewhere you don’t expect to go. It’s amazing where it can take you. Just be open to that random opportunity.

Q: How is your personal experience a reflection of that?

A: When I came back from D.C., I ended up running Macmillan Cancer Support. That was not the intent. I probably imagined I might end up with the World Bank or the Department for International Development in London. But because of the solid policy background that the [Elliott School] program had, I suddenly ended up as a very plausible candidate to be chief executive of this NGO. And when it came to applying for this job at the British Council, not only did I have the master’s in international policy, I’d also been the chief exec of a major organization.

Had I single-mindedly stuck to international policy, I wouldn’t have ended up here. It was that kind of tangential move. It’s about building capability and your own personal skill base, and having breadth of experience as well as depth of experience.