On February 22, Fulbright University Vietnam was pleased to welcome H.E. Mr. Mark Kent to a fireside chat with our students, lecturers and staff. The event was part of his special trip to reconnect with a fast-changing Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City in particular, after 12 years since he served as Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Vietnam from 2007 to 2010.
The conversation between Mr. Mark Kent and the Fulbright community highlighted a commitment to diplomacy through soft-power efforts that stress the importance of cultural exchange, education cooperation, and the people-to-people ties between Vietnam and the UK. The career diplomat remarked: “In all my experience, [I think] Vietnam is a country that’s going to do well. This is a country where a lot of things have happened, but you don’t dwell on them. You look forward, and you look where you need to go next.”
After Vietnam, Mr. Mark Kent was appointed British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand (2012-2016), then Ambassador to the Argentine Republic (2016-2021). Early 2022, he joined the Scotch Whisky Association as Chief Executive. Most recently, Mr. Mark Kent has been invited to become the next Chair of the Vietnam – UK Network, a group that “brings together organizations and individuals with shared interests in Vietnam to promote Vietnam – UK cooperation across the broad spectrum of the bilateral relationship”, and “enjoys the support from the Embassy of Vietnam in the UK and corporate sponsorship from British and Vietnamese businesses.”
As British Ambassador to Vietnam, he played an instrumental role in the signing of the Joint Declaration to establish the Vietnam – UK Strategic Partnership in 2010. Ten years later, in September 2020, the two countries renewed their agreement to further strengthen the bilateral partnership for the next decade that covers sustainability and climate change; healthcare and security; trade and investment; education, science and technology; gender equality and rights.
“[Since 2010], we’ve seen a widening and deepening of the relationship in all areas,” he said. “We are two complementary countries, both are important in our regions. I think that’s why the UK can have a win-win relationship with Vietnam, as Vietnam has that forward-looking focus which wishes to continue moving up the value chain, and to continue developing. And so, if I come back in 10 years’ time, I’m absolutely certain that the relationship [between our two countries] will be even deeper, wider, even more important than it is now.”
National branding through public diplomacy
According to Mr. Mark Kent, his time as British Ambassador to Vietnam also marked a period of “transition for our relationship, of refocusing and rebranding.” He said, “[At the time], the image of Vietnam in the UK was probably 30 years out of date; and people hadn’t yet woken up to the changes, the potential here in Vietnam. So part of my job was to work with my own country, so that we could take notice of what was happening here. Part of it was also to raise the profile of the UK in Vietnam, to get out there and share to the people why the UK and Vietnam relationship matters.”
Take a glance through his biography on the UK government’s website, and you’ll see Mr. Mark Kent has language qualifications in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Vietnamese and Thai. In 2008, he was the first ambassador in Vietnam to write a blog, sharing his daily life and work at the British Embassy in Hanoi. Its purpose was to connect with the dynamic blogging community in Vietnam at the time; to provide his perspective on the interests and policies of the UK, and receive feedback on ongoing issues. His posts were all written in Vietnamese.
Speaking to the audience at Fulbright, he said: “One of the things I’m always proud to do is demystify the role of diplomats. It’s about sharing the relevance that was closest to the people. The real game changer which came with social media means that authenticity, openness and transparency are really important to have people understand what you do, and to also have their feedback on the issues that affect them directly and personally.”
Social media won’t be effective if government agencies and officials treat them as channels that simply broadcast in full their policy points. “People want things that are interesting, and they want to feel that they can participate – so that they can ask you questions and you can reply, and they want a little bit of fun,” he said. “Everyone wants a little bit of humor, because that brings us together and creates empathy.”
The optimization of politics via social media became especially more pertinent in an age where diplomacy is no longer just between government to government. “Now we have a whole multilateral area of diplomacy open up which wasn’t there before. Over the last decades, new actors on the global stage which include multinational corporations, regional and international organizations would also want to have their voice heard. So government officials need to keep on reexamining whether what they’re doing is what the people need and want.”
Education is key to national prosperity
During their conversation with Mr. Mark Kent, the education cooperation between Vietnam and the UK had captured the most interest from Fulbright students and lecturers. Across Vietnam’s largest cities, one can easily find schools of higher learning as well as primary and secondary education that have adopted, or incorporated components of the British curriculum into their programs. Even at Fulbright, students have been thrilled to have classes and talks offered by professors from some of the leading universities in the UK, such as the London School of Economics and Political Science (with Prof Matthew Jones), and the University of Leeds (Prof Andrew Thorpe, Prof Sanjoy Bhattacharya, and Prof Andrea Major).
According to Mr. Mark Kent, education is tightly linked to how a country is perceived abroad. “The UK education system has a brand, which is tradition that goes together with innovation,” he said. “What it means is that increasingly, we’re strengthening the link between the government, scientific research and education institutes, and employers to look at the jobs of the future. In a knowledge-based and globally interconnected economy, we have to work on an education system that can develop a workforce which is relevant for high-tech services, for tackling climate change, and ensuring green growth and sustainability for all.”
He expressed the belief that in order that the friendship between Vietnam and the UK can flourish further, especially when this year, the two countries are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations, the people-to-people ties between our two countries cannot be understated. “International relations have expanded beyond governments and embassies,” he said. “Our peoples are the real champions who can go the extra mile, whose connections can play a very important part in propelling the partnership of education, traveling, trade and investment between our two countries.”
As such, Mr. Mark Kent’s visit to Fulbright University Vietnam can be considered a prime example. Among the audience were students who wish to pursue a career in diplomacy or further their study abroad; lecturers graduated from universities in the UK; and graduates attending the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management. By sharing his thoughts and experiences, he had contributed to a deepened understanding of the UK-Vietnam relationship among a younger generation in Vietnam; and vice versa, through their engaged conversation, representatives from the British Embassy and Consulate-General who attended the event had gained insights on how Vietnam sees itself and wishes to develop further through the eyes of the country’s young people.