Part of the Advanced Diplomatic Webinars series.

Advanced Diplomatic Webinars series: Introduction

The farther backward you can look, the further forward you can see.

This quote from Winston Churchill could be a Twitter-style description of our 2013 journey through the interplay between diplomacy and technology. Our reflections on the history of diplomacy will act as a search for guidelines for the future of diplomacy in the Internet era.

Each month we will discuss one historical period as graphically illustrated in Diplo's 2013 calendar. Before we move on with the January topic, let me introduce a few points about how we will do this.

First, our focus will be on the interplay between continuity and change in the evolution of diplomacy and technology. The hypothesis of our deliberation is that the core functions of diplomacy, such as negotiations and representation, have been constant since the early days of diplomacy. They are close to human nature, to our emotions, and to our capacity to empathise. These core functions have not changed substantially across the centuries. Rather, change has occurred in the way in which diplomacy has been performed. Here, technology has played an important role, starting with language as the early 'communication technology', via telegraph and radio, up till the Internet of today.

Secondly, we will focus on information and communication, two core pillars of diplomacy. How has information management affected diplomacy, from the first diplomatic archive in Tal-Amarna up to today’s diplomatic archives stored in the digital cloud? We will also examine how the medium itself has influenced communication styles. Costly messages in the early days of the electric telegraph made diplomats write in concise Twitter-style short texts, while inexpensive fax messaging, and recently the Internet, have made longer diplomatic messages possible.

Thirdly, we will reflect on the impact of technology on the political environment in which diplomats operate (changes in sovereignty, more interdependence), the topics with which they deal (regulating telegraphy, and more recently, Internet governance) and the tools they use (telegraph diplomacy, Twitter diplomacy).[1]

Important caveats

In applying this methodology, we will try to identify common patterns throughout history, as well as the importance of the time/space context for the interplay between technology and diplomacy. A few caveats should be kept in mind.

First, communication technology is just one of the many catalysts of social, political, and economic developments. Highlighting communication technology as the only, or predominant, cause of developments in diplomacy might lead towards over-simplification and techno-determinism. We will try to weigh the importance of technological factors in a broader social and political context.

Secondly, historical analogies should be used with great care. Otherwise, they might lead towards erroneous, although prima facie acceptable, conclusions. Silent patterns of historical developments should be identified with the clear understanding that history rarely repeats itself exactly.

Thirdly, the history of technology is not sequential, with one technology replacing another. Most technological advances coexist with previous innovations, in spite of various 'endism' predictions. Traditional mail was not replaced by the telegraph, neither did the telephone 'kill' the telegraph. Radio coexists with TV. In fact, with the exception of the telegraph, most communication innovations introduced during the last two centuries, including mail, the telephone, radio, TV, and fax, are still in use today. Mail, one of the oldest organised communication methods, is a successful business even today (e.g. DHL, FedEx).

An historical timeline

This narrative follows a historical timeline. We will start with discussion about the early days of humanity and diplomacy in the pre-literate era. The second phase begins with the invention of writing by Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and developments of diplomacy in the Ancient World. We pay particular attention to Amarna diplomacy, considered by some historians to be the first example of a complete diplomatic system (featuring representation and negotiation).

This is followed by a brief survey of Renaissance diplomacy. Here, the major weakness of our survey is the lack of historical analysis of developments in other ancient civilisations beyond the Euro-Mediterranean world. Most of the available literature focuses on Ancient Middle East and Europe. The major achievement of our discussion would be if you, as active participants, bring perspectives from other rich ancient civilisations from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The major focus of our discussion will be on modernity, starting with the Vienna Congress (1814). Dramatic changes, both in diplomacy and in technology, took place during this period. Many countries established diplomatic services, comprised of ministries of foreign affairs and professional diplomats; continuous multilateral negotiations were conducted in the context of the Concert of Europe; and the first international organisations were established. On the technological side, the telegraph, the telephone, and radio were all invented during this period.


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