Is diplomacy better off with the Internet? This question was on my mind as I was following the Twitter exchange between President Trump and the leaders of Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. Each tweet escalated the rhetoric and moved us further from a peaceful solution – to conflict – and a resolution of differences, the main purpose of diplomacy.
Whether the Internet makes diplomacy better or worse is a very personal question for me. For the last 25+ years, I have been promoting the use of computers, and later the Internet, both in diplomacy and society in general. In the late 1980s, in former Yugoslavia, the Sezam BBS (proto-Internet) was the place to hear voices that differed from official ones.
Back in the early 1990s when I moved to Malta, the only way to be part of global academic debates was to use the Internet. I connected by dial-up to the Graduate Institute and CERN in Geneva. Our high telephone bills were worth paying, since it meant being part of global debates and exchanges, despite physical remoteness. In 1996, DiploProjects offered the first online course for diplomats from small island states in the Commonwealth. For many small island states from the Pacific and Caribbean regions, online training used to be (and still is) the main way to train staff. We became – de facto – the diplomatic academy of small island states in a cost-effective and innovative way. It was digital enabling at its best.
This is how I have been ‘digitally formed’: with the simple, innovative, and effective use of the Internet, creating missing links worldwide.
But, the more the Internet became a business and political tool, the more cautious I became. I began to be concerned when the Internet enabling story started turning into a sort of ideology. Today, the Internet is being portrayed as a solution to most of the problems we face. In its most radical form, this ideology argues that the more computer power we have, the happier we will be. On this ideological journey towards a ‘bright digital future’, we are not supposed to ask too many questions. In the past few years, we have faced a bitter awakening. Technology has met humanity: ideological techno-optimism has been replaced by techno-pessimism.
Today, both the digital world and diplomacy are undergoing a profound transition. While the risks are enormous, the good news is that discussions about reconciling technology and diplomacy are frank and open.
First, we should get back to the basics of diplomacy. Diplomacy’s main function is to solve conflicts peacefully. Whether diplomacy acts to advance national interests or to serve a global cause, or both, it should do so peacefully. If the Internet does not help diplomacy, it should not be used. In fact, all main diplomatic breakthroughs in the last few years have happened without the Internet in the negotiating room (Myanmar and Columbia transitions, Kosovo negotiations, Iran Nuclear Deal). And most failures escalated online (tension with Korea, Jerusalem crisis, etc.).
Second, the #NoHarm principle should be the core principle for #DigitalDiplomacy. In practice, #NoHarm should include simple steps. For example, when a Twitter exchange is likely to escalate into a crisis, as often happens these days, diplomats should pick up the phone and talk to the ‘other’ side or, even better, if it is possible, go for a coffee with them. In addition, diplomats should try to communicate evidence and facts via social media. With these and many other ideas, we can launch the call of #NoHarm for #DigitalDiplomacy.
Third, diplomats should fight for the relevance of compromise. Compromise is the core tool of diplomacy and a pillar of an interconnected society. Without compromise, there are no inclusive institutions, the key for the success of digital society. But, the relevance of compromise is not echoed in societies worldwide. Compromise is not considered a virtue. Try to find a street in your town named after diplomats or politicians who engaged in compromise. The Internet is no help. Readiness for compromise is quickly becoming depleted in the highly polarised ‘binary’ debates on social media, framed around ‘us’ and ‘them’. Compromise is more than reaching a deal: It is a way of shaping and addressing the problem. It involves careful listening, empathy and engagement, and respect for others.
Revitalising compromise will take time. If we succeed in doing so, we will make a great contribution to the future of humanity in the digital era.
A timeline of activities promoting the use of ICT in diplomacy, spanning 25 years