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Digital diplomacy: what is new?

Published on 23 July 2010
Updated on 05 April 2024

There is a refreshing article on Digital Diplomacy that makes good reading on these hot summer days.  The article centres on an attempt by two young officials, Jared Cohen and Alex Ross, to innovate traditional diplomacy.  In their mission to provoke and challenge in a constructive way, they enjoy the support of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Their role is also clear from the way in which they are anchored in the State Department’s organisational structure. They are part of the policy planning unit, which in diplomatic services is where new ideas are created and tested.

While the article provides a lot of enthusiasm, it also leaves many open questions and in some cases creates confusion.

Let’s start with the word diplomacy. In the article, the term ‘diplomacy’ is used to cover everything from distributing e-cheques to Afgan policeman to setting up a system for anonymous reporting to Mexican police. Ultimately, anything could be put under the umbrella of such a broad term. But, diplomacy has two main meanings: it is a method for solving conflicts between states in a peaceful way (as opposed to war) and it is the bureaucratic machine consisting of embassies, missions, and consulates that maintains relations between states. Diplomacy as a method for the peaceful resolution of conflict is as old as humanity. Diplomacy as a bureaucratic machine is relatively recent, established over the last five centuries when the first Italian cities started exchanging embassies and Richelieu established the first Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is not just about semantics though.  It has practical consequences when it comes to enacting changes.  The situation becomes even more confusing when diplomacy is linked to the Internet and the digital era. The examples of interplay between diplomacy and the Internet could be grouped into three areas:

First, it is the changing ENVIRONMENT for diplomatic activities characterised by new players, new communication patterns, and new ways of thinking. For example, when speaking about diplomatic professional culture Cohen says: ‘We can fear we can’t control it and ignore the space, or we can recognize we can’t control it, but we can influence it.’  This point is reinforced by a quote from Clay Shirky: ‘You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what’s going on.’

Second, the article offers examples of the Internet as a new TOPIC on diplomatic agendas.  Diplomats (among others) have had to negotiate issues such as Google’s presence in China. Did the restrictions by the Chinese government breach WTO rules ?  …. or … the question of Pakistan cutting access of a whole nation to Facebook after this service hosted some defamatory acts against Islam …. or… Secretary Clinton’s speech on the freedom of connectivity on the Internet. These are all examples of new topics on diplomatic agendas, not substantially different from other ones such as climate change and migration.  These issues are regularly discussed at the Internet Governance Forum established in 2005 as an outcome of the World Summit on Information Society.

Third, they offer some examples of the Internet as a TOOL for diplomatic activities. Most of their examples are related to public diplomacy; or, as some cynics argue, the rebranding of traditional propaganda.  The use of e-tools for propaganda has been the main motivation behind ‘digital diplomacy’ for a long time. The main problem has been how to win the hearts and minds of people worldwide, especially those in difficult places, such as “arab streets”. The article quotes the usual examples of Twitter revolutions in Moldova and Iran.  There is very little reflection on the use of e-tools for core diplomatic activities, including negotiations and representation, which have been the core functions of diplomacy since its early days and will remain so in the Internet era.

In this respect, the article is at its weakest. It starts by stereotyping diplomats: ‘white guys with white shirts and red ties talking to other white guys with white shirts and red ties, with flags in the background, determining the relationships’.  Paradoxically, the photo shows Cohen and Ross dressed this way, too.  Although the question of clothes may sound trivial, it is quite telling. Each profession, including diplomats, has a dress code. While diplomats may prefer to wear jeans off duty, their official activities, especially when they represent states, requires a certain formality.  It is not a matter of being conservative but part of diplomats’ “terms of reference”. In sociology, it is well described as a need to ritualise functions that have high importance for society. Judges wear robes to signify the importance of their function to society and the influence they have on people’s lives.

Apart from clothes, the article fails to address some important questions such as: Should diplomats blog? Can they negotiate effectively online? The answers to these and other questions are not just related to professional conservatism or inertia or lack of technical skills. In many cases, the limitations take the form of political interests that diplomats have to represent or objective limitations on how their work is done.

The article too easily dismisses some critical arguments on digital diplomacy from people like Evgeny Morozov. While openness is guiding principle of good governance, the reality shows that most of the successful diplomatic deals have been done discretely.  US administration prefers negotiations on climate change in the small circle than in the Copenhagen style negotiations bazaar. The rebooting policy with Russia does not involve public debates and civil society. Not to mention other high-stake policy issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq. Negotiations happens in close circles, as they have been done since time immemorial.

Here one should make clear distinction between secret and discrete diplomacy.  According to Woodrow Wilson who banned secret diplomacy back in 1918, all diplomatic deals must be made public. However, the way how these deals are achieved does not need to be public. There are many reasons why negotiations should be discrete. Sometimes, it is needed to protect interlocutor on the other side of the table. In many cases negotiators spend a lot of time finding face-saving formula to sell the compromise back home. We should not forget that compromise, the core of diplomacy, is not popular in many societies, especially when it is contrasted with national pride and glory. Reaching a compromise and maintaining discretion in negotiations are very often closely linked.

Apart from the shallow reflections on the tools of diplomacy, the main focus missing from this article is on the increasing need for diplomacy and compromise in solving problems in the online world. Through the Internet, people and societies ‘live’ in close proximity, without being prepared – culturally – to communicate with each other. This creates a fertile ground for friction and conflict.

One of the main functions of diplomacy in the future will be to manage conflict and tension in an increasingly interconnected cyber world. There is a growing need for this function of diplomacy.  By whom, how, and where it will be performed remains to be seen.

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