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eDiplomacy – overestimating the present and underestimating the future

Published on 09 September 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

This interview has been prompted by Dr Jovan Kurbalija’s article ‘The Impact of the Internet and ICT on Contemporary Diplomacy’ in the publication Diplomacy in a Globalizing World, edited by Pauline Kerr and Geoffrey Wiseman (2012, Oxford University Press). Dr Kurbalija is the founding director of DiploFoundation and a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges.

You start your article with a quote from Lord Palmerston on receiving the first telegraph message in 1860s: ‘My God, this is the end of diplomacy.’ Why is this so relevant today?

This quote illustrates our tendency to overestimate what is happening here and now and underestimates the effect of long-term changes. Diplomacy has survived till today. It did not disappear as Lord Palmerston worried it might, rather it changed beyond recognition in a matter of decades. In the early 1900s, diplomacy was no longer an exclusively aristocratic profession as it had been in Palmerston’s time. Diplomatic services became professional bureaucracies. Scribers were replaced by typists, and, unintentionally opened diplomacy as a profession for the first female employees. What we can learn from Lord Palmerston is that diplomacy won’t change in the here and now, but that tectonic changes will be experienced in a few decades.

One section in your article focuses on the history of telecommunication and diplomacy. What else we can learn from history?

History does not provide ready-made lessons; it gives us useful hints which we can use to gain deeper insights into what is going on around us. Some parallels are fascinating. For example, the positions and views of the main players in telecommunication policy has not changed substantially between the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) meeting in St Petersburg in 1875 and, the next major ITU meeting in Dubai in 2012. As in 1875, the USA is strongly against any major involvement of governments and the ITU in global telecommunication governance. Russia and the other BRICS countreis would like to see more involvement of governments via the ITU or some other UN body.

Why can ICT have strong influence on diplomacy?

The Internet has a profound effect on the two cornerstones of diplomacy: information and communication. Diplomats deal with, collect, and manage information. Diplomats communicate in person, via diplomatic notes, and at international conferences. It remains to be seen how profound these changes will be in the short- and long-term perspective.

The article is developed around three areas of impact of the Internet on diplomacy. Could you explain them?

Yes, the Internet has changed and continues to change the environment in which diplomats operate (sovereignty, interdependence,  geo-strategy). The Internet also brings new topics to diplomatic agendas (Internet governance, cybersecurity) and it changes the practice of diplomacy by introducing new tools (Wikipedia, social media, tele-conferencing).

What does this mean in practice?

Diplomats have to adjust to these changes. A century ago, they were mainly negotiating peace agreements and borders. Today, and increasingly in the future, they will have to negotiate – for example –how the interests of their citizens will be protected in cyberspace. They will also have to learn how to interact via social media spaces. Diplomatic cables and notes verbale are no longer sufficient for effectively performing diplomatic tasks.

Will we need more or less diplomacy in cyberspace?

We will need more diplomacy. The more interdependent our world is, the less likely we are to solve conflict by force. We will need to negotiate more, to try to understand others, and be ready to make effective compromises. The need for diplomacy will remain as strong as ever. However, it remains to be seen by whom, how, and where diplomacy will be performed. Here, we can expect more profound changes in the forthcoming period.


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