Information is the lifeblood of the diplomatic services with diplomats, like veins and arteries, reporting from their posts back to their home countries. These diplomatic reports, or cables, as they are more commonly known, keep information flowing; they help co-ordinate activities and prepare the groundwork for decisions.
While reporting remains an intellectual activity requiring good judgment, good cognitive skills, and a good writing style, it, too, has been affected by the Internet. What should be reported? How should diplomats integrate into their cables what has already been published by journalists, bloggers, and other providers of information? What value do diplomatic reports add to the already available information and analysis provided by Wikipedia and blogs, among others? What is the usability of the new generation of artificial intelligence tools for summarising texts?
This portal explores the function of diplomatic reporting and the impact of technology on this important function.
What is diplomatic reporting?
Thousands of reports are written every day: they record meetings, analyse situations, and suggest actions. Since the ancient Egyptian Tal-Amarna diplomacy right up until the present day, diplomatic reports have been at the heart of diplomacy. They very often determine the internal chemistry of diplomatic services. Diplomats try to establish their positions and gain peer-recognition through the quality of their reports.
One way to look at diplomatic reporting is to consider it as one facet of a broader and more general phenomenon – the flow of information. Transmission of information is a basic human activity that in one form or another takes place all the time and under multiple circumstances. It is a product of instinct combined with need. Like any other method of information flow diplomatic reporting needs to have its own recognisable structure. It has to emerge from a clearly defined context. It needs direction and purpose. It should avail itself of whatever means of communication are currently available.
Two contrasting aspects characterise the flow of information in whatever form it is conducted. On the one hand once information exists there is both the need as well as the natural tendency for it to flow outwards. One may put this in another way. Information cannot exist in isolation. There is the need for a human recipient, as much as a human conveyor, for facts and events to become information. The underlying thrust is therefore towards all type of reporting, including diplomatic reporting, to become open and unrestrained.
The question is the extent to which there are limits to this openness, and furthermore who decides on these limits. This leads to another, and contradictory, aspect of the issue of information flow. Information is a form of power. Withholding information is a means for one individual or a group of individuals to exercise control over others.
On the whole, technology has been on the side of the moves towards freer flow of information, though it has occasionally also been used for the opposite purposes. The major breakthrough came with the invention of printing. One could go back even further, to the invention of writing. The latest breakthrough is represented by the internet. It is useful to put the Internet phenomenon in this historical context. In the way it is evolving, Internet forms part of the age-long contest pointing towards a freer and more open flow of information.
Excerpt from Diplomatic Reporting in the Internet Era, a paper by Ambassador Victor Camilleri.
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