Is IT making diplomacy redundant?

Photo by  Austin Distel

Photo by Austin Distel

The digital revolution has certainly had a deep impact in the field of diplomacy. Technology has created challenges to hierarchical forms and machinery of diplomacy, reshaping diplomatic rules, functions and needs. Technology has put pressure on the high speed of information flow, resulting in less control over events and policy agendas. Foreign ministries are being forced to adapt to networked diplomacy. Knowledge-management is an important function for selecting and effectively monitoring data and big data, and the use of resources in performing consular work and managing crisis. As a result, issues and scenarios like cybersecurity, internet freedom and governance now needs to be addressed.  

While consular and commercial diplomacy will continue to be pivotal works conducted by embassies, many governments are falling behind in updating how they perform. Consular diplomacy is the most pressing area that requires improved speedy delivery of administrative services, at technological standard to demanding citizens but, with a human touch. The short-term task for diplomats is a well-organized website for preventative use, service automation for travelling citizens by means of mobile apps. Modern technologies offer new tools for succeeding policy outcomes and delivering performing activities. Practice has always been focused on the generation, management and utilization of knowledge, involving efficiency and legitimacy issues.  

Social media does not replace the traditional intelligence gatherings but it has changed the model of diplomacy around policy agendas, which require diversification of digital communication. A key activity that remains outstanding by diplomats is the evaluation and attentive analysis of communication flows on the ground, rather than general transmission. Technologies boost resources for strategic supervision, but also generate a massive quantity of news.  

In a highly fragmentated information environment, managing effective communication in diverse situations requires a broader perspective than what conventional diplomacy can offer. New behaviors are emerging in response to problematic policy agenda including disasters, epidemics, emergency, cybercrime, warfare, transnational terrorism and crisis in fragile countries. At the same time, foreign ministries must be prepared to manage a resurgence of traditional geopolitical agendas, in which states continue to compete for power, territory and resources. 

In this digitalized age, public trust is vital. Confidence and reputation may be influenced and damaged by protests conducted by civil society using various social media platforms. Policymakers are frequently unable to cope with promises made to their own people. Recently, the level of trust in the reliability of certain international bodies was been called into question, hampering their capability to respond. The decline in deference in social and political organisations has weakened the hierarchical bond between people and institutions. 

Empowerment of people - through access to information and the opportunity to express suggestions and critical remarks through collaborative platforms, represents shift in power from few to many. Institutions have to be aware of the risk that the internet poses risk, to individuals’ privacy, the ability to track their movements and preferences, and readily available private information offered by the user themselves. 

E-leaders need to take new steps to get their governments closer to citizens and business. In the words of a declaration of the OECD Network on E-Government in 2014: “the goal is to strengthen public sector strategic agility and improve public policy performance, leveraging the power of innovation to build and maintain trust in government services”. This is a positive step for e-diplomacy as digital technologies has lessened political exclusion, opening new paths for access and influence by giving interest groups the chance to impact various policy agendas. Signing e-petitions, although reassuring, may remain only an illusion of participation in shaping policy decisions. 

The weight of appropriate response in complicated circumstances is crucial. In a fast-moving society, governments need to foresee imminent developments and forecast future trends. When authorities fail to anticipate symptoms and consequences of information campaigns, journalists prevail and enhance public disappointment. The pattern of events combines the power of social media, digital media, newspapers and television. Remarkably, networks are more pervasive when they support values and ideas than government authorities. It illustrates a lack of creativity on the side of institutions. 

Social networking sites offer new dynamic and incredible opportunities. With the popular use of Twitter and Facebook among political leaders, the distinctive character of the representative role of diplomat and politician blurs. Twitter is not only the fastest growing form of social media, but also a real innovation to digital diplomacy for most ambassadors around the world. Twitter diplomacy has helped several statesmen maintain public support and improving their image abroad. In the developing world, Facebook offers users free access to basic online services including Google and Wikipedia. In addition, the involvement of global campaigns in negotiations has allowed the public to respond to economic and humanitarian crises, human rights violations, and environmental agendas. The network of stakeholders and the participation of prominent personalities explain the growing importance of the ability to affect the shaping of policy agendas in multifaceted situations, such as education, global health, poverty reduction, gender inequality, climate change, sustainable development and newly animal rights. 

Social media enriches the debate. A comprehensive approach to transforming the public sector with digital technologies increases national competitiveness, strengthens citizen engagement and improves public sector efficiency. Establishing an embassy with a clear digital path is a great sign that the government is committed to intensifying bilateral relations without ignoring the people themselves.   

Unless states return to being the main players in the world and central contributors to global governance, governments need professional agents to protect their interests. Diplomats are those professional agents who require extensive training in digital and personal branding for their specific mission. Although diplomats are expected to possess traditional competence, language skills and familiarity of different cultures, they must improve their ability to work with others in an integrated digital policy network.  

 

A change of culture will take time. But it isn’t impossible.