Trade and Globalisation


Diplomacy in the digital age

31 May 2016 - 14:22

Diplomacy in the digital age: More than Twiplomacy

The core business of diplomacy has long been more than simply agreeing deals at some pleasant rendezvous, if it ever really was merely that. These days, diplomacy is more public than ever. More diffuse than ever. It is image-building for your country, and it is the task of civil servants throughout government. It is making contact with foreign governments, and also with the general public and the private sector in other countries. Digitalisation has had a huge impact on diplomacy. Professor Jan Melissen has written about the subject, and he travels the entire world, like a true diplomat, spreading his message: that the playing field is changing. Focus on digitalisation, ask yourself how it can help you achieve your goals, and reshape your organisation accordingly.

‘People have huge amounts of information to deal with. How do you do this as diplomats? Do you keep it close to your chest? Does information mean power? Or do you share the information with the network in which you are increasingly operating? The playing field is changing very rapidly, partly as a result of digitalisation.’

Operating in a network
‘I used to tell my students that 90% of diplomatic information was in the public domain, but the figure is even higher now. Of course, confidentiality and secrecy are important in diplomacy, particularly when it comes to things like peace and security. However, diplomatic success depends increasingly on collaboration with others. Collaboration takes place in networks, and those networks are becoming more and more digital. The rules are not the same as in your own diplomatic circles, where you know roughly how your counterparts work, whatever country they come from. In a network you are not merely an official representative of a government; what defines you more is probably the information you bring to the network. That kind of added value is what people are judged on. That is what you are worth. It is a changing playing field through which information now flows much faster, via your network. And that network is what you rely on.’

Role of social media
‘Everyone immediately thinks of people like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or US President Barack Obama, who practise “Twiplomacy” – diplomacy via Twitter. Social media make things more personal. And bring people who traditionally operate in the shadows into the limelight, giving an ambassador a face. You can find out what they are doing by following them on their social media account. People also get more “digital personality”. You can be sure that political leaders are cultivating this quite carefully.

‘It’s still early days. Institutions and individuals still have to adjust, and find their voice in the digital age. They are wondering what exactly to do on Twitter. What should they say? A personal note, but it must also serve their professional goals. I think the reality is that diplomats, who have always been quite focused on their own professional group, might continue in the same vein on social media. And there are different ways of using social media. We often assume that you interact with those around you on social media. You make sure you tweet every day, you join the conversation. But diplomats also use it passively, following what’s happening. It’s a useful tool that allows you to discover things you might not otherwise find, or at least not as quickly. So in fact you see a conservative diplomat using new media on a new information playing field in the same way as an intelligence officer.’

The faces of social media
‘If you only follow relations between Russia and the West via social media, you see the ugly side of it. Social media can be used against each other. When the Chinese president and the Taiwanese prime minister met in 2015 for the first time in 66 years it prompted a wave of trolling on Facebook. Users in Taiwan saw in their timeline how fantastic things are in China nowadays. True internet wars are being fought, and this is only the beginning. The nice thing is that you can use social media to help your own nationals in other countries. You have an app, you can use Twitter to find out where people are, if something happens you can send a warning, say who to call, and where to go. But social media are also being used more and more in international negotiations, to leak information, explain what is going on to your own constituency, or convey a particular message to your opponent’s followers.’

‘Social media were used on a huge scale at the environment summit in Paris. This was a way for delegates who were not representing a government to make themselves heard. It helps to “frame” the issues. Negotiations begin long before people take their seats at the table. The broader context in which negotiations take place is becoming more and more important, and it is increasingly a digital context. If something really is trending on social media, a government cannot really ignore it. This allows groups of individuals and organisations to influence what the debate is about, and how it is conducted.’

Jan Melissen, speaking at the Club of Venice, 27 May 2016

Fine to make mistakes
‘The motto at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to be “Call DVL!”, the former Information and Communication Department. Wherever you were and whatever happened, if you were approached by the media, you just had to say “Call DVL!”. But that’s all ancient history. The information environment is much more open now, and the people at the embassies have much more freedom to take the initiative. They need background material to give their own account. In this age of social media we accept that people might make mistakes, and then simply admit it. That’s new. It used to be fatal for your career if you made a mistake. That created a professional culture in which the approach to providing information was extremely conservative. This is all changing, things are gradually becoming more open. The question is no longer “What can we release?”, but “What do we really need to keep secret?”. An essential difference.’

Digitally effective
‘Saying that social media are important is one thing, but when do you get round to it on a busy working day? The management have to say what they want to achieve, what purpose it serves, how you can make time for it, and what the criteria for success are. Take development cooperation, which is regaining its appeal in light of the digital revolution. In a field like that, you can work with tools that bring solutions within reach. Those solutions have both a communication and a technical side. Diplomats need to learn to think in terms of solutions with a technological dimension. But the technician downstairs twiddling the dials no longer exists. So you come up with solutions together that lie beyond the cognitive scope of the average policy thinker. This makes diplomacy more experimental, and new ways of working with information (data) have to become second nature.’

New winners
‘Excellence in terms of responding to the digital environment is partly the preserve of the “usual suspects”, like the US and the UK. But Estonia, India, Kosovo and tech champions like South Korea are also responding well. All aspects of diplomatic work can benefit: searching for information, collaborating with others, explaining what you do, negotiating, how open you can be with the outside world. This question of information is increasingly important. Digitisation is also about the modernisation of diplomacy, becoming more experimental, seeing the network more as the starting point. Networks as the conceptual basis for diplomacy. Questions about digitalisation will then automatically find their way onto the agenda. There are in fact only a few countries that take a holistic view. We do a bit, here and there, and sometimes we do it very well, but there is no overall perspective in your development. Digital transformation is a trend in the business world, but it is much less so in the public sector. The reality is that many countries simply do not have the capacity. You can perform a conceptual analysis of the impact of big data, but that is only the start of the challenge. It is also a matter of focus. Like in Estonia and Kosovo, where they are thinking creatively about how communications technology and digital technology can help them achieve what they want with few resources.’

Originally, this article was published in Dutch.