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The pitfalls of the digital world for the practice of diplomacy

6 October 2021

7 mins

In this blog, Dr Dorina Baltag, Excellence 100 research fellow at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance draws insights from the conversation at the roundtable on digital diplomacy she and Professor Helen Drake (Professor of French and European Studies and Director of the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance) organised between academics and diplomats at the 51st UACES Annual Conference. Hear what Dorina had to say below.

Today digital connectivity has become central for diplomatic actors: it is essential in their practice today to be able to engage with their publics also via social media: to explain their policies, to facilitate the export of information and to listen to feedback. During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns assumptions have been made regarding (traditional) diplomacy – the political interaction and the techniques used to carry out political relations at the international level by state actors – that it is being transformed by the development of digital technology. However, this is not the case: neither digital technology nor COVID-19 brought a radical change in the sense of revolutionizing the functions of diplomacy. What happened, in turn, is a fast-paced process of diplomats increasing their online presence to such a degree that some engaged in a form of competition between twitter accounts of both, diplomats and Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFAs). So, how far the development of digital technology has become embedded into the DNA of diplomatic activities?

A different format for the practice of (public) diplomacy

Whereas for any citizen the information instruments such in the 21st century was a normality and part of their daily lives, for MFAs around the world was a relatively new instrument, the use of which was accelerated by the outbreak of the pandemic. It pushed European ministers of foreign affairs, for example, to increase their online presence: in April 2020 Brexit talks were held and the British Parliament made history when MPs joined remotely via video links; in June 2020 European ministers of foreign affairs held video conferences to discuss important issues such as the strategic dialogue with the USA; in July 2020 the Polish MFA participated in a webinar to prepare for the Visegrad Group Presidency. In this way, not only news about important international negotiations but also diplomatic conversations among world leaders were reaching the public.

In the world of diplomacy, the development of video conferencing brought more inclusiveness: more states had the possibility to attend virtually high political forums without having to be physically present and reduced related costs, specifically important for states from the developing world. At the same time, many states which were resisting embracing the digital era had to dive into a speedy learning trajectory so that their diplomatic esprit de corps is more tech savvy. It also created bigger opportunities for connectivity: Many deliberately engaged with a wider variety of stakeholders which pre-COVID was unimaginable to organise in an online format. This, in turn, gave the opportunity to reinforce their strategic alliances (e.g., EU-USA) via organised online transatlantic summits. A skill which becomes central is networking – on the ground, diplomats could rely on existing communication networks (an illustration of such networks can be found in this HJD article and in this teaching case-study) – an adaptation of this skills to the online world meant a more intense and frequent degree of interaction and, for some groups, the use of digital tools, improved the diplomatic interaction. And, finally, MFAs and embassies are increasingly producing political content in form of media products and adopting a media logic in their daily operations (via their Facebook or Twitter accounts), which allows diplomacy to transform from a closed, secret state affair, to becoming accessible and open to the public (or at least their messages are).

The drawbacks of COVID-19 for diplomatic practice

To frame foreign policy narratives in no more than 280 characters remains a challenging task and posting on Twitter or Facebook does not necessarily imply establishing a dialogue with the public. The practice of diplomacy relies on the work done by diplomats in third countries who serve as the ‘eyes, ears, and mouth of the state’. This means that a physical rapport matters for the establishment of a sense of community, for bonding, for building trust and engaging with different stakeholders, and for better serving foreign policy objectives. Since some international negotiations on highly sensitive topics (such as disarmament, for instance) could not be held remotely (not only due to security reasons but also due to certain negotiations techniques applied in these settings), several key players, including civil society organisations and think tanks could not engage in raising awareness and influencing the agenda-setting. Going digital impacted, among other things, the intimacy of diplomatic interactions. This comes with a hindering effect on building trust among fellow-diplomats – an essential practice used by diplomats to get access to the right information. And while COVID made everyone cautious of shaking hands, it is the shaking of hands in diplomatic circles that seals the deal – as a nice metaphor for the importance of physical interaction.

Diplomacy is defined, inter alia, by the existence of a dialogue between states, a practice fulfilled by the function of communication. Communication relies on information-gathering, information-negotiating and identifying other actors’ intentions especially central in an era of complex international relations where ‘information ricochets around the world’. Instruments like WhatsApp, Email and Telephone have been used as communication means by diplomats long before COVID-19 but were further popularised by the sense of urgency (from capitals to acquire information). This also meant that diplomatic language is distorted and misinterpreted in the world of Twiplomacy and instead of using it as a form of diplomatic action the practice has shifted towards collecting more social media likes. At the same time, the more a media logic is embraced, and communication becomes quicker, the more the quality of drafting and writing goes downhill. There is no doubt that digital tools serve as useful means to accelerate diplomatic communication, especially in times of global pandemic, but when it comes down to diplomatic activity, the practice needs to move along the continuum of technological advancement so that it serves achieving set foreign policy objectives.

To sum up, digital technology has clearly come to the front of diplomatic practice, however not without certain costs for the functions of communication and negotiation of diplomacy. At the same time, one must use caution, pragmatism, and flexibility. The digital revolution gave a lot of voice and influence to actors who did not have it before, which is a positive development, as diplomats can listen to a wider range of voices. The downside of this is that the noisiest will dominate the debate in a way which will not always benefit foreign policy. And finally, diplomats do not operate in a vacuum, hence these pitfalls should be addressed together with other key players at national level if the effects of foreign policy are intended to have the desired outcome.

We would like to say a big thank you to Dr Dorina Baltag for sharing her insights from the recent digital diplomacy roundtable.

In May 2021, the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance held a conversation focussing on digital diplomacy, featuring Professor Helen, Drake, Dr Dorina Baltag, and Dr Aidan McGarry. To read more about this conversation, please visit this blog.

You can find out more about the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance and the postgraduate programmes we offer here.

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