Last week, I had a chance to talk to those who cherish the ever developing world of diplomacy and international relations. Those who still remember the first email exchange between world leaders, Bill Clinton and Carl Bildt, who used intranets and simple HTML websites to publish statements and official letters. That was back in 1994, when the world of communication started to gain new momentum, with PR agencies exchanging a pair of scissors for scanners and copy machines. Ten years on, the narrative has changed and it has become clear to diplomatic leaders that the opportunities of these technological ‘disruptions’ offer far more than just faster means of communication.
Many argue that digital diplomacy allows for a different type of communication, where the size and existing recognition of the country loses its importance. Joakim Edvardsson Reimar, digital diplomacy expert at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made a very clear point on the importance of political leadership online. “We’re looking for the best opinion leaders amongst the states, those who are the ‘superstars’ of the internet, and those who know how to use digital channels to achieve their diplomatic aims, and the size of the state they are representing doesn’t matter”. Leaders of this world recognise the need to cultivate purposeful networks of other states, becoming a truly global world where friendships and trust between diplomats matters more than existing pacts and agreements.
This correlates with the view often repeated in the literature devoted to digital diplomacy or diplomacy in the ‘new digital age’, highlighting that it is in fact a new ecosystem. In my conversation with Gokhan Yucel, president of the think-tank YeniDiplomasi.com, he argued that the old world of politics has a new set of rules online as it differs from the physical world itself. Digital diplomacy is ruled by completely new actors and entities, where the conversations exceed the existing boarders, hierarchies and boundaries by simply engaging through other means. It is not about competition and creation of new limits, but about coexistence in the world of ongoing communication and engagement. To be the best at digital diplomacy it means to communicate, engage, learn and exchange ideas.
This leads on to the challenges of digital diplomacy, because the issues defying diplomacy are now often global in their scope, therefore to engage and to communicate is more important than ever. James Barbour, Minister Counselor, Press and Public Diplomacy at the European Union Delegation in Washington, said “Part of the problem, not only in the digital age, with diplomats throughout the century has been not listening to each other enough. It has to be two-way process. Good old fashioned megaphone diplomacy has been dead a long time ago, but the principle is equally valid in the digital age. Listening is great, engagement is great – we should do more of it.”
This post follows on from Progressive Nation Building in the Age of Digital Diplomacy – an event at Georgetown University in Washington, DC last week, in association with the Digital Diplomacy Coalition and the British Council. Watch a video of the event here.