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Technology is Changing Diplomacy

The world has changed more rapidly over the last 35 years than over the last 350 years. These changes ultimately permeated the world of diplomacy. Diplomacy originated from the deep belly of darkness we call “the dawn of history,” when the stage was set to forgo unprofitable squabbles over land and commerce. Key components of diplomacy such as intelligence gathering, representation and negotiations have always existed. In the ancient African empire of Kemet, Queen Hatshephut (1503 – 1482 BC) is recorded to have sent diplomatic missions to “East African nations and to Asia” and to have made peace with the neighbouring powers of “Kush and Nubia,” in the pursuit of trade and regional stability.

Steadily the conduct of diplomatic practices evolved across the world, and in recent times according to Henry Kissinger “France under Cardinal Richelieu introduced the modern approach to international relations, based on the nation state and motivated by national interests as its ultimate purpose.” Subsequently, diplomatic practices developed “throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” and became more complex and multifaceted as a result of a proliferation of issues and structures. In the early twentieth century, the sheer scale of devastation and carnage that engulfed Europe gave rise to a shift in diplomatic practices, as multilateralism became more ingrained and institutions such as the League of Nations and subsequently the United Nations were founded. Then over time the colonial mantles fell across the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Polynesian islands, and as more nations were introduced into the sphere of diplomatic practices, they brought their own unique flair to the profession.

Diplomacy today operates within international institutional procedures and these direct the scope and daily activities of diplomats. Nonetheless, diplomacy is changing and so are the actors. The issue of who and what can be regarded as a diplomat and diplomacy respectively is increasingly being contested by scholars. The advent of businesses, individuals, philanthropy and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in dialogue with states has necessitated a sweeping influx of new agendas on the foreign stage. For example, Bill Gates, an individual who embodies all of the above, recently ramped up partnerships with the Nigerian government to eradicate polio in the West African nation. Through his foundation, he has so far provided over $25 million and, according to Mfonobong Nsehe, has succeeded in drastically reducing polio cases in Nigeria, with incidences dropping by “more than 50% in 2013 with only 49 cases [recently] reported.” With most world agencies focusing on HIV/AIDS and Malaria in Africa; could an individual effectively taking up the mantle of a neglected disease such as Polio, and subsequently liaising with government apparatuses, and employing government-scale resources to combat it be termed a diplomat and does this fall within the purview of diplomacy?

Recently, technological innovations have exceeded the realms of what was previously deemed possible. Man can now travel to places farther and faster, construct bridges to break previous communication barriers, can gather millions of people in a single place virtually, and can beam real time images instantaneously across the world. However, technological advances have always occurred, and have existed side by side with diplomacy. For instance, the leverage of the Catholic Church in maintaining hegemony over the “written word” gave it a clear advantage in intelligence gathering within Europe which was gradually eroded as the printing press was invented and this further democratized the flow of information, and diplomacy evolved along with this development.

In the nineteenth century “Upon receiving his first telegram in the 1840s, then British Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston reportedly exclaimed: By God, this is the end of diplomacy!” However, the work of the diplomat has not only survived, but has thrived. Nonetheless, the scale and depth of developments in modern technology have significantly altered the world of the diplomat. This is what made former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, quip that “if foreign ministries and embassies did not already exist, they surely would not have to be invented.” Is the diplomat’s role still necessary, or is he or she merely an appendage to an anachronistic governmental structure?

In the past, information gathering and communications were under the exclusive purview of diplomats. They were posted to distant lands to gather information on diverse issues, and communicate effectively with the political leadership back home. “In a world without newspapers, where information was avidly awaited back home, they became indispensable intelligence gatherers, reporting on the arrival of cargoes, the situation at court, the state of an alliance, military preparations, the atmosphere in the market, and political gossip.” They were the gatekeepers of information. Today the gates have opened and emergent technological developments have made finding news easier and faster and media outlets across the globe are more responsive to changing landscapes. The pervasiveness of the media and its innovations, such as 24/7 news, has amplified the amount of information diplomats have to seize and act upon. Another recent technological development is the rise of social media which has further democratized the access and flow of information and communication. Both developments have permeated the work of the diplomat extensively, and some would argue to the detriment of the diplomat. For instance, in June 2016, a coup d’état attempt occurred in Turkey, and multiple images were beamed directly into homes and offices across the world instantaneously and multiple Tweets and Facebook posts engulfed social media. As the ensuing chaos unfolded it is most probable diplomats were bombarded with queries and requests as to the constructive nature of the manifestation (Colijn, 2016). These technological developments have a tendency to catch diplomats unaware.

However, diplomats can also utilize these new technological tools to their advantage in shaping narratives. They can post opinion pieces, appear on media discussions and open and employ social media accounts to communicate, mold, and receive information from a broader audience. According to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs for Digital Strategy at the State Department, Victoria Esser:

[Digital media] is an integral part of how [diplomats] are conducting [relations] around the world. We have 300 Twitter profiles, 400 Facebook pages. To me, it’s about creating virtuous circles online and offline — nothing will replace face-to-face diplomacy, but social media is an important way to connect with people and cut away time, distance and diplomatic rank barriers and have a real conversation.

In the present day, as a result of greater information and communication flow, the work of diplomats has shifted to a more “integrative approach.” Essentially this is a transition from just relaying the news to quicker and more precise analysis of information and actors. One can easily say that this has further influenced the skills and expertise required of a diplomat, as efforts are more focused on specific concerns and communicating with an increasingly diverse set of actors. In addition, it has further decentralized the structure of decision making in embassies, as lower level diplomats have more leverage and impetus to act upon issues before they morph into full-fledged complications.

Rather than exclusively relying on “official cables” for context, the widespread availability of information has provided an avenue for political leadership to incorporate their own understanding of issues, which makes for better decision making when coupled with the knowledge and expertise of the diplomat.

Technology has also transformed negotiations considerably. It has reduced the role of diplomats to mere intermediaries. For instance, in the wake of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis, the White House and the Kremlin established the “Moscow-Washington hotline” to ensure direct contact between leaders in order to curb misunderstandings, and to prevent annoying diplomatic exchanges that inundated the process during the crisis. It was a laudable feat and it stabilized relations during the Cold War. Additionally, with the aid of technology, the evolution of diplomatic summits has relegated the roles of diplomats and elevated political leadership. In 2016, a Guardian article exposed the rise of “WhatsApp diplomacy,” which is essentially using mass communication tools to influence decision processes within the chamber as multilateral negotiations are ongoing. According to a diplomat quoted in the article, “You might have a country making a proposition and then there’ll be another opposing proposition, so you’d line up your allies on WhatsApp to say ‘make sure you express your view’ so there’s a lot of support. And if there are a lot of voices in favour of a proposition it can get through.” This is an amazing instance of diplomats adapting technology to improve their capacity and productivity. Additionally, negotiations remain a crucial part of the job of a diplomat, especially within the purview of non-state actors. For instance, if a businessman comes into country A from country B for investment or trade, he still needs the expertise of the diplomats to negotiate favorable terms with the government and possibly with the existing business community of country A. Advancements in communication techniques and the utilization of the internet have enhanced such processes, leading to more prosperous business relationships.

The realm of representation has also been renovated by the influence of Information Technology and the work of diplomats has been transformed along with it. Diplomats today now mostly utilize technological developments in information dissemination in projecting power abroad, rather than relying on more traditional structures. The diplomat of today is increasingly concerned with framing opinions, spreading goodwill, and moulding norms through the use of technological advances, thus guaranteeing favourability within populations and in the community of nations. In a Canadian foreign policy evaluation, public diplomacy was recognized as a critical pillar of its thrust and it launched the initiative called; “projecting Canadian values and culture.” Some of these values included “preservation of natural resources and the environment,” and a laudable campaign against the use of landmines, which crystallized and culminated in the 1997 Ottawa treaty against landmines.

Similarly, lately Canada has pursued an extensive policy of internet and media engagement to influence popular opinion abroad. Likewise, Botswana, an African nation described as having one of the most “skeletally staffed foreign embassies in the world, with some staffed by only two diplomats” enjoys immense goodwill and rapport within the African continent and across the globe. It regularly sends emergency economic support to its neighbours in perilous times, and “even floats loans to the International Monetary Fund.” This allowed it the laxity to not possess any military establishment up until 1977, and since establishing one it has contributed overwhelming support to African and International peacekeeping initiatives. Their support in Somalia in 1993 was warmly received by the Somali people, and they were warmly referred to as “blood brothers.” Yet, Botswana does not even have a consulate office in Somalia. Its diplomats have leveraged technological developments to engage effectively with broad audiences and receive goodwill from important actors ranging from folks on the street to key government officials, and supranational institutions

Far from being detrimental to the prestige and capacity of the diplomat, technology has revitalized the profession and the work of diplomats reflects an acknowledgment of the shift. Though some pitfalls to the extensive change will occur, the bulk of diplomats have embraced the notion that technology and diplomacy will continually advance, but the work of the diplomat has and will always advance alongside it because technological advancements benefits for all.