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The digital diplomacy potential

This article appears in the issue June 2013 [Volume 22, Issue 6]


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A nation's diplomatic missions are its eyes, ears and mouth, with the brain located in a capital city up to halfway around the world. The United States alone has more than 300 diplomatic outposts in 177 countries. Every signal sent and received needs to be clear, timely and accurate. Every decision, and the actions it puts into motion, must be carefully thought out-not an easy feat in today's complex, fast-changing universe.

In the world of diplomacy, poor decision-making and miscommunication have unforgiving consequences. Last month's article, "Politics at the Speed of Thought" (kmworld.com/Articles/Column/The-Future-of-the-Future/Politics-at-the-speed-of-thought-89105.aspx), showed just how quickly nation-toppling events can unfold.

Old vs. new

Many of the traditional elements of diplomacy—dialog, negotiation, treaties and agreements-are still very much a part of the diplomatic landscape. Even today, if you travel to some far-off destination, you are likely to find that the old rubber passport stamp remains a staple of the consulate's toolbox.

The primary actors are also essentially the same, except the general public now plays a more prominent role. That's where the traditional actors need to make some serious adjustment. And that adjustment is coming in the form of "digital diplomacy."

The Vienna Convention of 1961 recognizes that one of the main functions of a diplomat is to collect information and report developments to the home state. That role is just as valid today as it was back then. But the old days in which embassy staff spent untold hours listening to radio and television broadcasts, or whispering to their counterparts in a dark corner of a cafe and reporting their findings in a cablegram, are gone.

As Jeffrey Cooper states in his book, Diplomacy in the Information Age (2010), "diplomats and ministries have lost their monopoly on information about foreign affairs." Small wonder. How can countries effectively communicate when their embassy buildings are surrounded by concrete barriers and concertina wire?

Old-style diplomacy followed what might be called an equivalent of the "Newtonian" model. It can be likened to a billiards champion striking the balls on a pool table, with some reasonable expectation of where they might end up. The words "what angle shall we use?" often came up when discussing strategy in diplomatic circles.

The new world of diplomacy is more like a quantum mechanical model. State changes can occur nearly instantaneously, at discrete levels, with little wiggle room in between. Social media now spreads information faster than any news broadcast.

To make things even more challenging, a quantum-like entanglement exists among a host nation's economy, politics, technology, culture and the overall wellbeing of the population. Diplomacy must take all of those dynamic areas into account. And by the way, it's reflexive, meaning that one action taken in isolation can ultimately affect the entire ecosystem and vice versa.

The U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) clearly recognizes this and has publicly stated its intent to go fully digital on both delivering services as well as carrying out its foreign policy (see gov.uk/government/publications/the-fco-digital-strategy). In January 2012, when the Costa Concordia cruise ship capsized, Britain's FCO immediately took to social media to communicate with British citizens onboard, responding to inquiries, monitoring comments being made about the FCO's response and quickly making adjustments as needed.

Similarly, the U.S. State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) of 2010 emphasizes digital communications channels as the platform for conducting what it calls "21st century statecraft" (state.gov/s/dmr/qddr). That first ever quadrennial review was borne out of the recognition that power is shifting from a centralized command and control model to the social network and consequently to the population at large.  

Dissolving geographic boundaries

A case in point is Britain's FCO reaching out to the Somali diaspora of about 1 million people scattered across more than two dozen countries in Europe, Africa, North America and the Middle East. Beginning with a conference in February 2012, the FCO has been using digital technology and social networking to actively promote the U.K.'s commitment to supporting the development of a more stable Somalia by encouraging online debate and actually listening to the voices of the people of Somalia.

The combination of an educated Somali diaspora and a strong tradition of community activism contributed to making this new method of diplomatic engagement a success. As was indicated in the FCO's digital strategy document referenced above: "Digital enabled us to reach people where we did not have a diplomatic presence, and increased our influence where we did."

Similarly in Iran, both the United States and the United Kingdom are using digital diplomacy despite the absence of an official embassy. The digital presence has resulted in a growing audience of Iranian citizens engaging in discussions about a wide variety of sensitive topics ranging from Iran's nuclear program to humans rights to western sanctions to media censorship. 

Other examples abound, especially regarding the use of social media during the Arab Spring uprisings. In the case of Libya, Western diplomats were able to identify and communicate with previously unknown individuals who ended up playing major roles in the new government. Downplaying the mainstream news networks' portrayal of the NATO intervention, decision makers paid closer attention to the more important channel—what the people of Libya actually thought and said—and discussing those thoughts with them, in Arabic.

Opportunities for KM

Digital diplomacy plays an ever-increasing role in our volatile world, perhaps even averting future wars. Technology-enabled social networks, when flooded with false rumors and incorrect knowledge, can quickly lead to mass hysteria, confusion and hostility. But when those same networks connect and engage enough minds having the right knowledge and the ability to communicate across cultural and other barriers, the upside potential is virtually limitless.

Knowledge-enabled digital communication is the glue that can bind us in ways that diplomatic pouches, cables and negotiations across large imposing conference tables never could. KM'ers around the globe have a golden opportunity to help make this important transformation happen.   


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