Digital Diplomacy: Forget the Hype and Just Get on With ItSeptember 10, 2013
I’ve been meaning to write about digital diplomacy for a while. Two weeks ago Ben Scott (formerly one of Hilary Clinton’s crew at State) and I , were in Tallinn to talk to Estonian ambassadors and this forced me to think about the issue. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a sceptic about the whole thing but perhaps less so than I realized.
The argument for digital diplomacy typically advances in two parts. 1. The world is being revolutionized by digital technology. 2. Diplomats should use social media. What I’m sceptical about is actually 1 but I’m totally on board with 2.
The problem with the revolution argument is that it really depends on the loss of perspective that I commented on here. The reason that diplomats should use social media is exactly the same reason why I don’t think that there’s a revolution: diplomacy has always been a matter of networks. Diplomats are expected to build networks in order to find out what’s going on and create influence. Ben made the valuable point that one of the great contributions of social media, particularly Twitter is as a tool for listening, by identifying important voices in country it offers a rapid way to get a broader understanding of what’s going on from there they can think about intervening in debates. As a mode of gathering information and insight It’s exactly the same thing, as that staple of diplomatic routine, reading the papers
There is a bit of a digital diplomacy backlash going on at the moment (examples here and here) but the problem is not with the practice but with the overblown claims derived from the radical technology literature which tend to abstract the impact of digital media from any social, cultural or political context.
The point is not that social media changes nothing but it is better seen as part of the evolution of diplomatic practice. In a way the potential of Twitter is that it allows a diplomat to more rapidly explore the networks of their host society than it would be possible to do using other methods. Jules Jusserand was the French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925 if you don’t have 23 years to build your networks maybe twitter is a useful accelerant to the process.