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Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy Part 1

October 10, 2015

I was happily reading Brian Hocking and Jan Melissens’ report on Diplomacy in the Digital Age and largely agreeing with it when it struck me:  reports about diplomacy and tech stuff haven’t changed in 20 years.*   Why is ‘digital diplomacy’ permanently new? Why isn’t it old? Why are we still writing about it in the same way?

What I mean is that the core analytical structure hasn’t changed. You set up (implicitly or explicitly) an ideal type of ‘the digital age’ or something similar and this then serves as a standard for evaluating the diplomatic practices of a country or as comparison for another ideal type ‘diplomacy’. The ‘digital age’ is assumed to provide a singular standard that national practices or ‘diplomacy’ must conform to. This gives rise to a narrative of modernization where certain MFAs are assumed to be advanced and others retarded in the process of adaptation to a singular ‘digital’ future.

The problem with this mode of analysis is that ideal types are tools and shouldn’t be mistaken either for accounts of the real world or for theories – warnings that Max Weber offered in his original discussion of ideal types (Weber 1949: 101-2). In 1995 we didn’t have any real world experience with ‘digital’ and an informed guess was the best we could do. But now the field of practice is 20 years old as is the history of writing about it.

For example, the FCO got its first web pages in 1995, in June 2000 it produced an E-business strategy that covered issues such as the ability to deliver services on-line and knowledge management as well as external and internal communication. in the second half of the ’90s most of the foreign policy think tanks in Washington were running projects on ‘virtual diplomacy’ or similar, and by the turn of the decade we had both theoretical perspectives (Off the top of my head Nye and Owens 1996, Rothkopf 1998, Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1999a, 1999b) and some early discussions of the impact of the web on diplomatic practice (eg Potter 2002). We even substantial comparative pieces of research that address the adaptation of foreign ministries to ICTs that have been around for a few years (eg Batora 2008, Archetti 2012 and I’m sure that there’s more). What concerns me is that the discussions that we are having today don’t seem to reflect this 20 years of experience but instead reflect a constant year zero (or perhaps zero day would be more appropriate) in the area.

In part 2 I’ll offer some thoughts on why we are still writing that same report and how we ought to think about the question of digital diplomacy.

*Whatever happened to diplomacy 2.0, internet diplomacy, web diplomacy, virtual diplomacy, the revolution in diplomatic affairs etc?

 

References

Archetti C (2012) The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice: An Evolutionary Model of Change, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 7: 181–206.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999a) The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999b) The Nature of a Revolution in Diplomatic Affairs, International Studies Association Convention, Washington DC.

Bátora J (2008) Foreign ministries and the information revolution: going virtual? Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Hocking B and Melissen J (2015) Diplomacy in the Digital Age. The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Nye JS and Owens WA (1996) America’s Information Edge, Foreign Affairs, 75: 20–36.

Potter EH, ed (2002) Cyber-Diplomacy: Managing Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century. Montréal, London: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Rothkopf DJ (1998) Cyberpolitik: The Changing Nature of Power in the Information Age, Journal of International Affairs, 51: 325–59.

Weber M (1949) The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Il: Free Press.

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