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Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy: Part 2

October 23, 2015

In my previous post I noted that the way that we talk about ‘digital diplomacy’ is still the same despite 20 years of practical experience but why is this?

An obvious explanation that follows from the ‘tech narrative’ is that the world is changing fast and that MFAs are changing more slowly so they still have the same need for adaptation. There’s something to this but this is claim that needs to be more critically evaluated.  For instance MFA web sites have already become thorougly institutionalized so it’s nothing have happened.  I’m always suspicious of claims that organizations have to adapt to their environment without clear evidence about mechanisms.  For instance is it possible to show that MFAs that have been laggards in adopting digital diplomacy have performed worse that those that have been more enthusiastic adopters in any area other than adoption of digital media?

There’s also a political-cultural dimension in the interaction between the prevalent social narrative of technological transformation and the popular image of the diplomat as a reactionary. This image long predates Twitter – the French and Russian Revolutions proclaimed the death of diplomacy, revolutionary America and revolutionary Iran two centuries apart tried to transform it – but in hard times digital diplomacy becomes a way that MFAs can signal their relevance to sceptical politicians and publics. For instance the relationship between US Secretaries of State and Congress often (eg Rice and Clinton) seems to resolve into a ‘money for modernization’ deal. In this situation ‘digital diplomacy’ becomes a symbol of modernization and modernity.

How can we push the discussion of digital diplomacy forward?  I think the key requirement is move ‘digital’ out of the narrative of technology and reembed it in the reality of diplomacy and foreign policy. In working on the comparative history of public diplomacies  I’ve been very struck by the persistence of patterns, institutions and ideas in national diplomacies. Although in tracking developments across time you see national diplomatic systems dealing with similar issues the continuities are also very obvious.   These continuities come from international factors (relationships, geopolitical situations) and domestic ones (the national political economy, national self-conceptions, the broader mode of governance) the result is the persistence of national styles. From an analytical point of view this tells me that there cannot be a singular ‘digital diplomacy’. From a prescriptive point of view it suggests that instead of attempting to conform to some abstract model of what a digital diplomacy should be MFAs should focus on embracing digital in a way that works for them.

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