Foreign policy is evolving and adapting in front of our eyes, not only to new technologies but also to the different personifications of power and influence. Thanks to social media and the advent of digital diplomacy, this transformation is happening very fast and affects the very DNA of how governments interact with each other and with their publics.
New non-state actors are emerging quite rapidly, reshaping the international landscape and forcing foreign policy practitioners to rebalance their focus so to accommodate new priorities, engage with civil society, and democratize the diplomatic process.
“Every day, technological innovations are giving people around the world new opportunities to shape their own destinies,” former President Bill Clinton said commenting The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, the new book co-authored by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and in publication. “Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen draw upon their unique experiences to show us a future of rising incomes, growing participation, and a genuine sense of community — if we make the right choices today,” the former president continued.
Technology and innovation have been key elements in this process, deeply impacting the past 20 years of foreign policy in a way we have not experienced before. For centuries, ambassadors and diplomats have embraced the traditional way of practicing diplomacy and receiving instructions from their home capitals. The modernization of the postal service and the invention of the telegraph — and later the telephone — sped up communications but didn’t affect the interaction outside of the elitist world of foreign affairs.
“Everybody sees change now,” Secretary of State John Kerry wrote recently. “With social media, when you say something to one person, a thousand people hear it,” he continued.
From the Internet to Twitter and Facebook, technology has injected new life to diplomacy. The change has been fast and quite sudden if you think that early diplomacy — as we intend it now, with permanent envoys and embassies — can be traced back to the Renaissance and the royal courts of Europe. Today, cabinet ministers, diplomatic bureaucracies, and ambassadors have embraced all new media, often very effectively, and certainly not without risks.
But is the rapidity of the process cheapening diplomacy, transforming it into what I would call ‘fast diplomacy’?
While at the beginning, early digital diplomacy practitioners might have been inclined “all too willing to sweep the dangers of Twitter diplomacy under the rug,” as The New York Times reported back in 2010, today the need to put in place a veritable system of checks and balances is clear in order to minimize risks and avoid incidents, ambiguities, and misinterpretations.
In April, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo temporarily shut down its Twitter feed following controversial tweets, the second time the American Embassy in Egypt was engulfed in an incident involving the use of social media. On September 11, 2012, the Embassy’s Twitter feed put out a series of comments seeking to calm the protests outside their walls.
“We’ve had some glitches with the way the Twitter feed has been managed. This is regrettably not the first time,” said Victoria Nuland, then State Department spokesperson, announcing that the Twitter feed of the Embassy in Cairo was back up. “I’m calling a glitch the fact that they obviously put up something that they later took down, that they took down the whole site, which should not probably have been the way that went, and that in the past there has been differences between the Twitter team and senior post management.”
Nuland went on: “From the Department’s perspective, we want to see all of our embassies have active Twitter feeds. We want to see post management, ambassadors and their deputies, decide what will be most impactful in terms of conveying the views of the U.S. government in terms of having a direct dialogue with the people of the country. So it was from that perspective that we thought that the right approach was to make editorial decisions that were in line with posts’ views, but not to take down the feed altogether.”
Because social media exponentially multiplies a message and its reach, mistakes often occur in sudden and unexpected fashion. This is why risk management needs to become part of a digital diplomacy strategy — not just crisis communications. Foreign policy is not risk-free — both traditional and less traditional — and it will never be. What we can control is the output, insuring quality and clarity while still keeping a fast pace.
While the need for real-time news and updates has increased to a point where screens, checks, and balances almost cease to exist, the challenge has now become how to achieve a balance. On one hand we need a mechanism to monitor the digital diplomacy activity. On the other hand we need to perfect the use of social media tools in order to better engage with our publics — both at home and abroad — so that we’re not cementing ourselves in a one-way dialogue with ourselves.
“We’re living in a monitory age. People feel they have the right to monitor decisions. There’s now surveillance as well as surveillance,” said Daniel Korski, Special Advisor on Communication to EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton. “Some of all this change has negative effects, for example governments are more risk-averse. The modern world has so many actors, and issues are so complex, that the notion that bureaucrats have all the answers and information is absurd,” he argued.
Indeed, bureaucrats and diplomats don’t have all the answers, but they are now provided with tools to better the way governments and embassies communicate.
In this landscape, fast diplomacy is certainly not the goal, but rather a lapse in the search for a stronger presence in social media and a better engagement with all social diplomacy actors, traditional and less-traditional.