THE DIPLOMACY-TECHNOLOGYNEXUS: BETWEEN PAST AND PRESENT
Salma Torjmane is an MA candidate enrolled in the European Interdisciplinary Studies program at the College of Europe in Natolin. She has developed her knowledge and expertise in the field of
International Relations with a particular focus on evolutionary patterns in foreign policy. In her article she addresses the growing importance of the diplomacy-technology nexus and investigates the ways digitalisation is reshaping diplomatic protocol.
Covid-19 has spurred a digital transformation at a global level.
Digitalisation is no longer an option but rather a necessity, and the reliance on digital tools is constantly increasing. The pandemic enhanced innovative changes in various sectors and diplomacy is no exception. Diplomatic activities were indeed extensively disrupted by the health crisis. Some embassies closed due to lockdowns and consular issues were resolved remotely. The focus of diplomatic missions shifted from public diplomacy to the repatriation of citizens. At the level of Intergovernmental Organizations virtual meetings became the new standard. As such, during the covid-19 crisis the need to resort to digital diplomacy has become evident. A novel shift during this period was that most consular services had to embrace assistance through digital tools. Being caught off guard, diplomacy had to shift into implementing digital work at a faster speed. This raises the following question: did Covid-19 herald a new era of diplomacy?
‘My God, this is the end of diplomacy!’ is the reported reaction of Lord Palmerston, British Prime Minister
and Foreign Secretary, upon receipt of the first telegraph in the 1860s. Fortunately, diplomacy
survived not only the telegraph but also the arborescence of subsequent technological innovations.
In-line with the trends of its time, foreign policy witnessed the emergence of digital diplomacy, a novel
form of public diplomacy where digital technologies constitute an integral part of diplomatic work.
Looking back on the development of digital diplomacy, we can cite some milestones in its history. In 1984, the first research investigating the relation between public diplomacy and the ‘computerised world’ was published. This publication was followed by a series of progressive shifts in communications that marked the beginning of digitalised foreign policy practice. From the 1990 “Telephone Diplomacy” of President George H.W.Bush, during operation Desert Storm, to the first e-mail exchange between Carl Bildt and Bill Clinton which took place On February 5th, 1994, the linkage between technology and diplomacy became prominent. The 2000s witnessed the increasing adoption of digital tools in the diplomatic sphere. In 2007, the Maldives and Sweden launched the first virtual embassies. In 2009, the White House created its official twitter account (@WhiteHouse). In 2015, the United Nations (UN) launched its Virtual Reality Series. Meanwhile, the UK Foreign Office joined Snapchat, being the first foreign office to join the
The active participation on social media of a multitude of actors from the diplomatic sphere led to the institutionalisation of digital platforms as official channels of communication in diplomatic work. Digitalisation has initiated a transformative process with regards to the ways in which the global community interacts. In order not to become obsolete, diplomacy had to adopt and adapt new tools of communication. What is interchangeably referred to as ‘cyber-diplomacy’, ‘digital diplomacy’, ‘ediplomacy’, or ‘diplomacy 2.0’ has become an integral part of diplomatic work. Yet, these new trends challenge diplomatic protocol. Perhaps the most obvious example is Donald Trump’s undiplomatic twitter diplomacy. Protocol sets the standards of behavior to conduct relations between states. Since strict and formal codes of conduct govern the world of diplomacy, protocol is often conceived as synonymous with formality. While new forms of negotiation and communication have become normalized, protocol is adapting to the evolutive aspect of societal benchmarks. With regard to digitalisation, diplomatic protocol represents an important tool for the systematisation of new standards and their
integration into the practice of foreign policy.
Being a relatively new concept, the definition and premises of digital diplomacy are still being refined. The ways to bridge the divide between formal diplomatic work and rather casual instruments of communication began to be addressed. Yet, so far, digital diplomacy is not regarded as a substitute to traditional diplomacy, but rather a way to complement it. Many actors in the diplomatic sphere were reluctant towards the process of digitalisation. Twitter-diplomacy and all its surrounding controversies largely affected the credibility and potential of e-diplomacy to become the central channel of communication between states. Guidelines for the use of social media, and digital platforms during consular crises have already been established by certain Ministries of Foreign Affairs. However, the vast majority is ill-prepared, and diplomacy as a broader field has not yet provided a consensus on the new norms of diplomatic protocol in a digitalised era.
The degree of adaptation to new tools also needs to be addressed. Technology is constantly shaping and reshaping codes and channels of diplomatic works. However, diplomacy is still following the same strategies as it did with previous communication tools. Indeed, it is mainly conceptualising social media platforms through linear communication models. The use of 21st century social media such as twitter is a continuity of the 20th century use of mass media such as TV and radio. The algorithmic dimension of social media is still not translated into adequate strategies. Despite its increasing adaptation to technological progress, the core conduct and norms of diplomacy are still not upgraded into 2.0 versions.
The health crisis accelerated the process of digitalising diplomacy.
Yet, the development of the diplomacy-technology nexus is hindered by various factors, among which the burdens of protocol and etiquette play a central role. Despite its efficiency, speed, and cost-effectiveness digital diplomacy still has a limited impact in advancing the multilateral agenda considering the lack of uniformity regarding “digital know-how” among countries. The replacement of traditional diplomacy by e-diplomacy remains a very far-off goal.