Diplomacy in digital age

Friday, 23 October 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Dr. Clarke opined that oncoming technological revolution could impact the way humans do business, disrupting many professions, including diplomacy


In 1981, as new entrants to the Sri Lankan Foreign Service, we met the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the world renowned scientific thinker. This meeting at his home in Sri Lanka, no doubt, was arranged to give Foreign Service cadets a ‘shot in the arm’ for inspiration in our chosen career. But, the first words of Sir Arthur C. Clarke after introductions; “Aren’t you folks obsolete?”, was a jolt. 

Dr. Clarke opined that oncoming technological revolution could impact the way humans do business, disrupting many professions, including diplomacy. This prediction, ironically, was before mobile phones, internet, or even now defunct fax machines. Then, fixed land lines and telex machines were the primary tools of international communication, and media was only radio and print, and TV has just arrived in Sri Lanka. 

Afterwards, placating our deflated spirits from his initial comment, Dr. Clarke spoke of the importance of person-to-person and people-to-people contacts in diplomacy, asserting that human feelings and perceptions guide politics, and role of machines and electronics have limits in their scope and influence. Therefore diplomacy will always require personal involvement in all its manifestations, but may require ever more sophisticated professional competencies to successfully navigate our technology dominated evolving world. 

Diplomacy in classical sense can be defined as an activity or skill for managing international relations and means of dealing with people and States in a sensitive and effective way. Nevertheless, actual practice of diplomacy is full of nuances based on ideologies and interests peculiar to each State, society, and international organisation. And diplomats are expected to find alternatives to conflict, through reasoned and painstaking discourse aimed at evolving mutually acceptable solutions, taking in to account both local and international compulsions, as well as asymmetries. Such accommodative outcomes may not be zero sum solutions that satisfy one party, but carefully crafted compromises, often with special and differential aspects, designed to avoid costly misadventures by involved parties. Therefore, diplomacy cannot be combative in style, but an amiable search for forward looking solutions that will make both sides feel win-win. There is no room for a diplomat to take the easy path of jingoism, to please the populist political discourse for short term personal gain, or to placate their own egos. The measure of success for a diplomat is not his rhetoric to attract media attention for personal publicity. Instead, yardsticks of success in diplomacy are practical achievements that is important for the government of the day in the short term, and for the country in the long term. Megaphone diplomacy or providing motivated leaks to the media, for egoistic, or ingratiating purposes should not be a trait of a successful diplomat.

Forty years since our meeting with Dr. Clarke, his prediction has in fact engulfed the world with Moors law on integrated circuits in full throttle, engendering mind boggling advancements in technology. Its impact on politics, media and even personal relations has been profound and exponential. With 24/7 electronic and social media bursts influencing public opinion and personal views, print media reinventing itself with pinch of electronics to remain relevant, ways and means to achieve results in almost all manifestations of work now require additional skill sets. In this regard some professions like diplomacy require even more additional competencies. 

Meanwhile, the collapse of Marxist-Leninist and communist economic models or their complete revamp with infusions of capitalist traits, and the rise of non-state actors, including multi-national corporations, some wealthier than most nation states, have engendered fast moving changes to the economic and socio-political models of the world. These developments coupled with the exponential expansion in use of electronics, inexorably linking the world and societies, have disrupted several classical assumptions in diplomatic practice based on Westphalian model of sovereign equality of nation states. 

In these circumstances, diplomatic practice now requires modernisation, to suit the advent of the 21st century technological era, popularly described as the digital age. 

The ongoing COVID pandemic may have in fact fast tracked adjustments essential in the digital era diplomatic conduct. This pandemic has made several countries look inward, emphasising self-sufficiency models, but at the same time it has forcefully brought forth globally interlinked nature of human wellbeing and indeed existence itself. 


A diplomat must now augment professional tool kits

In this context, a diplomat, as Dr. Clarke advised 40 years ago, must now augment their professional tool kits to be successful in our globalised world. Though new challenges and attendant skill requirements may keep expanding and evolving, some key aspects are easily identifiable. 

A foremost challenge is the speed with which news snippets reach the eyes and ears of leaders and policy makers through electronic media. It’s apparent that most breaking news voice cuts and video clips, neither contain in-depth analysis nor necessarily accurate. They are mostly products of the competition among media outlets to relay raw news as fast as possible. Often, to be sensational or, for political motives of media entrepreneurs, some media outlets peddle fantastic stories, occasionally with a pinch of conspiracy theories. And lately social media too has joined the fray further compounding matters.

In this regard, for making a considered response or to allay concerns generated by such news in the minds of policy makers, diplomats now require to expeditiously analyse and convey to decision makers, sensible descriptions of reported incidents with recommendations for response, based on national interests and political compulsions of the leaders of the time. This requires a quick dextrous mind with well-informed and profound comprehensive skills, and a superior competency in articulation with brevity and clarity. Those without such skills may become burdens and relics in the system. 

Multiple social media platforms today enjoy oversize influence on local and international news and views with bursts of comments and ideas regularly going viral without much accountability or scrutiny. While this unbridled platform still remains largely unregulated, its influence on societies, world over, is real. In fact, social media like Twitter is now used by many Heads of Government and most Foreign Ministers to communicate directly with the world. And, unless diplomats themselves are involved in such popular platforms, competently and swiftly relaying views or doubling down on messages of their leaders or responding to inaccuracies with counter narratives, they will find it hard to be successful in their profession.

The digital era has profoundly impacted international meetings as well and in fact has become the saving grace during the ongoing COVID pandemic. Moreover, when resource and time constraints make physical presence at every event or meeting around the world burdensome for senior Government officials, electronic conference and meeting platforms can become useful tools for diplomatic activity. The COVID pandemic has now made that the default position. The ability of diplomats to competently navigate electronic platforms, and engage in a clear and precise language through audio-visual means with substantive messages in shortest possible time, will make outcomes of such electronic parleys conclusive and mutually beneficial.

Moreover, it has now become the norm at international meetings to have limited time slots, even at the Head of State level. Meandering and lengthy harangues are no more welcome. Hence, a diplomat with a skill to draft clearly and briefly will be in demand. This requires sharp minds and superior competency in words.


Economic diplomacy

Meanwhile, the concept of economic diplomacy has now become a popular notion and a mandate for diplomats, especially in developing countries struggling to catch up with the developing world. And new economic models using automation, digital platforms and renewable energy are evolving while oil economies may soon search for alternatives. Despite COVID pandemic creating a temporary pause, world economies are ever more interdependent and interconnected with global value chains linking continents. 

In this context, diplomacy is becoming an important tool for promoting business. Most large corporations and businesses with cross border interests now employ international affairs experts not only to assess ground situations in countries of commercial interest but to engage in diplomacy of sorts for business promotion. More than ever, international political, social and strategic relations are intertwined with economic relations. And, governments and multinational business enterprises are fully aware as to how economic issues are linked to political, social justice and strategic issues and their impact on business.

Hence they now see the value of competent diplomats who can assess situations well and exercise leverage in economic relations and business promotion. For this purpose, international promotional activities must align with modern technical and communication standards, including the use of electronics in presentations to suit the audience or interlocutors.

As has been since ancient times, promotion of people-to-people contact across nations is a soft power means to promote not only international friendships but even to advance national interests abroad, often through local civil societies for leveraging political leaders of foreign nations. In this effort, in addition to many other traditional means of interaction and promotion, robust use of social media platforms can attract the attention of relevant stakeholders and interest groups. Hence modern tool kit of a diplomat must include social media skills for both careful monitoring, as well as for appropriate and measured engagement. 

The list of challenges and opportunities in the ongoing technological era for practitioners of diplomacy can be long and will keep expanding with the advent of every new technological invention. Hence, those who select diplomacy as a profession, in addition to the well-established traditional and essential competencies, must develop abilities to mobilise new technologies for leveraging their applications to augment their efforts for promotion of political, economic and strategic interests of the country. If not, a diplomat, can become obsolete, as Dr. Arthur C. Clarke pointed out four decades ago.

(The writer was a Former Foreign Secretary, High Commissioner to India, Ambassador to USA, and Permanent Representative to UN in New York and in Geneva.)