E-Diplomacy Beyond Social Media

Andreas Sandre on how technology as a whole is changing diplomacy.
By: /
October 17, 2012
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 Social media has changed the face of diplomacy, and has provided it with a better way to feel the pulse of the world. It has empowered governments and diplomats, allowing for better communication, better engagement, and more efficiency and transparency. Some call it Twiplomacy, some digital diplomacy or social-media diplomacy. No matter what you call it, it is only part of what is now known and referred to as “e-diplomacy.”

Fergus Hanson, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program, describes e-diplomacy as “the use of the web and new ICT [information and communications technologies] to help carry out diplomatic objectives.” E-diplomacy, he says, can be a hard concept to grasp. “This definition is broad, but escapes the tendency to confuse e-diplomacy with social media tools alone,” Hanson writes.

Indeed, e-diplomacy is a more complex and structured concept in which social media plays a visible role, but is not the key player. A lot goes on in addition to the tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, and social networking many governments are now doing to communicate their priorities to the world, and to actuate their foreign-policy agendas.

 While the first approach to e-diplomacy usually rests within the socialmedia arena – Twitter, in particular – and might still prove a difficult process in terms of adaptation and integration, foreign missions around the world are now willing to explore the full potential of e-diplomacy and follow in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton at the U.S. Department of State and William Hague at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Let’s look at the Arab uprisings and try to read beyond the role that social media played in the region. We all agree that the Arab Spring was accelerated, rather than caused, by social media. As Ambassador Tom Fletcher, U.K. envoy to Lebanon, wrote in a recent blog, “they showed the power of the best of old ideas allied with the best of new technology – iFreedom.” And, in fact, technology is still playing a key role in the Middle East.

Fed by innovation and new ideas, technology is giving the region a new way of looking at the world. In the wake of the attacks in Benghazi and Cairo, which led to the murder of American Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other men, e-diplomacy is undergoing tough criticisms. But what we don’t see is where e-diplomacy is showing the best results so far. The U.S. – with its powerful 21st century statecraft machine – is leading the pack, showing how traditional diplomacy can make a much bigger impact when combined with the use of innovative ideas.

Mobile technologies, crowdsourcing capabilities, Internet freedom, text messaging, mapping software, tech camps and more are now used by the U.S. State Department to extend its diplomatic reach to men and women otherwise excluded from government life in the Arab region and beyond. It uses these tools to make the diplomatic machine more efficient and better equipped to respond to new challenges, understand the world, share knowledge, and build on new ideas. Of course, mistakes happen, but setbacks are often the best way to find new solutions.

In the Arab region, well-trained e-diplomats are working on enhancing their reach to those that might otherwise be forgotten even by the very movements that are exploiting social media to effect change. There are areas where tyrant governments are still successful in using the same technology the western world is using to pierce regimes. E-diplomacy has to focus on those areas to enable people around the world to have access to the luxury of “iFreedom,” as Ambassador Fletcher puts it.

As Alec Ross, Senior Adviser for Innovation to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in a recent interview, “It’s not just about being able to establish connectivity where a government has taken down the networks, or about getting around censorship, it’s also about keeping people safe. Governments have the ability to intercept personal communications and geo-locate people, so what we try to do is help keep activists safe at the technical level.”

The murder of Ambassador Stevens and the assaults on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, while acts of terrorism, were at first linked to misjudgment in the use of social media and an anti-Islam documentary circulated on YouTube. Doubts over what happened have cast a shadow on e-diplomacy efforts, raising new questions on how to control new networking technologies and channels in such a way that they’re still effective, but that allows us to offset the many risks derived from the less-regulated e-diplomacy machine.

As a leader in this industry – if we can even call it that – the U.S. is setting new standards by using ICTs to give a real meaning to e-diplomacy: giving the Syrian people better access to the Web without the fear of being tracked down; using mobile and connective technologies – including social media – for disaster response and preparedness; exploiting the potential of crowdsourcing to monitor crises; using online communities to better understand its own reach and share ideas, projects, and knowledge; and training journalists, influencers, and students in better understanding new technologies.

While at the forefront, the United States is no longer the only player: More and more countries are establishing real e-diplomacy capabilities that go beyond the use of social media. Open platforms are the focus, and are playing a key role in e-diplomacy circles, whether for public-diplomacy purposes or to actuate foreign-policy priorities. Consider Ushahidi, for example, and its crowdmapping technology, or even Google Hangouts and Google Earth.

This is an area where innovation and ideas – rather then technology, per se – play the central role. Once we step into digital diplomacy, we have to look beyond Twitter and Facebook. We need to realize how the power of ideas can create better results and transition traditional diplomacy to a new phase, where people are new players, and politicians and diplomats are not elites any longer. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State, calls it “pivot to the people.”

Let’s use e-diplomacy and fully explore its potential to make a true pivot, thus making diplomacy the most extraordinary tool our governments can have in fulfilling our foreign policy agendas and engaging with the world.

Andreas Sandre is a Press and Public Affairs Officer at the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in the article are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of the Embassy of Italy. Find him on Twitter at: @andreas212nyc

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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