Let Our Diplomats Communicate in Real Time

Roland Paris on why Canada should trust its ambassadors to take full advantage of the digital diplomacy revolution.
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July 15, 2013

I am pleased that Deepak Ohbrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has responded to my recent writing on Canada’s lackluster approach to digital diplomacy. He highlights Ottawa’s support for the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran as “a perfect example of our government’s commitment to using social media as a means of speaking directly with people around the world.”

I agree with him – but only to a point. In my report, “The Digital Diplomacy Revolution,” I acknowledged that the Global Dialogue is “an important and innovative step forward,” but I also noted that it is an exception. To date, Canada has been digital diplomacy laggard. Our closest allies, the United States and Britain, use these tools extensively, whereas Canada has largely sat on the sidelines of the digital diplomacy revolution.

Mr. Ohbrai seems to be unaware of how far Canada is lagging behind. Because our embassies and ambassadors have a minimal presence in social media networks, Canada’s voice is largely absent from the fastest-growing arena of public diplomacy.

Nor does Mr. Ohbrai appear to have a clear grasp of his government’s approach to digital diplomacy. He writes: “Our government is taking an approach that is broad enough to account for the unlimited potential of ‘digital diplomacy,’ yet specific enough in the values it purports.” Do you understand what that means?

Here is the nub of the problem: The Conservative government has imposed extraordinarily strict controls on the public communications of its diplomats and other officials. These rules prevent the effective use of social media for diplomacy. They make it virtually impossible for Canadian ambassadors to speak in public, including on social media, without seeking prior approval from a centralized communications-vetting system in Ottawa.

Britain’s approach, by contrast, is to trust its ambassadors to craft their messages and to select appropriate channels of communications. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office calls this “presumed competence” – British ambassadors are assumed to have the knowledge and skill to determine when and how to speak in public.

Canada should move towards this approach. It is not possible to pursue digital diplomacy effectively unless Canadian diplomats, and particularly our ambassadors, are permitted to communicate in “real time” without seeking prior approval from Ottawa.

Nor is there any time to lose. The structure of international affairs is changing: power is diffusing not only from rich to rising countries, but also from states to non-state actors and individuals – and, more generally, from hierarchies to decentralized networks. To operate successfully in a world of increasingly fragmented and diffused power, foreign ministries will need to master the art of cultivating and managing diverse networks of public and private actors. Social media are critical to this task.

This post originally appeared on the CIPSBlog.