Covid-19, Global Affairs, International Relations

DIGITAL DIPLOMACY: THE TREND IS HERE TO STAY

The term ‘Diplomacy’ is the conduct of relationships, using peaceful means, by and among international actors, at least one of whom is usually governmental.

The ICT revolution has affected all facets of life, including International relations. Diplomacy as a means of foreign policy has also being altered by this revolution. This article inspects the notion of digital diplomacy, focusing on the use of digital media in the pitch of diplomacy and how countries are operating these tools in the quest of their foreign policies. It examines the prospects and challenges ahead and how the nations are faring during this COVID-19 crisis in this field. 

Evolution of Digital Diplomacy

According to Stephen Cohen, Diplomacy is the “engine room” of international relations. It strives to preserve peace and aims at developing goodwill towards foreign states and peoples with a view to ensuring their cooperation or, failing that, their neutrality. Although, the traditional mode of conducting diplomacy, that is, interactions between representatives of sovereign states remains crucial, in today’s interconnected world, individuals and organizations—not just countries—play a larger role in international affairs. 

Benefits 

  1. When used properly, digital diplomacy is a persuasive and timely supplement to traditional diplomacy that can help a country advance its foreign policy goals, extend international reach, and influence people who will never set foot in any of the world’s embassies
  2. The advantage of social media provides the opportunity to reach citizens of other countries in near real-time. Social media platforms also provide spaces for interaction, increased engagement, and thus furthering the goals of diplomacy.
  3. Digital technologies can be particularly useful in public diplomacy in the field of information collection and processing, in the field of consular activities, and for communications during emergencies and disasters.
  4. Digital diplomacy does not always require financial investments. On the contrary, it is often aimed at reducing costs 

Risks 

  1. Ironically though, for policy-makers, instant dissemination of information about events both far and near is proving to be as much a bane as a bounty.” – Richard Solomon, President of the United States Institute of Peace and a former US Foreign Service officer
  2. Information leakage, hacking, and anonymity of Internet users is in rampant
  3. Issues of cyber governance, Internet freedom, and cyber warfare and cyber security
  4. Further division between have’s and have not’s- During a recent virtual meeting of the Warsaw International Mechanism — a U.N. climate initiative — a Sudanese representative was unable to participate because of low bandwidth. 

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE 

  • The first foreign ministry to establish a dedicated ediplomacy unit was the US State Department, which created the Taskforce on eDiplomacy in 2002. This Taskforce has since been renamed the Office of eDiplomacy, which has more than 150 full-time social media employees working across 25 different offices, about half of which are dedicated to ediplomacy-related work.
  • UK Foreign and Commonwealth office an Office of Digital Diplomacy that is involved in a range of ediplomacy activities.
  • Sweden has also been active in the promotion of digital diplomacy, especially through the online communication strategy of its foreign minister Carl Bildt (2006-2014) who became “best connected Twitter leader”.
  • France indicated in 2008 that its soft power relied on digital technologies
  • Germany turned to ICT platforms to crowd-source opinion and new ideas from the public that fed into its 2014 foreign policy review
  • Israel has matched its aggressive traditional diplomacy with one of the most active digital diplomacy units in the world, which has worked hard to influence the outcomes of US-Iran nuclear talks
  • In 2011, Russia overtook Germany as Europe’s largest internet market with over 54 million monthly users and is rapidly growing. Russia is one of the very few countries where the local search engine (Yandex) and social network (VK) beat foreign rivals in free unhindered competition. At a meeting of ambassadors and permanent representatives in June 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin designated digital diplomacy among the most effective foreign policy tools. He urged the diplomats to use more intensively new technologies across multiple platforms, including in the social media, to explain the positions of the state.
  • A Twiplomacy study, conducted a global survey of the presence and activity of heads of state and government, foreign ministers and their institutions on Twitter, which released in April 2015 analyzed 669 government accounts in 166 countries and revealed that 86% of all 193 United Nations (UN) governments have a presence on Twitter, while only 27 countries, mainly in Africa and Asia-Pacific, do not have any Twitter presence.
  • In Africa, despite the apparent embrace of the new technologies by a large number of Africans, digital diplomacy is not yet catching on. According to an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Report in 2013, Africa was the fastest growing region in terms of mobile broadband. Although, nowadays, more and more African foreign ministries. (MFAs) are embracing the internet and social media and using them as tools for the achievement of foreign policy goals, the percentage of African countries maximizing the potentials of digital diplomacy is negligible. Many African leaders do not have Facebook or Twitter accounts.

INDIA’S Ranking

  • India has been ranked in the top 10 nations in terms of its digital diplomacy performance by Diplomacy Live, a global research, advocacy, consulting and training platform.
  • India’s high ranking is despite a relatively modest budget for public diplomacy and is the only other country apart from Mexico to feature in this list
  • The MEA’s Official Facebook page, with more than 1.2 million followers is second only to that of the US State Department amongst Foreign Ministries (excluding its companion page ‘Indian Diplomacy’ which alone has some 850,000 followers).
  • MEA is available on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Flickr, Soundcloud and with these combined platforms it has a followership in excess of 4 million and an average monthly reach in excess of 20 million.
  • The MEA also has a unique Mobile App, which has garnered more than a 150,000 downloads on Android and iOS platforms, and which is now being revamped to accommodate new technologies. 

TOOLS 

  • Digital diplomacy is diplomacy equipped with a range of new tools. The main tasks of diplomacy are still to observe, analyse, report and act with the goal of promoting a country’s interests.
  • It is about using the Internet to meet the goals of diplomacy. But the digital environment offers new ways to communicate and opportunities to express yourself.
  • This requires a new approach and constant adaptation for everyone who works with diplomacy. Obtaining information, which traditionally takes place via embassies, permanent delegations and temporarily posted diplomats, can now be helped along by digital information sources, such as social networks, microblogs and search engines.
  • Digital channels can also be used to inform governments, international organisations and others of a country’s position on a certain issue. 

Digital Diplomacy during COVID-19 

  • Offering consular assistance to citizens stranded abroad.
  • Acquiring much-needed equipment from other nations including ventilating machines and protective gear for doctors.
  • Fostering international collaborations through which scientists can jointly search for a vaccine to the corona virus.

Challenges during COVID-19

Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor of USC Center on Public Diplomacy opined that this is the right time for nations to focus on building national image. They gave example of China and South Korea, nations throughout the world had closed their borders, imposed quarantines and sought to secure medical equipment. Citizens are online comparing their nation’s handling of the crisis, to that of other nations. Diplomats can now use social media to document their nations’ successful efforts to contain the corona virus outbreak while upholding their national values.

They added example of China. How they gradually spearheaded their international image amidst this crisis. During December of 2019 newspapers first reported on a deadly virus in China. Reports tended to portray China as failing to curtail a mere “flu.” Next, news articles depicted China as an oppressive state welding peoples’ doors shut. Now China has been heralded as the victor of corona while its doctors are dispatched to Italy and Spain. China has also sent medical gear and equipment to the EU. The fact that the world is emulating Chinese social distancing measures augmented its international image.

 Fighting Misinformation

Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor said that the corona crisis is also a digital misinformation crisis. Conspiracy theories, lies and falsehood are shared digitally within and between nations. Some of the social media platforms have launched their own information centres to educate the public about the crisis or to contain disinformation, but their effectiveness remains uncertain especially when disinformation is spread by influential media or political actors.

Diplomats must dedicate digital resources to tracking and neutralizing fake social media accounts thus limiting the spread of such theories. Fighting disinformation is crucial as conspiracy theories erode trust in government, reduce faith in legitimate media and breed suspicion and fear of other nations. They are thus the very undoing of diplomacy.

THE ROAD AHEAD

The pandemic has rigorously tested MFAs’ ability to tender timely and valuable consular assistance, to defend the national image of their countries as the crisis soared, and to counter the digital disinformation spread by an fretful public or by tactically minded actors. At the same time, it has showcased the call for MFAs, once the crisis is over, to sketch the accurate module, prepare themselves to reflect digitally “out of the box” and set off upgrading their digital knowledge, tools and strategies so that they will be better equipped to face the new global challenges, which may come sooner than expected.

Reference: ‘Digitising Diplomacy: Is it here to stay?’ An interactive JAIR webinar session with Rushali Saha on April 18, 2020

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