The internet has triggered a major transformation in international relations. From traditional diplomacy which relied on physical and paper trail diplomatic ties, the international community now rely much on the use of technology to reach allies and citizens. National diplomatic policies are increasingly reviewed in a bid to have a fusion of both traditional and digital technology in shaping methods of interaction with the international community.
Generally speaking, the internet has become the needed fabric that binds the global community together. There is hardly anything nations can do without the use of a digital technology. Digital tools have also evolved to become agents of social mobilization. Leaders of national governments now rely on social media platforms like twitter, facebook, etc to communicate critical national polices. Prior to the evolution of digitization, this was abnormal as diplomatic activities were held in conference rooms and oval offices.
However, whether this transformation is sustainable and delivers on the mandate of nations to transact secured diplomatic business is a point of debate.
For the purpose of this paper, it will be good to define the internet, meaning of digital diplomacy and the link between diplomacy and the internet.
The Internet is a vast network that connects computers all over the world. Through the Internet, people can share information and communicate from anywhere with an Internet connection; Britannica. The internet which evolved fully in the last twenty years has since become a network of fusion thread, connecting humans and machines through an unprecedented data language. It has also transformed the landscape of human interaction; machines have become intermediaries between human to human, receiving, processing and delivering messages to target destinations. The internet also holds the key to globalization; it has over the years, inadvertently synergized the globe into one community of people, by-passing and seemingly unifying global diversities. It has also expanded the frontiers of global commercialization. Nations and other entities now increasingly rely on platforms provided by the internet to transact multinational and multilateral businesses. The evolution of the internet was due largely to new technological inventions like the ‘World Wide Web’ (www), which created a platform for simultaneous and heterogeneous communication between entities. According to Britannica, ‘the World Wide Web is a system for displaying text, graphics, and audio retrieved over. A hypertext document with its corresponding text and hyperlinks is written in HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and is assigned an online address called a Uniform Resource Locator (URL).’ By products of the internet such as digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., all serve as platforms for social interaction, mobilization and engagements. This informs the decision by national governments to formulate digital policies in order to not only utilizes the opportunities the internet offers, but to also mitigate the associated challenges it pose which are considered threats to national cohesion.
As at January 2021 there were 4.66 billion active internet users worldwide – 59.5 percent of the global population. From this number, 92.6 percent (4.32 billion) accessed the internet via mobile devices. A report monitored on statista.com revealed that Northern Europe ranks the most regions with the highest internet penetration. This however, the United Arab Emirate, Denmark and Sweden, ranks as the most individual countries with highest internet penetration.
In addition, data obtained from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that more than 75 per cent of the total world population has an active mobile broadband subscription, and over 57 per cent of households have Internet access at home.
The implication of the above data shows that the world is increasingly relying on the internet for global interaction. This no doubt represents a serious implication on national diplomacies as it forces governments to overtly or covertly conform to digital consumption needs or patterns.
However, as lofty as the potentials the internet offers, it has also been viewed as an agent of destabilization. Due to its vast, open ended and evolutionary potentials, the internet is often in collision with age long values of secrecy, cultural and traditional norms, and belief systems. These shortcomings have often been deployed by conservative national governments as excuse to clamp down on digital rights of citizens.
Diplomacy and Digitization
“Digital diplomacy, also referred to as Digiplomacy and eDiplomacy, has been defined as the use of the Internet and new information communication technologies to help achieve diplomatic objectives. The definition focuses on the interplay between internet and diplomacy, ranging from Internet driven-changes in the environment in which diplomacy is conducted to the emergence of new topics on diplomatic agendas such as cybersecurity, privacy and more, along with the use of internet tools to practice diplomacy” – Wikipedia.
Diplomacy adopts a collaborative approach to issues. It deviates from the adversarial approach towards achieving solutions. Historically, diplomacy gained prominence after the Second World War. Faced with the devastating effect of war and man’s tendency for use of proportional force, diplomacy became a new platform for bilateral and multilateral conversations. This however, traditional diplomacy relied more on traditional tools such as face to face conversations, telegrams, and fax. Although telegram and fax are also products of technology, they however did not transform diplomacy into a digital entity. The reason for this was simply because of limitation in internet penetration across the globe. Although internet had been in existence since the 70’s, it was however not until the 90’s that the globe witnessed a rapid evolution. Since its evolution, many national governments have increasingly relied on its potential to reach many citizens and at the same time circumventing the bureaucratic bottle necks of traditional diplomatic channels.
Perhaps the major form of digitalized diplomacy was witnessed in the four year tenure of former president of the United States of America, Mr. Donald Trump. According to Wikipedia, the 45th Potus tweeted around 57,000 times, including more than 25,000 times during his presidency. This would’ve been more if twitter had not suspended his account in the wake of the invasion of the capitol hill by protesters allegedly linked to him and his speech over the outcome of the recently concluded elections. Although his suspension raised some digital rights questions within the digital rights community, a careful evaluation of his tweets revealed that many of his administration’s foreign policy decisions were first announced through his twitter handle. Many traditional news outlets and relied more on his twitter handle for policy decisions than even official government channels. For instance, the decision of the United States to recognize ‘Jerusalem’ as the capital of ‘Israel’ and the subsequent relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem was first tweeted by President Trump on his twitter handle.
Interestingly, Trump’s reliance on his twitter handle was initially criticised by many traditional entities who argued that policies of government were too serious to be discussed through social media platforms. However, since then, many officials of government now find it convenient to adopt the social media as a diplomatic channel, utilizing its wider reach and its ability to mobilize citizens. Agencies of government now also have dedicated social media accounts to policies and programmes of government.
Interestingly, digital diplomacy has been further heightened by the Covid-19 Pandemic. With the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, diplomatic businesses are now much more conducted through the internet. Digital tools like Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout, and Facebook live, or Tweet Conferencing, etc, have become an integral part of official government business transaction tools. The tools have also bridged the communication gap between government and citizens, as citizens can now follow up with government activities through official government social media accounts.
Gaps in Digital Diplomacy
In spite of the guarantees offered by digital diplomacy, the associated weaknesses of the internet make it a model that continues to require review and strengthening. For instance, some of the major challenges with digital diplomacy are the combined issues of data privacy and security. The internet continues to grapple with activities of hackers who specialize in hacking government accounts.
Organizations across the globe use the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for guidance on the technical safeguards they should have in place to ensure network and data security. NIST is a physical sciences laboratory and a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce.
In recent incidents, not less than twelve email accounts of major government agencies in the US were targeted by very sophisticated hackers. In addition, in the last twelve months, many government computerized networks and systems have been infiltrated by ‘Black Hat’ hackers through malwares. Most of the hacks targeted official top secret government data which were leaked to the public or accessed by unauthorized sources. The rampant incidences of data breach have made many governments to review their digital diplomatic policies.
The combined issues of digitization of societies and Covid-19 pandemic have made digital diplomacy the new frontiers of diplomatic relations. Perhaps one of the lessons nations have learned as a result of the covid-19 pandemic is the need to not only strengthen internet protocols, but to also make an optimal use of the advantages and prospects of the internet. It is therefore safe to conclude that while digital diplomacy serves the purposes of social mobilization and easy communication, there is also the need for uninterrupted internet penetration in all regions of the world.