Diplomacy in the Digital Age


(Originally published in The Literary Review of Canada January-February 2012: article

planet-earth-digital-data-europe-africa-asia-16395163“Diplomacy in the Digital Age” is a pleasant sojourn through the fine minds of eighteen Canadians well versed in diplomacy, and the international quandaries facing our country today. It is a series of eclectic essays, with gems of insight within the texts, that crystallize some of the dilemnas of an increasingly complex world. One walks away with a sense of having read something worthwhile, but not quite sure what it is – a natural pitfall of a book of essays.

The book is written in honour of former Canadian Ambassador to the USA, Allan Gotlieb, a wise hook to propel us into today’s challenges. Gotlieb, and his wife Sondra,  were the undisputed masters of public diplomacy in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, a world of diffused power and celebrity mania. Many of the writers regularly refer back to Gotlieb, his time and his achievements,  providing a degree of cohesion amidst the varied viewpoints and complexities at hand.

“Digital Diplomacy” ranges over vast terrain from managing affairs with America, to “3C” and “3D” coordinated management of international crises,  to digital diplomacy itself. Each and every essay is fine enough; some simply cut deeper than others –  a useful quality when dealing with an issue as amorphous as a digital age.

Indeed, two essays found late in the book, one by Dennis Stairs and the other by George Haynal,  would have been most useful earlier on because they clarify well both diplomacy and context. Stairs is very good on the functions of diplomacy, and the effects of too much data. Haynal, although focussed on corporate responses to our challenges, cuts deeply regarding the newfound role of the ‘demos’, publics unleashed by access to information and technology “sometimes sufficiently organized to consitute a civil society, sometimes a promiscious…and anarchic expression of will. ”

Naturally, given geography and the reference to Gotlieb’s, many of the writers restate the criticality of our relationship with America. They discuss the potential demise of the great power, but don’t fully suggest what we can do about it. The easy, almost facile, conclusion  is that we may simply have to engage both, America, as our largest economic relationship, and the new giants of Asia and Latin America at the same time. Colin Robertson’s essay, insightful as it is about managing the American context, is telling in its title: “Changing Conditions and Actors, but the Game Remains the Same….” Other approaches, such as Trudeau’s Third Option that sought cooperation with the Global South, are mostly mentioned only to emphasize their naivety or impracticability.

It is David Malone however who, in a deft essay, makes the case loud and clear that Canada has indeed become a “status quo” actor,  and that new countries now have the momentum “the West decisively lacks”. Our qualities – .despite Forbes having rated us best country in the world for business –  are “no longer enough in a world on the move”.

Our relations with Asia are described by Brian Bow as “most likely to continue to be opportunistic, ad hoc, and generally not very ambitious… a “day-tripper” approach” to rising markets and powers. Edward Greenspon points out important recent failures: forsaking participation in the budding Trans-Pacific Partnership, snubbing China in the early years of the Harper government, under-utilizing Vancouver for competitive advantage in the Pacific arena.

NEWSPAPERDIRECT SMARTEDITIONDuring the Cold War, Canada had developed an important niche of being the country closest to the USA while fine-tuning our differences. We distanced ourselves during Vietnam, while we fought in Korea. At the same time, we seem to have been at our best when close to the Americans, while also being their “conscience”.  As James Baker put it, “we could always count on Canada to do the right thing”.

Today, we are no longer the country closest to the USA, nor its conscience, and yet the “game remains the same”. After 9/11, and the global shifts of power under way today, the nature of our relationship with the USA needs a new reading. Simply standing in the shrinking shadow of our neighbour, the superpower, is a risky proposition.

It is also a misreading of the international landscape. The reality is that the Western political and economic model is simply no longer dominant – not even primus inter pares. Given recent European and American troubles, it may not even be that functional. As Malone says, “rather than requiring others to adapt to our models, we will need to adjust to and respect some of theirs”.

I would have thought Canada, with its electicism and flexibility, to be the one nation capable of leading in such an evolving global mosaic. Indeed, as a Canadian living abroad, I still maintain a lingering, possibly mythical, belief that Canada is potentially more exceptional than its recent international record. But, from my perch in Madrid, I keep wondering: where are we on climate change, and the international economic crisis today? Decades ago, we would have led on such multilateral challenges. Today, we’re nowhere to be seen.

The second, and main, theme of the book examines how Canada can repond to this new multiplex and multidimensional world. Many of the essays reflect on the speed and volume of digital information, and the exponential increase in the number of international actors. As Arif Lalani explains,” where Gotlieb might have crammed…twelve or fourteen meetings into a busy day, with today’s social media, his successor will engage in a more diverse network, 24/7.”

Indeed, diplomacy will have to change, and there are several interesting proposals put forward including Kim Richard Nossal’s idea of a Department of Global Affairs that cuts across defence, diplomatic and development portfolios, to Lalani’s “open diplomacy”, a new virtual approach to inclusive policymaking.

New structures and processes are both relevant and necessary but, at the end of the day, Jeremy Kinsman is correct in pointing, above all, to the need to “valorize ideas again”. He goes on to propose many, from a more vibrant role in the Arctic Council, to increased three-way cooperation in North America.  Kinsman also mentions our potential role in global disarmament. Today, an NGO called Global Zero is pursuing the global nuclear disarmament agenda. The project is ironically funded private Canadian money, but at a recent meeting in London, there was not a Canadian to be seen leading the charge. In halcyon days, our government would have been at the forefront of such issues. It was useful ideas that gave Canada standing in the Cold War, and it will be those that will do so again.

The more powerful arguments in this book go beyond how to react to change, and emphasize instead the dangers of our digital age. David Malone focusses cleverly on the emptiness of our era: “Gigabytes of information can conceal more than they reveal”; “websites favour the sensational rather than the important”; “communications teams are expanding often in the absence of anything to communicate”. William Thorsell also points out powerfully that the internet is “an infinite source of inconsequential diversion…. a vehicle… for dissemination of hatred…..(as much as) a tool for social justice.” This spectrum leaves diplomacy with a greater responsibility for managing information, and many of the authors point out the growing need for diplomats to ‘curate’ the analysis and options for leaders, and extract the “signals” from the “noise”.

digital_diplomacy-231x300This capacity to discern and judge properly can only come however from direct, not virtual, experience. What is not discussed sufficiently in this book is the continuing high value of on-the-ground experience, of the feeling and flavour of a country and its people – its culture –  the very warp and woof of international relations. There is no chapter here on the importance for diplomats of understanding culture.  Whether in the year 1789 or 2019, in a binary or digital age, diplomats will have to be to be conduits and translators of interests and needs between cultures. Learning a foreign language is not enough, immersion in another culture is the great teacher, and, in the end, the hidden secret of success, and pleasure, in international relations.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 are a case in point for my own work as a diplomat. These events were humbling because no one, despite claims otherwise, foresaw them.  Today, to ensure the relevance of my future work on the Middle East and the Arab World, I will have to refresh my knowledge by direct experience and contacts with the new actors and the evolving political culture on the ground. This can only be done in situ, no on Facebook, building relations, and slowly but surely absorbing insights. In the end, good judgment is all about this fine-grained texture.  Only in those interstices and meeting points between personality, policy and politics of the day – and timing – can diplomacy work effectively; only so can the grandest schemes be put to work in the real world. All this takes real, not virtual, time – and real time is slow.

And it is this is what is worrying about the focus on the digital era in general. Of course, one could argue that this new virtual world, of facebook discussions, and tweet-reactions, has a “texture” unto itself.  Indeed, throughout the Arab revolutions, I relied on such relays from the region to keep up to date.  But, I could not experience what my friends in Tahrir Square felt, not even had they placed a live camera for me to watch the revolution. The moment for them, a complete revolution in a sparse few weeks, was real, huge and ineffable. That experience, had to be lived direct, in person, with a vital immediacy – in many ways, as Allan Gotlieb lived his days as Ambassador in Washington, (and well captured in Andrew Cohen’s essay on the ambassador’s diaries).

What is now too-often forgetton in our electronic frenzy is the powerful effects of direct experience, followed by the time to reflect and absorb the information-flow, permitting a sedimentation into the deeper zones of proper judgment. Greenspon mentions “good preparation and strong relationships” as the pillars of good diplomacy. He is right, and they can only really be developed on the ground.

This book ends with a very powerful essay by William Thorsell. It feels somewhat like an appendage to the overall effort, its language different and the themes it tackles streaking deeper into our global dilemnas.  The result is another kind of immediacy, when ideas and words connect more directly to realities.

Among many points, Thorsell states very clearly that our political decision-making has become much more centralized directly as a result of the proliferation of information: “Responsibility rose higher in political hierarchies as public opinion weighed more heavily on public conduct”, ” …wider dissemination of information … requires more centralization… in the management of files. The traditional diplomat is devalued in this context.”

It seems that although we need diplomats more, they are likely to be used less and less.  One wonders whether even the super-virtual diplomat can overcome this tendency towards highly-centralized control in a diffuse world. How do you penetrate that kind of control especially when it has a heavy ideological lilt? This book does not answer this question forcefully enough.

digital-montage-of-globe-and-motherboardOverall, there are many valuable nuggets and useful insights throughout this book, but, somehow, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts.  Most of the essays do not yet dare to leap to rigorous and vigorous answers. Kinsman is on the right track by pointing for the need for Canadian ideas.  Yet, there is a conservatism today in Canada (and somehow in many of the essays), that stems from a detached yet vague engagement with the heady events of the world. This may possibly be due to wealth and comfort, i.e an apparent lack of challenge.  If one looks at Greece, the Eurozone, or Yemen, this may seem like a blessing. But ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and Vancouver riots hint at changes closer to home.

New ideas in diplomacy and international affairs, are in fact required desperately. In theory, Canada is well positioned to deliver them and lead; in practise, it is not yet meeting that challenge.  As Janice Gross Stein says in her introduction, “is Canada simply too late to a worldwide party under way?” I would add, do Canadians even care?

“We cannot seem to make up our minds”, says Brian Bow and, it is, indeed, up in the air still how Canada, as a nation, will respond to the real and immediate challenges of new mass politics driven by severe economic disparaties, of abuse of the planet’s resources, or our basic tribal instincts still running amock in patritotic disguises. “The national interest has become a calculation made in a global context (beyond) familiar economic and security concerns”, says Thorsell. We may be wise to listen, and apply this guiding principle before all the digital fiddling.

The answer may also lie in an irony. It may be that, after a grand detour of a few decades, Trudeau was right after all.  It may now be the time to look beyond continental constraints, and retry our vocation as a country that carves new ground with new partners, globally. As Edward Greenspon reports in his essay, even Alan Gotlieb, who as recently as 2004 diminished the importance of the “Third Option”, now believes that “its moment has finally arrived”.


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