The promise and peril of digital diplomacy

The promise and peril of digital diplomacy

At 5 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, five Canadian diplomats stationed in Tehran quietly left the country. After years of increasing tensions and rhetoric Canada cut all diplomatic ties with Iran. But as Canada was cutting its formal diplomatic ties with Iranian officials, a separate team within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International

digital
At 5 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, five Canadian diplomats stationed in Tehran quietly left the country. After years of increasing tensions and rhetoric Canada cut all diplomatic ties with Iran.

But as Canada was cutting its formal diplomatic ties with Iranian officials, a separate team within the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was working with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto to build an online platform where Iranians could discuss their upcoming election. If Canadian diplomats could not speak to Iranian officials, they were going to help Iranians speak to one another.

This week’s announcement of an expanded digital diplomacy initiative based at the Munk School of Global Affairs is being positioned as an expansion of this “public square” initiative. And as an extension of the traditional public diplomacy once practised on TV and radio (think Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and BBC World Service) onto the Internet.

But it is, in fact, a far more assertive act, one of making foreign policy rather than simply communicating it. Such programs are part of a growing attempt by the state to remain relevant in a world of increasingly decentralized power.

Whereas states were once the primary means of incentivizing collective action and asserting power on the international stage, they are now being challenged by a wide range of individuals and groups who are using digital technology to organize, protest, report, aid each other, trade, and at times attack. Whether they be hackers, digital humanitarians, cryptocurrency innovators, activists, citizen reporters, or terrorists, the Internet allows people to take on the institutions that once held a monopoly on power.

Digital diplomacy is therefore part of the state’s attempt to remain relevant and to assert power in the digital space. And while the goals of any one initiative might be lauded (as this one can), we need to view and ultimately assess it as only one component of a wider suite of digital foreign policy actions. Taken as a whole, digital foreign policy is fraught with challenges and hypocrisies.

First, such seemingly innocuous initiatives often backfire. Take, for example, USAID’s elaborate scheme to create a Cuban version of Twitter with the goal of fostering dissent and promoting regime change. While an innovative and audacious use of digital technology to achieve a (however misguided) State Department objective, the revelation of the program tainted the reputation and hurt the effectiveness of USAID as a whole.

Second, the platforms and tools being built through initiatives like the Iran Dialogues, replicate or use the very anonymizing capabilities that our national intelligence agencies are simultaneously seeking to break and undermine. The ability to communicate anonymously empowers perceived nefarious and legitimate actors alike, whether they be terrorist, black market commerce sites, domestic protesters, or dissidents in Iran. Programs seeking to break encryption will ultimately negate any well-intentioned digital diplomacy initiatives.

Third, digital foreign policy is increasingly being outsourced. Governments distance themselves from acts of hacking or cyberwar through the use of arm’s-length organizations. Whether it be the Syrian Electronic Army, the recent North Korea hack, or the U.S. and Canada using think tanks to build digital tools, it is getting increasingly hard to attribute online action and to hold it accountable.

Finally, the same governments that are seeking to enable free speech in countries like Iran are at the same time rapidly expanding the surveillance state. Thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden we now know how the state has chosen to respond to this new space of digital empowerment. Like a traditional battlefield, they are seeking to control it. To, as they themselves claim, “know it all.”

And herein lies the central tension in the digital diplomacy initiative. By seeking to control, monitor and undermine the actions of perceived negative actors, the state risks breaking the very system that positively empowers so many. And this will ultimately harm those living under autocratic and democratic regimes alike.

The answer, unfortunately, is not as simple as many critics of digital diplomacy assert. Simply returning to traditional in-person diplomacy ignores the global shift to decentralized digital power. Digital diplomacy is a well-intentioned attempt to participate in this new space. However, it is one that is both ill-suited to the capabilities of the state, and is negated by other digital foreign policy programs.

We are at the start of a reconfiguration of power. Navigating this terrain is one of the principal foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.

taylor-owen

Taylor Owen is assistant professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at UBC and the author of Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Era.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/the-promise-and-peril-of-digital-diplomacy/article22375462/

Please follow and like us:

RSS BIDD

  • Public Diplomacy: Toward a More “Diplomatic” World 17th Feb 2019
    tufts.edu, February 13, 2019; original article contains a video and photographs image from Alan K. Henrikson, the Lee E. Dirks Professor of Diplomatic History Emeritus and founding Director of Diplomatic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, was on hand at the American Center in Moscow at the U.S. Embassy, to […]
  • China tells world to ignore Mike Pence ‘lectures’ 17th Feb 2019
    Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner, February 16, 2019 Yang Jiechi image from Wikipedia MUNICH — European leaders should disregard "lectures" from Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. officials about Chinese encroachment into Europe, a top diplomat from the communist nation said Saturday. Pence — amplifying warnings by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — told the […]
  • Heather Nauert Withdraws From Consideration For U.N. Ambassador 17th Feb 2019
    Emma Bowman, NPR, February 16; on Nauert, see below Image from entry, with caption: Department of State Spokesperson Heather Nauert withdrew herself from consideration for the nomination of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. on Saturday.State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert withdrew herself from consideration on Saturday for the nomination of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations."I […]
  • Blast from the Past: The Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States (2008) 15th Feb 2019
    Public Diplomacy Alumni Association Formerly USIA Alumni AssociationHome | Conduct of Public Diplomacy | Debate over Public Diplomacy | Public Diplomacy Newswire| Join/about PDAApublicdiplomacy.org; see also (1) (2)[JB note: Full text cannot be adequately formated on this blog] The post Blast from the Past: The Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States (2008) appeared first on […]
  • Public Diplomacy Small Grants Program: Supporting Projects in Malawi 15th Feb 2019
    www2.fundsforngos.org image (not from entry) from, with caption: U.S. Embassy Lilongwe Deadline OngoingThe Public Affairs Section (PAS) at the U.S. Embassy in Lilongwe, Malawi of the U.S. Department of State is pleased to announce that funding is available through its Public Diplomacy [JB emphasis] Small Grants Program.PAS awards a limited number of grants to individuals, […]

RSS Diplo Portal Belgrade

  • Представление программы бесплатного обучения в России 15th Feb 2019
    В Русском доме 13 февраля прошла презентация программы получения бесплатного высшего образования в вузах Российской Федерации. Потенциальные кандидаты смогли получить подробную информацию о условиях ежегодного конкурса на получение стипендий для бесплатного образования в России в рамках выделенных для граждан Сербии квот, который РЦНК проводит в январе-марте, а также информацию о том, как необходимо подавать документы, […]
  • Представљање програма бесплатног студирања у Русији 15th Feb 2019
    У Руском дому је 13. фебруара одржана презентација о програмима добијања бесплатног високог образовања на универзитетима Руске Федерације. Потенцијални кандидати су могли да добију детаљну информацију о условима годишњег конкурса за добијање стипендија за бесплатно образовање у Русији у оквиру квота, које су издвојене за српске држављане. Конкурс организује РЦНК од јануара до марта. Кандидати […]
  • Сербские старшеклассники в гостях у Русского Дома 15th Feb 2019
    13 февраля РЦНК Общество русско-сербско-белорусской дружбы из г.Смедерево организовало посещение РЦНК для группы старшеклассников и их преподавателей из г.Смедерево и г.Велика Плана. Для учеников это был первое знакомство с Русским Домом. Сотрудники РЦНК провели ознакомительную экскурсию и рассказали о истории создания и работе центра. В рамках визита сербские школьники смогли посетить открывшуюся в РЦНК выставку […]

Most Viewed Posts

  • Twitter Suspends Hamas Accounts (1,360)
    By ROBERT MACKEYLast Updated, Sunday, Jan. 19 | Several Twitter accounts used by the military wing of Hamas have been suspended by the social network in recent days, angering the Islamist militants and delighting Israel’s military. #Twitter has suspended the official account of #Hamas, a terrorist group that uses social media to threaten #Israel http://t.co/g1UxKc9fpf
  • Humanitarian Intervention: Advantages and Disadvantages in East Timor and Kosovo (391)
    Have There Been Occasions on Which the Advantages of Humanitarian Intervention Using Armed Force have Outweighed the Disadvantages? Humanitarian intervention can be defined as the attempts of a foreign state to prevent violations of human rights in another state, often through the use of armed force. The use of armed force to protect human rights,
  • Brain drain in Serbia today (389)
    How does the Serbian government cope with the problem of brain drain today? The latest OECD publication, SOPEMI 2014 shows that 39 thousand persons emigrated in 2012 from Serbia to OECD countries only. (At the beginning of the global economic and financial crisis, the emigration from Serbia to OECD countries amounted to 27,000 in 2008.)

How Belgrade based diplomats use Digital Diplomacy and Internet 2016

Diplo Portal Belgrade

Please follow and like us:
Scroll Up

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)