Why digital diplomacy is not a thing (yet)

  • 19th March 2014
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Why digital diplomacy is not a thing (yet)

soase_game_logo_diplomacy_R6Some time ago I had the chance to participate in a very good seminar chaired by Jon Worth a well-known communication consultant in Brussels. The seminar revolved around the topic of public diplomacy and the digitalization of international relations.

One of the first things that came up in the event was the “attempt” to define public or digital diplomacy. I say “attempt” because indeed there seems to be quite a lot of confusion about what this practice should be and most importantly how digital diplomacy should be carried out.

A common definition in international relations presents public diplomacy or people’s diplomacy as the communication with foreign publics to establish a dialogue designed to inform and influence. Another definition that came up from the previously mentioned seminar was “it’s what Carl Bildt does. Another expert on the field, Andreas Sandre explains in his latest piece for the Huffington Post how digital diplomacy has been “redefining itself since its inception…It has evolved from 140 characters to a myriad of opportunities embedded in the very nature of the digital era, from crowdsourcing to big data. While we have not yet outgrown Twitter and Facebook — still key ingredients for any government’s digital strategy — foreign policy is fast moving towards more innovative ways to change its elitist undertones and become a truly participatory, collaborative forum.” You should also check out Crowdsourcing tips and ideas for digital diplomacy where Andreas collects tips, definitions and recommendations from digital diplomacy experts.

However, according to this definition we end up defining digital diplomacy merely as the adaptation of diplomacy to new communication technologies which have not really affected diplomacy per se but have simply modified the way people are reached by diplomatic bodies, institutions and representatives.

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What most people call “digital diplomacy” for the large part I would call “public affairs” or even simply broadcasting. This is why digital diplomacy is just not a thing yet. There are perhaps a few Scandinavian diplomats who are using social media and web 2.0 tools to really engage among their diplomatic circles and directly with the citizens, one above all, Mr Alex Stubb. However, these people represent maybe 0.01% of the 77.7% governments of the 193 UN member countries that have a presence on Twitter.

During and after the negotiations of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 I suppose that Klemens Wenzel von Metternich communicated with Viscount Castlereagh and Tsar Alexander I orally and via documents printed on paper possibly sealed with wax stamps. When world leaders started communicating via phone, did political scientists start talking about “telephonic diplomacy?” The question here is rhetoric. David Cameron uses Twitter, so does newly appointed Italian PM Matteo Renzi and so … is this digital diplomacy? Obviously not.

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A different role though is played by embassies and other diplomatic bodies who more and more provide useful information to citizens but still are very much constrained by their own lines to take and bureaucracy. Also, they mostly limit themselves to broadcasting ans little engagement. Nonetheless, they are not to be blamed for this. They do provide a valuable service to citizens worldwide.

Seeing the challenge I started asking experts to share their definitions and put them up together in a Twitter custom timeline which I will keep updating as new definitions are shared. You can share your definition using the hashtag #digidipis

Share yours too!

So, what is #digitaldiplomacy for you?

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