Diplomacy in the Digital Age

By Brian Hocking and Jan Melissen
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, October 26, 2015
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Executive Summary

There is an explosion of commentary on the implications of the digital age for diplomacy. Digitalization has a major impact on diplomacy, both in terms of the forms in which it is conducted and its structures at all levels. The current debate separates differing understandings of the impact of digitalization on foreign policy: at one extreme, the 'cyber-utopians' and at the other, the 'cyber-realists'.

What are the main characteristics of the debate on digital diplomacy?

• There is a lack of definitional precision.

• Most of the debate focuses on the social media.

• 'Digital diplomacy' is a shorthand term embracing broader changes in diplomacy

pre-dating digitalization.

As a study in diplomacy, the aim of the report is to consider:

• The meaning of general ideas in the developing debate – specifically the concept of digital diplomacy.

• The relationship between more general patterns of change in diplomacy and digitalization.

• The impact of digitalization on the diplomatic process and the national machinery of diplomacy.

What do we mean by the 'digital age'?

• We need to take a broader view: e-government and e-participation are part of the landscape of digital diplomacy and help us to interpret how digitalization is impacting on domestic as well as international policy environments.

How is diplomacy affected by the broader digitalized environment?

• History offers useful lessons: the introduction of the electric telegraph illustrates how technologies impact differentially on diplomatic institutions.

• In the digital age diplomatic missions are becoming a more salient part of a decentralized internal MFA network while external MFA partners are increasingly important for policy success. Unsurprisingly, existing diplomatic culture clashes with the imperatives of speed and 'horizontalization'.

• Recent experience with public diplomacy suggests that new communications related developments within foreign ministries pass through a cycle from skepticism to hype to acceptance and mainstreaming.

Offline and Online Perspectives on Diplomacy

Digital diplomacy is often equated with public diplomacy but also includes a number of other perspectives:

• Changing foreign policy agendas: with issues of speed, less control over events and agendas; and with work processes and organizational structures adapted to networked diplomacy in the digital age.

• Cyber agendas: digital diplomacy as a set of negotiating problems and scenarios: for example, Internet freedom, Internet governance and cybersecurity.

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