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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1 Introducing Diplomacy in the Digital Age


This report represents initial reflections on diplomacy in the digital age. In the ongoing debate amongst international relations scholars, information and communication technology (ICT) experts, digital strategists, social media advocates and others, the first question for us is: what is happening to diplomacy? And the obvious answer is what has always happened to it: diplomacy is responding to changes in the international and domestic environment, in the main centres of authority, particularly states, and in the character of societies at home and abroad. The extent to which diplomacy is a social institution is now more visible than ever. In the early 21st century societal transformations have a much greater impact on diplomacy than in earlier periods, when the authority of elites was questioned less than is the case today. Confronted with fast-moving change in society, governments have a hard time anticipating impending developments, let alone events, even though new technological capabilities appear to enhance the capacity for forecasting future trends.

'Newness' in diplomacy today has everything to do with the application of new communications technologies to diplomacy. This issue goes right to the heart of diplomacy's core functions, including negotiation, representation and communication. Given the centrality of communication in diplomacy, it is hardly surprising that the rise of social media should be of interest to practitioners of diplomacy. Most of them, like people outside diplomatic culture, are in the process of adjusting their 'analogue' habits and finding their own voice in a new information sphere. This takes time, and for technological enthusiasts to simply proclaim the arrival of a 'new statecraft' in the form of what is variously termed e-diplomacy, digital diplomacy, cyber diplomacy and 'twiplomacy' is too simplistic. Paradoxically, greater complexity encourages Nescafé-school analyses and the search for simple explanations about what is happening to diplomacy as the regulating mechanism of the society of states. As in other epochs of fast technological change, the lure of quick fixes addressing multifaceted processes of change in diplomacy appears almost irresistible at the opening of the 'digital age'.

Questions with few instant answers

What is it, then, that we wish to convey by employing such terms as 'digital diplomacy' and 'e-diplomacy'? There is clearly more at stake than the advent of new communication technologies. How do we identify and make sense of broader developments that need to be taken into account? Historical experience suggests that communication technologies are conditioned by the environments in which they operate and may have different effects depending on the processes and institutions to which they are applied. This is something to bear in mind – as an antidote to presentism and the desire to give instant answers to complex questions.

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