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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We recognize that the rise of networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and other social media is important, but the ongoing debate equally needs to address the wider impact of digitalization on the external relations of governments and other international actors. This presents us with two basic questions. First, what is meant by the 'digital age'? The term appears with increasing frequency but carries with it the same sense of vagueness and imprecision as 'globalization'. It has provided a meta-narrative for change in diplomacy but references to the 'digital age' often fail to spell out or merely imply precisely what is changing and how it affects the nature of diplomatic activity. Second, is 'digitalization' part of an ongoing evolutionary process of change and adaptation that has always characterised diplomacy? Or does it represent revolutionary changes, a fundamental 'time-break' that warrants the appellation '21st century statecraft'?

The social media in particular are a magnet to a fast-growing global crowd. Facebook is 'as big as the world's largest nation', and older generations have no other option than catching up with the young. About 90 per cent of people between 18 and 29 are now using social networking sites. Those who stay outside their magnetic field, may find themselves on the periphery of a phenomenon that is here to stay or that will mutate into something very different from past patterns of communication. The attraction of social media has turned this 21st century tool of diplomacy into a prime focus for debate, and 'digilliterates' seem to have no right to join the conversation. This may help explain why the demands of political correctness probably result in a skewed picture of who in diplomacy is using social networking sites, how, and with what aims and objectives.

Integrative diplomacy and networking

An excessive focus on the social media conflates new communications technologies with broader dimensions of change in domestic and international policy. We can make our point more clearly by relating this report to an earlier Clingendael study that developed a new framework for diplomacy which we termed 'integrative diplomacy'. This broader picture of change in the practice of international relations is our interpretation of diplomacy in the digital age. It sees the global environment as characterised by relationships between states and non-state entities, producing complex webs of diplomacy – sometimes competitive, sometimes collaborative. Central to this image are patterns of mutual dependency, policy and actor linkages, and 'networked' diplomacy embracing diverse stakeholders. Networking as the conceptual basis of modern diplomatic practice – including its digital dimension – has fundamental implications for conceptualizing and practicing diplomacy, for office routines and rules of engagement among people representing different types of public and private actors, and in a more general sense for officials engaging with the outside world. For the people who work for government, networking implies a fundamental willingness to adapt to 'interface cultures' that are radically different from those of more familiar but increasingly outdated hierarchical environments.

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