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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Hybridity and the integration of 'online' and 'offline'

Three related assumptions guide this contribution to the discussion about diplomacy in the digital age. First, the tools of the digital age create new issues and routines, and simultaneously redefine existing ones. Old phenomena take on new dimensions and they do so in all spheres of human interaction. There are many examples of behavioral mutations in the diplomatic world. Diplomatic missions' outreach to the societies of host countries, for instance, is as old as diplomacy itself, and 'offline' public diplomacy work has received a great deal of attention in the public outreach strategies of foreign ministries. The penetration and interaction with foreign publics has however taken on entirely new dimensions in the digital age and reaches well beyond the West. The US Embassy in Jakarta has over 600,000 likes on its Facebook account, and European embassies in Beijing use the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo to engage with swathes of the population out of their reach in the age of offline diplomacy. The Chinese leadership encourages its embassies throughout the world to take advantage of Twitter, while this US-based platform is blocked at home.

Diplomatic coalition building and networking are affected by digital developments, which is perhaps most clearly visible in the more experimental human rights' and official development aid fields. The digital domain for instance opens up new forms of engagement opportunities for Dutch transnational campaigning in favour of LGBT rights, UK actions aimed at the prevention of sexual violence, and Swedish policy initiatives supporting vulnerable citizens, including mothers and their unborn children. Even a relatively traditional multi-stakeholder network like the OECD/DAC initiated Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation – aiming at getting extreme poverty 'to zero in one generation' – is likely to become progressively digital when it reaches out to non-state actors and promotes greater youth involvement.

Second, hybridity is the norm in the current media and diplomatic environments. The evolution of communications technologies rarely involves the supplanting of one form by another. More typically, existing forms of communication adapt to the emergence of new technologies. They help generate rapidly evolving 'hybrid' media environments in which traditional media are adapting to new 'online' ways of conceptualizing, sharing and visualizing 'the news'.

In diplomacy, the balance between old and new forms of communication is different and appears not to reflect similar revolutionary changes. Things may not be what they seem at first sight – and media reports sometimes only tell part of the story. When in the spring of 2015 Pope Francis publicly referred to the “first genocide of the 20th century” in Armenia, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu was quick to get world attention by voicing his protest through Twitter. But obviously this move was only the opening shot, and paralleled by traditional diplomatic initiatives through less visible channels. Various technological revolutions have not led to newly invented means of communication entirely taking over from tried and tested ones. But in future diplomacy we expect to see the progressive adoption of a mix of 'old' and 'new' modes of communication – within governmental networks, in transnational multi-stakeholder environments, and in both friendly and antagonistic relations between states.

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