Digital Diplomacy
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Digital Diplomacy

Time has come for diplomats to become digital disruptors

Original photo credit Julian Ortiz — Photographer

As a career diplomat, I’m also convinced that time has come for diplomats to become digital disruptors. Techplomacy has been around for a while, with some countries pioneering not long ago with “virtual embassies” and, more recently, appointing “special envoys” or even “tech ambassadors” in Silicon valley. The moment is ripe for digital disruption now that the Covid pandemic has left so many lessons learned in the flesh in terms of the possibilities and resources that technology offers also to diplomacy.

After the prime time of digitalization of diplomacy during the peak of the pandemic, the balance of power between traditional and public diplomacy is shifting now that the former has learned to cope with the latter and both complement each other when dialoguing with their respective audiences with foreign policy goals in mind. “Hybrid diplomacy” is the neologism recently coined to describe how both worlds are peacefully blending as virtual alternates with socially-distanced in-person diplomacy, as predicted by both practitioners and scholars and intensively discussed at plenty of panels and debates held yet virtually these days.

However, controversial as it may be, I contend that to be “digital” in diplomacy is not necessarily a generational matter. While there is a digital divide in the world and full connectivity remains a challenge, there is not so much of a generational but rather a technological and institutional gap within the ranks of diplomatic institutions. A growing number of senior diplomats devote a great deal of their time to do their job online, mainly on social media, as they understand the amplifying soft power of live messaging, conversing or sharing details of the backstage of high-level meetings. Professional teams lodged in many foreign ministries are tasked to keep the online feed moving while exploring and adopting innovative technological tools for diplomatic daily work. While younger generations of diplomats may find it easier to communicate digitally, not every junior diplomat is necessarily inclined to feel the same attraction to digital platforms for work online, however digital they may be in their private lives. And more significantly, today’s high-ranking diplomats are less of what American writer Marc Prensky described as “digital immigrants” -as they may have been years ago- since, in the meantime, those younger generations of “digital natives” have been gradually embracing seniority as they moved up the echelons of the diplomatic system.

The attraction or aversion to resorting to digital resources in diplomacy has certainly more to do with the institutional digital culture (or lack thereof) to implement innovation within structures where the heavyweights of tradition, hierarchy and discretion do have a strong say.

Digitalization of diplomacy is here to stay and that is, again, great news. That does not mean that every diplomatic activity needs to migrate online, be automated or carried out by bots since the benefit of face-to-face interaction has been cherished as never before after the forced confinement imposed by the pandemic. But diplomats certainly have a much larger digital toolkit now and time is up for them to be bold and constructive digital disruptors.

What’s in digital disruption?

Among the myriad of ways to define what a digital disruptor is, I agree with one in particular as the main elements applicable to diplomacy are contained in the simplicity of its definition. As described by one of Argentina’s leading tech companies Globant: Disruptors lead digital and cognitive change within their organizations, motivating their peers to reinvent themselves, encouraging a culture of innovation and challenging the status quo. Crystal clear. Disruption is thus expressed through digital skills and channels but it is not limited to technology as it also involves capabilities like motivation and leadership to proactively promote change.

When applied to the specific field of diplomacy, digital disruption involves a shift of fundamental behaviors within institutions generally not so familiar with the tech world, in order to also promote, precisely, shifts beyond the institution itself with a view to reaching and impacting foreign audiences’ perceptions, behaviors and expectations in spheres as diverse as public policies, markets and industries, culture and education, to name but a few.

As the visible face of diplomacy, Ministries of Foreign Affairs and embassies have not been traditionally associated with change and innovation but, on the contrary, are perceived as risk averse given the time immemorial traditions and rituals that continue to make the wheels of foreign policy work well to this date. Similar, when not identical, codes and practices are shared by most foreign ministries worldwide to make communication easier. The raison d’être of some of those rituals may be said to be under siege by modernity these days but, in any case, their practicality remains intact. Protocol is a good example as, contrary to many unfounded preconceptions, it is well in force and meant to orderly predict exactly how we are all expected to behave in certain situations without running the risk of sitting in the wrong place or joining a photo group when you are not really welcome, including Zoom meetings screenshots.

Risk aversion also occurs when having to decide to go public in institutions where discretion and confidentiality are the shared code of conduct, unless otherwise expressly decided. As in other professional fields, sensitive information needs to be “classified” and its dissemination restricted, not to mention when national security reasons are involved. There is always the resort to “embargoing” all or part of it but, still, discretion is of essence and at the heart of the traditional diplomatic processes for the simple reason that strategies, hesitations, concerns, convictions and expectations are not always meant to be revealed.

Hierarchy is another aspect that can make diplomacy a challenging field in terms of change and innovation as career diplomats are part of a structured system and follow “instructions” received by their hierarchical superiors. However, that does not mean that they do not contribute to the process of elaborating the instructions they receive as they are not expected, precisely, to report like bots but to analyze the information they gather by “ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State”, to quote the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. And they do so on their own, consulting the many sources they are also expected to cultivate in doing their job. All along the way up the ranks of the diplomatic career, there will always be a boss to report to, as with most professions; however, there must also always be a wide margin for autonomy and creativity within the system and diplomats must be trained and expected to think aloud, speak out, agree or dissent within that system.

In diplomacy, going digitally public beyond the institution is a different story. Firstly, it is not always “just you who’s talking” and that is, precisely, when risk aversion may become a blinker or, worse, a paralyzer unless diplomats are well trained, digitally instructed and encouraged to interact with foreign audiences to do their job. A growing number of foreign ministries have been evolving lately, as sound scholarly studies attest, debunking the common view that they are “outdated relics” averse to technological change. Not only ambassadors have public profiles in social media but diplomats of all ranks do, and that is really healthy. When acting digitally a second challenge for diplomats remains to bear in mind the “red lines” imposed by discretion, traditions and hierarchy in certain areas and on certain topics as, again, being a diplomat is a 24/7 job. And that is when subjectivity may make its entrance and tacit “endorsements” -i.e., not expressly sought after- might derive in misunderstandings within or, worse, beyond the diplomat’s system structure every diplomat belongs to.

Taking the leap forward in digital disruption

With common sense as the primus inter pares of relevant caveats, time is ripe for diplomats to become digital disruptors and promote change within and beyond their institutions through the strategic use of innovation and technology to fulfill their functions. As they know better now in the post pandemic world, technology is also at their disposal and that goes well beyond social media and digital meeting platforms for videoconferencing to include, for instance, developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), big data analysis and messaging automation through a prudent manoeuvring of algorithms and tailor-made bots.

It is true that not every type of diplomacy or diplomatic function is susceptible to be digitally disrupted to the same extent. The traditional functions of conventional diplomacy such as negotiation and representation are relatively less disruptable in digital terms given that human interaction is mandatory, at least at certain instances of any of those functions in particular. You can represent your country in a “digital visit” you either make or host online, but probably because the in-person alternative had to be discarded due to matters of urgency, time convenience or travel impediments. As argued before, negotiation is a different chapter given the importance of building up the trust and empathy necessary to reach agreement and, more often than not, yes, constructive ambiguity.

In fact, as proved by the pandemic, virtuality has many advantages to help do part of the job although, as far as traditional (not public) diplomacy is concerned, the balance of power within hybridity will tilt less towards virtuality.

Public diplomacy certainly offers a more fertile ground for digital disruption. Scholarly debates coincide in identifying consular diplomacy as a highly favorable medium for AI and automation of certain tasks, including chatbots, messaging and the use of predictive models for public communication although, as with rest of diplomatic functions, human interaction will be necessary at a certain stage. Pandemic-boosted digitalization has also been a driving force in cultural, educational and trade diplomacy by building virtual bridges among societies, markets, prospective tourists, consumers and industries, and much room yet exists for AI/AR to contribute to further deepening virtual connection and processes in the hybrid formats of future diplomacy.

All in all, there is ample room to shift foreign service bureaucracies towards a culture of innovation that rewards risk takers instead of advocates for “business as usual” and the status quo. In so doing, as wisely noted by diplomacy scholar Dr. Corneliu Bjola, digital diplomacy must evolve “from tactics to strategy” and that requires, again, the institutionalization of a culture of innovation with pre-defined and “measurable goals, target audiences, and parameters for evaluation”. It also requires partnerships between Ministries of Foreign Affairs and key private sector tech stakeholders which will not only be welcome but necessary to develop the skills and digital tools for diplomatic action, strategically tailored to achieve those predetermined and measurable goals.

Diplomatic training cannot be limited to the “art of crafting messages” for online dissemination as communication needs to be strategic to engage purposefully to fulfill, always, foreign policy goals. In house, besides the strategic use of tools to counter the “dark side” of digital diplomacy (misinformation, disinformation, propaganda et al.), diplomats of all ranks will always need accurate guidelines, use protocols and best practices manuals coupled with proper training to make the most of the unprecedented opportunities brought about by the pandemic in terms of digitalization and, again, techplomacy.

In a nutshell, diplomats are not called to be enthusiast digital crusaders simply because there is no struggle for or against technology in post Covid diplomacy. Coexisting more or less peacefully with the heavyweights existing in every foreign service, technology has been a part of diplomacy for a while, with new developments being slowly but fearlessly embraced until digitalization of diplomacy reached the peak of her fame during the pandemic.

What diplomats are actually called to be is more creative than ever before to become digital disruptors for innovation within their own systems. That entails proactivity to motive their peers, regardless of ranks, and boldness to go the extra mile to also conceive in digital terms those parts of their work that can go hand in hand with offline diplomacy. Only then will diplomats be truly able to keep up with a technologically evolving world that they are not only called to interpret and understand but to predict and help to change for the good of humankind.

Any views or opinions represented in this article are personal and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the writer may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.

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Gerry Diaz Bartolome

Gerry Diaz Bartolome

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Career diplomat from Argentina, keen advocate & passionate about foreign affairs, multilateralism & digital diplomacy. Lessons from pandemic? Future is hybrid!