Transforming Diplomacy with 21st Century Tech and Approaches

From left to right: Dr. Syed Ismail Shah (ITU Representative Southeast Asia and Timor Leste), Prof. Jovan Kurbalija (Founding Director, DiploFoundation), Retno Marsudi (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Indonesia), Cecep Herawan (Director General for Information and Public Diplomacy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Derval Usher (Head of Office, Pulse Lab Jakarta), and Allaster Cox (Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy)

High-level assemblies used to be reserved for dialogue between world leaders, and for negotiating agreements related to complex foreign policies. Noticeably absent from many of these discourses was the involvement of a wider public, as the practice of diplomacy traditionally involved foreign public officials known as diplomats.

With the internet and digital technologies now introducing new dimensions to diplomacy, these changes have not only presented new opportunities but also several challenges. How can governments leverage these opportunities? Do diplomats have the “digital know-how” to address these challenges tactically?

Pulse Lab Jakarta recently co-organised the International Seminar on Digital Diplomacy with the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and DiploFoundation, which served as a roundtable for diplomats, development practitioners, social media enthusiasts and civil society members to exchange fresh ideas and approaches on how to both adopt and adapt to digital diplomacy.

The keynote address was given by Retno Marsudi, the Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who set the tone for the event by highlighting one of the Government’s ambitions: “We want to use our digital strength to transform our economy, to connect with positive energy, and to empower our people.”

The Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retno Marsudi, speaking at the seminar

The sessions were packed with rich, in-depth discussions and a blog does not do them justice, but we wanted to share a few key messages that resonated throughout the seminar.

Social Media And Beyond

A new-ish concept, the definition of digital diplomacy is still being refined and is used interchangeably with terms such as e-diplomacy and tech diplomacy. It is generally understood as the use of the internet and information communication technologies (ICTs) to advance diplomatic agendas.

“If it happens in the world, it happens on Twitter”, Agung Yudha from Twitter reminded us, while showing snapshots of world leaders who are active on Twitter, from the most followed and the most influential to the most conversational and best connected. It was interesting to hear how governments and embassies now rely on a tweet as a sort of “short and sweet” press release to communicate their positions on certain policies, as well as to share news and update in real-time… a well-noted example was of the historic phone call conversation between President Obama and Iran’s President Rouhani that diverted from the norms of official communiques with the use of live tweeting.

But as we gathered from other presentations, there is one thing for sure — digital diplomacy goes beyond social media! Derval Usher, PLJ’s Head of Office, shared some of the Lab’s data innovation projects for development and humanitarian action. The main point of her presentation was not just about how social media can function as a savvy communication tool, but more on how the digital footprints of the millions of users may be useful for improving consular services related to the security and mobility of citizens abroad and other areas, informing multilateral strategic negotiations, and monitoring the effectiveness of development aid programmes.

Indeed, these examples have always been a part of the practice of diplomacy, albeit conducted via conventional means and approaches. This takes us to another solid point made by Minister Retno Marsudi:

“Diplomats and diplomacy must adapt to these new norms… to stay relevant.”

People are at the heart of diplomacy. For foreign nationals living and visiting overseas, embassies and consulates are often their go-to places for reliable information, especially during public emergencies and crises. Today, while still serving such purpose through transformative digital communication channels, one of the main challenges is how to provide updates more quickly all while maintaining the credibility of their public images by avoiding the pitfalls of fake news.

“The challenge for our Indonesian diplomats especially is that we should be able to get information faster than detik.com and kumparan.com,” Cecep Herawan, Director General for Information and Public Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted. But getting timely information is only one aspect, verification is another and that’s an area of diplomacy that must also evolve — citizens are more connected and more vocal online nowadays and the wisdom of the crowd can help maintain the checks and balances.

Still, for governments and diplomats to adjust their mindsets and tactically perform their roles in world diplomacy, capacity building, training and an openness to new approaches must be prioritised. Quite novel was the recent appointment of the first tech ambassador (the former Danish ambassador to Indonesia) by the Danish Government to serve in Silicon Valley. The role? To network with tech giants from the private sector and advocate on issues of national interests and multilateral relations. Shifting gears however from the conventions of diplomacy to the multifaceted and inclusive nature of tech diplomacy also means taking some time to understand the context of this new paradigm.

Context is Everything

As the name digital diplomacy suggests, the context is digital. This means basic changes such as paper-based communication to electronic communication; a limited audience reach to a global audience reach; political charades to down-to-earth dialogues; as well as moving from lengthy report writing to crafting sensitive political messages in a few characters.

Several of the presenters shared lessons learned and emerging best practices that can help shape norms around digital diplomacy. Allaster Cox, the Deputy Head of Mission to Indonesia, Australian Embassy, described a couple of instances of how the Australian Embassy is strategically employing digital diplomacy to advance his government’s public image abroad and to connect Australian and Indonesian entrepreneurs in order to kickstart economic partnerships for more long-term bilateral economic cooperation.

Accomplishing these goals nevertheless, as echoed by Rasmus Kristensen (the current Danish Ambassador to Indonesia) demands time, creativity, and a dedicated staff with the right digital “know-how”. Social media captions cannot just be copied and pasted from official, formally-worded documents; they need to be contextualised for the intended audience. This may mean finding the right balance to inform but not to offend (since once a post is made, it’s hard to be retracted or deleted); using the right tone and language; and realising that a single photograph or video may be more effective for public diplomacy than a transcript.

To ensure that messages are aligned and effective, Ambassador Kristensen explained that Danish embassies around the world now have access to pre-designed social media content, which are developed on a daily basis by digital diplomacy experts at the home base but then can be tweaked for the local context.

Diplomacy Is An Art

The seminar wrapped up with an open mic session, chaired by Professor Jovan Kurbalija, the founding director of DiploFoundation. He kicked things off by candidly asking the audience: “should humour be part of digital diplomacy?” After some uncertainty from the audience, one attendee remarked that “diplomacy should be as much an art as it is a science.”

What this means is humanising the practice, and connecting with the target audience without the veneer of diplomacy by rote. Part of which may mean using humour to tactfully appease and address sensitive political issues, instead of doing so vaguely in fancy diplomatic terms.

But one of the broader takeaways was that, adapting to digital diplomacy means diplomats have to be more flexible and experimental with trying out new technologies and ways to achieve their diplomatic agendas. Better put, digital diplomacy now involves rewriting the playbook for career diplomats.

The Way Forward

The digital revolution has unapologetically disrupted the ways in which the global community interacts, communicates and even exists. Diplomacy, in particular, is one area that has been clearly impacted and will continue to transform as diplomats embrace emerging tools and approaches. Beyond these takeaways from the seminar, it was super clear that it is important for diplomats and governments to gear up for the new wave of what is to come… but it may just be too soon to predict it all.

We hope this international seminar will inspire fresh ideas and inform future approaches within Indonesia and the international diplomatic community. All the presentations from the seminar can be downloaded here: www.indonesiadigitaldiplomacy.com


Pulse Lab Jakarta is grateful for the generous support of the Government of Australia.