Diplomacy in the Digital Age

Today the contributors to a recently released collection of essays assembled under this title and edited by Janice Stein will gather in Toronto to discuss the lifetime contribution to the diplomatic profession of  former Ambassador to the USA Allan Gotlieb.

It is encouraging to see attention of this nature being directed towards the study of diplomacy. Over my 30 years of diplomatic practice and scholarship, I could never understand why so many mainstream educators, senior officials and analysts spent so little time trying to understand or assess the inner workings of the world’s second oldest profession.

Diplomacy is an approach to the management of international relations founded upon the use of non-violent political communications such as dialogue, negotiation and compromise for purposes of conflict resolution and problem-solving. In my experience, many serving diplomats are not entirely sure of that definition, or of how their work is related to the achievement of international peace, security and prosperity. That observation notwithstanding, I would argue that diplomacy has never been more relevant.

I expect that many of the participants in today’s symposium share that perspective.

Three of the new volume’s four subtitles – Diplomacy with the United States in the Era of Wikileaks; The Professional Diplomat on Facebook, and; Personal Diplomacy in the Age of Twitter – make reference to manifestations of the what is widely referred to as the new media, a communications venue has come to occupy a significant place within the operations of several of the world’s more innovative foreign ministries. 

Digital diplomacy is a catchy term, but, like diplomacy itself,  it is not clearly understood.  Also referred to variously as e-, i-, cyber or virtual diplomacy, it has been made possible by the adoption, within diplomatic institutions and government more generally, of digitally-based systems of data creation, transmission and storage using the Internet, social media platforms, computers, and a variety of wireless electronic devices.

The diplomatic means, therefore, are evolving to keep pace with the times, and especially with the need to connect directly with foreign populations, but the ends are largely immutable.

The threat or use of armed force will always have its place in the world, but that place is now dramatically over-represented. Since the end of the Cold War, and in the wake of disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the limitations associated with the continued militarization of international policy could not be clearer. The reality is that the most profound threats and challenges which imperil the planet – climate change, resource scarcity, diminishing bio-diversity, environmental collapse – are rooted in science and driven by technology.

International cooperation to broach these complex and difficult issues cannot be undertaken using anything other than diplomacy, whether traditional, public, digital,  or guerrilla, which combines elements of all three.

Long-term, sustainable and human-centred development has become the basis for durable security in the digital age, and for that reason diplomacy must displace defence at the centre of international policy. In a globalized precincts of the 21st century, talking rather than fighting is the only way forward.

I hope that conviction finds expression and support at today’s event.