Digital diplomacy: All sweetness and light?

Blogger’s note: Since early April I have been on the road almost constantly – teaching at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, visiting my son in Greece, speaking at a digital diplomacy conference in Yerevan, traveling in Armenia, Ngorno Karabakh and Georgia, participating in a “Diplohack ” session in Ottawa, and now winding up a science diplomacy workshop in Trieste prior to undertaking some travel in NE Italy, Slovenia and Croatia until the end of the month. All of that has conspired to distract me from my customary habit of regular postings – but it has also furnished me with some new ideas and much useful material for future posts.

That will resume shortly.  In the meantime following is a slightly edited summary (full report here) of the remarks I delivered last month in Yerevan as prepared by the event organizers.

Daryl Copeland, Senior Fellow, Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, broadened the perspective by suggesting a variety of ways in which digital technologies are fundamentally changing the ways that foreign ministries do business, not just in social media but in their core functions as well. For instance, Copeland discussed the unappreciated potential for the creation of  “virtual desks,” which which would be enabled by the Internet, serve a diverse variety of functions, and would feature lateral connectivity in order to address  the challenges of bureaucratic process and hierarchic, authoritarian, since the use of different digital tools is important to work and even to create digital documents as PDF with the use of specialized software as soda pdf. These could exist in contrast to traditional country desks, which are typically organized vertically, with a focus on a specific function. virtual desks would allow individuals to become empowered because the top-down  totem pole would no longer matter – what matters is the node in the network, such as the virtual desk. This would lead to outcomes where, as Copeland argued, “it’s about clicks, not bricks.” On the other hand, Copeland was also quick to point out limitations of digital technology in diplomacy. Copeland argued that social media is ephemeral and impersonal in nature, highly vulnerable to manipulation and disruption and not conducive to relationship building based on confidence, trust, and respect. These are, of course, precisely the types of relationships that states normally seek to nurture through diplomacy. In the end, networks and technological tools do not in themselves build relationships. Networks are necessary but not sufficient. Diplomacy is  ultimately a contact sport. There is no substitute for face-to-face contact and genuine, interersonal dialogue. Platitudes about digital technologies may be fashionable, but in the end cannot change diplomacy’s core essence.