Digital Diplomacy; An Emerging Concept


In a few decades, the emergence and global spread of internet technologies have changed the world. These internet technologies are playing an important role in every field of life, from domestic to international, social to political, economic to strategic, every field is changed from conventional to modern digital mode of interaction. Meanwhile, international politics, is forcing diplomats to rethink core issues of governance, order, and international hierarchy. The intersection of diplomacy and information technology has led to the emergence of new practices of “digital diplomacy.” Digital diplomacy is a broader term that refers to how the Internet, digital tools, digital media, and the technology sector have influenced or even transformed diplomacy. For instance, a photograph posted on an embassy’s social media account can reach the high-level diplomats networking, public and state leaders using Twitter or other social media tools, to comment on international negotiations are now examples of everyday diplomatic life. Digital diplomacy is seen as a driver and a result of digitalization, and thus incorporates all the various ways in which digitalization interacts with diplomacy. However, changes in processes and practices amount to more than adaptations of the taken-for-granted ways of doing diplomacy. New technology is bringing new actors into the field of diplomacy. It is also challenging established actors to change their ways of doing things and how they present and perceive themselves. During the pandemic, the whole world witnessed the rapid change in conventional modes of interaction and rapidly adopted new technological means to avert the socioeconomic crisis. Similarly, the swift shift to “zoom diplomacy” in early 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how these practices can, at least temporarily, replace face-to-face diplomacy, in the foreign policy of states. On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many challenges related to the constraints on converting diplomatic practices that depend on tacit knowledge to the use of digital tools. In April 2020, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, expressed the difficulty of building trust and finding a compromise in EU diplomacy when all social interaction takes place by video conference (Borrell 2020). To distinguish them from policy briefs or think tank reports, studies into these processes should strive to better capture how diplomats balance their online and offline environment in practice, and the potential constraints or lack of them. The balancing of online and offline practices can reveal how diplomats overcome constraints in the absence of face-to-face diplomacy and more generally contribute to a mapping of the socialization of diplomatic conduct online and the emergence of digital norms in new habits. The interesting practical knowledge of digital diplomacy is rather related to agency and the preconditions of the logic of action. Moreover, diplomats have to deal with a new set of digital policy issues when promoting the interests of their countries. Most of these issues are addressed in the context of the internet and digital governance. The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation (June 2020) provides an entry point to digital policy at the United Nations. Specific implementation activities are listed in the summary of the Roadmap. The Roadmap builds on the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (Panel) titled ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’. The report, published in June 2019, provides five sets of recommendations; build an inclusive digital economy and society, develop human and institutional capacity, protect human rights and human agency, promote digital trust, security, and stability, foster global digital cooperation.

Moreover, this is an area where practice approaches could contribute by situating digital diplomacy practice as a process of knowledge construction in which its practitioners are both leading and shaping their practice. The results of practices are therefore found not only in the impact of digital diplomacy but also in the way that these practices themselves evolve. These patterns of output should be distinguished from strict understandings of the effects or impact of strategic communication on diplomacy. For instance, diplomats’ use of social media can be considered a practice that leads not only to effects of increased visibility and transparency but also to more contention in diplomacy. As a growing number of diplomatic practices take new digital forms, research on digital diplomacy is rapidly expanding. Many of the changes linked to digitalization transform or challenge traditional ways of doing diplomacy. Digitalization is both a process and a result and provokes key questions regarding continuity, change, agency, space, and materiality in diplomacy. Digital dependence makes countries highly vulnerable to any disruption of data flows. Maintaining data flows worldwide is vital to the social stability, economic well-being, and growth of countries. Global geopolitics depends heavily on access to the main internet cables carrying internet traffic between countries and continents. Presently, more than 90% of all global internet traffic flows through submarine cables which mostly follow the old geographical routes used by telegraph cables in the nineteenth century.

Diplomats use digital tools in their daily work, from negotiations and representation to communication and policy analysis. Although the most focused is the use of social media for public diplomacy (e.g. Twitter diplomacy, Facebook diplomacy), digital tools have a much more substantial impact on other functions of diplomacy. Online meetings come with many pros and cons. It provides ease of communication, is cost-friendly, targets a larger population, it is time-saving, and is handier than the conventional methods. This could be a reason enough to push digital diplomacy into strictly rationalist models of diplomacy that view diplomacy as strategic interactions. In terms of communication strategies, more research is needed to understand why certain strategies are becoming rational while others are being abandoned in favor of stable routines.

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