G20 and Beyond: a digital diplomacy primer

Arturo Sarukhan @Arturo_Sarukhan

That the world has changed dramatically in the past two decades is a self-evident truth, but some of those sea-changes have directly affected the way we conduct public policy an diplomacy. For starters, we have witnessed an exponential rise in the multiplicity of non-state actors that today play a major role in domestic and international politics. The growing international activism of subnational authorities –whether state or local- and of civil society as a whole, including home-gown or global non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations, has marked the global interaction of our times. Today the Nation-State has lost the monopoly of international power and information, and is no longer the sole entity that determines how countries and societies relate to one another on the world stage. This has contributed to the dispersion of power, action and actors, creating in the process a more horizontal and fragmented playing field.

Institutions, and this is particularly true for foreign policy bureaucracies, are slow to adapt and resist change. Everyone except babies hates change. But it is unavoidable. The fragmentation of actors influencing foreign policy making is eroding the traditional role of the executive branch of any nation in conducting diplomacy, and therefore governments and their foreign policy establishments simply have no alternative but to adapt and adopt new tools.

Moreover, in the 21st century environment, in which “timely” means “real-time”, diplomats and public officials need to be nimble and agile. They need to discern the quality or veracity of information in the torrent of open-source data that flows every second through traditional and social media outlets, and need to understand situations, assess plausible scenarios, and talk and reach-out to key actors. Diplomacy should not -and cannot- dispense with its traditional toolbox, but it does benefit from the incorporation of new instruments to confront these realities. Digital diplomacy does not come at the expense of traditional diplomacy; it complements it. Incorporating social media as a tool of engagement enables diplomats and public officials to reach a much broader audience, to do so directly and without intermediaries. Moreover, digital diplomacy and the use of social media do not -and cannot- substitute policy. No savvy use of technology can sugarcoat unsound policies or bad public diplomacy. You need to know your audience and you need to be able to take its pulse. What works back home does not necessarily work elsewhere, and it usually never does!

Communication, the cornerstone of diplomacy, has been radically changed by social media, smartphones and the Internet. With the advent of these platforms, a successful digital diplomacy entails a complete overhaul in our communications strategy, and is part of a broader conversation regarding the kind of societies we want. Through diplomacy and public policy you interpret and seek to shape the world. Technology and social media have provided both with additional tools to do just that and the power of creating more ways for individuals to form communities, and to interact. In doing so, it has the power of fostering more open societies, and that has to be one of the key goals of 21st Century Statecraft and streetcraft.