Diplomacy has been a crucial element in maintaining global peace and security since the inception of the concept of international relations. For centuries, diplomacy was conducted in majority through face-to-face meetings, as well as through telephone calls and written correspondence. However, with the advancement of technology, the nature of diplomacy is undergoing a significant shift. Today, diplomacy is becoming increasingly digitalized, with diplomats using a variety of digital tools and platforms to conduct their work. If diplomacy is narrowly regarded as the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations, it is digital technology that has made communicating and collaborating across borders easier and more efficient. From virtual meetings to social media campaigns, digital diplomacy is becoming increasingly prevalent, and it is definitely changing the way that international relations are conducted.
Before we touch upon social media, which seems to add a whole new reality to the one diplomats have traditionally become used to, let’s not forget the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on facilitating the digitalization of diplomacy. Namely, one of the primary ways that diplomacy is »going digital« is through virtual meetings. In the past, diplomats would have to travel to different countries to attend conferences and meetings, which could be time-consuming and expensive. Today, however, diplomats are participating in virtual meetings from anywhere in the world, using platforms like Zoom, Skype, and WebEx. These platforms allow diplomats to communicate in real-time, share documents and presentations, and collaborate on projects from remote locations. Although this has made it easier for diplomats to work together and share information even when they are not physically present in the exact location, using videoconferencing tools was untaught of before COVID struck – not because it wasn’t possible before that, but because diplomacy was exercised in already well-known ways that had little to do with the online world. One of the reasons why in-person diplomacy is still and probably always will be preferred by most is the presence of protocol and etiquette, which aids significantly in one’s diplomatic means.
However, one of the most significant changes in the digitalization of diplomacy has been the emergence of social media. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have become important tools for diplomats to communicate with one another and with the public. Diplomats have been using social media to promote their country’s interests, share news and information, and engage with the public. They also use social media to gather intelligence and monitor the activities of other countries. Social media is the tool that helped individuals significantly increase their power as an actor within the international community. Not only are diplomats able to reach a wider audience than through traditional diplomatic channels, but they are also able to interact with other diplomats, politicians, and citizens in general in real-time. As social media is a place where a lot is taking place nowadays, a lot of data is accumulating there as well. Ergo, digital diplomacy also includes using big data analytics and artificial intelligence to gather and analyze large amounts of data and identify trends and patterns. Diplomats then use this information to make informed decisions and develop effective policies.
The use of digital tools also allows diplomats to work more efficiently and effectively. For example, cloud-based software enables diplomats to access their work from anywhere in the world, making it easier to collaborate with colleagues across borders. Additionally, digital tools like project management software and online collaboration platforms can help diplomats manage their workflow and stay organized. However, there are also challenges that come with the digitalization of diplomacy, the first of which is cybersecurity, coming with the question of whether and how safe is their work data. As diplomats increasingly rely on digital tools and platforms to operate, they become more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Hackers can steal sensitive information, disrupt communications, and even manipulate public opinion by spreading false information online. Another challenge is the quite significant risk of the so-called »digital divides« or the gaps in access, use, and knowledge of digital technologies between different groups of people or regions. Namely, while digital tools can help diplomats communicate more effectively and efficiently if certain diplomats lack access to digital technologies or are unable to effectively use them, they may be excluded from participating in digital diplomacy efforts. This can easily lead to a situation where only certain voices are heard in digital diplomacy, potentially leading to a skewed perception of a country’s foreign policy goals and interests. Moreover, digital divides can exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities, potentially fueling resentment toward a country and hindering its digital diplomacy efforts.
That is why it is essential for digital diplomacy efforts to be inclusive and ensure that everyone can participate and benefit from digital diplomacy efforts. All in all, digital diplomacy refers to the use of digital technologies and social media platforms by governments and diplomats to communicate with foreign audiences, engage with citizens of their own or other countries, and advance foreign policy objectives. Digital diplomacy has recently become increasingly important because of globalization and the accessibility of the Internet, which brought a changing communication landscape, therefore enabling a much wider reach and influence. Overall, digital diplomacy offers a range of benefits and opportunities for governments and diplomats to engage with (foreign) audiences, advance foreign policy objectives, and promote their country’s interests in a rapidly changing global landscape. The only question for current or future diplomats is – are you ready to join in?
Luka Radičević is a graduate political scientist in international relations and a student of master’s academic studies in international security at the University of Ljubljana. He is a young researcher and a member of the eDiplomatija team