Diplomacy in the Digital Age: The Rise, Impact, and Future of Digital Diplomacy.

Digital diplomacy, a rapidly evolving field, is reshaping global interactions. Drawing on the insights given by Dr Corneliu Bjola and Dr Jennifer Cassidy at the Oxford Diplomatic Society’s recent “Digital Diplomacy: A New Era in Advancing Foreign Policy” event, I will explore the past, present, and future of Digital Diplomacy.

Through this article, I present my view on the trajectory of digital diplomacy. Its promising future hinges on our collective ability to shape it positively. We need to focus on four areas: establishing collaborative synergies between governments, academia, and the private sector (G-A-P); bolstering international regulation; anticipating the emergence of new technologies; and understanding the shifting global power dynamics.

Yet, embracing these technologies comes with the responsibility of ensuring data integrity and security. Countries slow to adapt to risks falling behind in this new era. While the UK has made significant strides, more must be done to compete with power brokers such as the US, EU, and China.

Moving into the origins of digital diplomacy, we trace back to the early 2000s, with one of the early examples being the US State Department’s pioneering eDiplomacy Taskforce. This marked the beginning of a radical transformation in the global diplomatic landscape. Enabled by the internet and social media, this innovative approach involved various actors, including states and tech firms, communicating across borders and with their citizens.

From social media to digital broadcasting, digital diplomacy’s reach is extensive, one that can be both positive and negative. Its objectives span building international relationships, promoting cooperation, countering misinformation, managing crises, and advocating for human rights and democracy.

This diplomatic revolution’s impact is seen in various instances, like Sweden’s pioneering virtual embassy in Second Life in 2007, promoting cultural exchanges in a virtual environment. The Maldives followed suit shortly after, signifying a new age in diplomatic interactions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the World Health Organization effectively used digital tools to deliver vital health information worldwide. It showcases how digital diplomacy can leverage partnerships with tech platforms for global health emergencies.

Similarly, since 2014, the misuse of digital diplomacy has been evident in Russia’s disinformation campaign concerning the Ukraine conflict, emphasising the influential role of social media in shaping public opinion.

Looking ahead, emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Metaverses, and Large Language Models (LLMs) are set to shape the future of digital diplomacy, offering improved data gathering, early issue detection, and more effective problem-solving.

During the Oxford Diplomatic Society’s event, Dr Corneliu Bjola, an Associate Professor in Diplomatic Studies, emphasised the urgency of establishing digital multilateral cooperation amidst increasing geopolitical tech competition. His views struck me on the present state of the international digital order, which he argued is currently in flux. This instability offers a closing opportunity to shape the norms, rules, and structures defining our digital future.

Similarly to Dr Bjola’s view, I believe that digital diplomacy can foster dialogue and cooperation among nations, helping to manage the complexities of the digital age. Through international data agreements, tech partnerships, AI standards, and Metaverse regulations, we can ensure privacy, digital security, ethical use, and user protection. Although these efforts are urgent and complex, I share Dr Bjola’s optimism regarding the potential of digital diplomacy as a tool to navigate the challenges of the digital age and contribute to a more secure, equitable, and cooperative digital world.

Dr Jennifer Cassidy, a lecturer and diplomatic scholar, delved deep into the transformation of digital diplomatic signalling and online strategic narratives. Her focus on the influential role of tech companies in digital diplomacy and the challenge of legislative pacing echoed Dr Bjola’s sentiments. She presented the audience with a thought-provoking question, contemplating potential strategies to expedite legislative processes while ensuring adequate scrutiny and thoughtful consideration, all in the face of the breakneck speed of technological advancements.

As I’m sure this is a common feeling for all, I’m strongly frustrated by the slow and bureaucratic progress within government institutions and legislation. This issue must be addressed and fixed. For too long, government negotiations and work have remained the same. Current and emerging technological innovations provide a revolutionary opportunity for governments to become more efficient, cut costs, and address many challenges, including possibly Dr Cassidy’s question of how legislation can keep up with the pace of technological advancements.

The conversation then shifted to the revolutionary role of translation technology in modern diplomacy. Dr Cassidy’s pointed out the revolutionary role of translation technology in modern diplomacy and in breaking language barriers. This reminded me of recent transformative tools, such as Skype Translator and Google’s Universal Translator, that could enhance diplomatic interactions. With the latter launched very recently, on the 11th of May 2023, these tools use speech recognition and natural language processing to translate real-time video calls. This represents promising progress in breaking down language barriers and improving diplomatic interactions.

These discussions underline the potential of digital diplomacy to address digital age challenges. In my view, the insights from Dr Bjola and Dr Cassidy strengthen my belief in the future of digital diplomacy and its potential contributions to a secure, equitable, and cooperative digital world.

As I look ahead, I’m optimistic about the future of digital diplomacy. Yet, its promise hinges on our collective efforts to guide it positively. There are four areas, in particular, that citizens, diplomats, and governments should focus on to steer future foreign policy developments: collaborative synergies between governments, academia, and the private sector (G-A-P); international regulation; emerging technologies; and the shifting global power dynamics. 

The landscape of digital diplomacy is evolving rapidly, driven by unique collaborations between G-A-P. For instance, Europe’s model of these alliances has demonstrated its potential to address complex technology-diplomacy challenges. However, governments must keep up with these changes to avoid being left behind in the shifting power dynamics.

Private companies, traditionally passive entities, are now significantly shaping global events. The recent example of Elon Musk deciding whether to provide satellite internet to Ukraine during its conflict with Russia highlights this shift. Additionally, the European Union has taken the innovative approach of liaising directly with US-based tech companies, opening a diplomatic office in Silicon Valley and signalling a move away from traditional government-to-government diplomacy.

Navigating international legislation on digital technology is another critical concern. It encompasses complex challenges such as disinformation and online propaganda. Digital diplomacy can be a potent tool to counter misinformation and uphold the truth. Take, for instance, the recent Turkish elections, where Twitter blocked some content from the opposition, showing how private firms can control information access. Regulations are necessary to ensure accountability and transparency, particularly during politically sensitive periods.

Regarding technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and quantum computing are set to redefine digital diplomacy. AI’s potential to identify and resolve problems in real time could serve as an effective early warning system during crises. Such developments could make diplomacy more responsive and practical, yet they could also introduce new complexities and risks, mainly related to data security.

Furthermore, we’re witnessing a shift in power dynamics in the digital diplomacy landscape. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are investing heavily in tech infrastructure, while smaller nations are leveraging technology to boost their diplomatic influence. Tech companies are emerging as influential brokers, requiring agile legislation. Countries lagging behind, like the UK, must intensify their efforts to compete with these power brokers. Such nations can benefit from integrating traditional diplomacy with core values and developing effective networks.

Digital diplomacy offers an innovative approach to global diplomacy, leveraging digital technologies and social media to communicate, engage, and shape public opinion. With emerging technologies like AI and the Metaverse set to shape its future, we must remain attentive to collaborative synergies, international legislation, emerging technologies, and shifting power dynamics. Despite the challenges, the potential of digital diplomacy to contribute to a more secure, equitable, and cooperative digital world is compelling.

Image Description: European Flags 

Image Credits: Hakan Dahlstrom via Creative Commons ( CC BY 2.0)