Did Digital Technology Transform the DNA of the Practice of Diplomacy?

The UACES Network |

Following on from her non-traditional panel at the UACES Annual Conference, UACES member Dorina Baltag reflects on how digital technology has impacted diplomacy.

News about important diplomatic conversations among world leaders reaches the public with the speed of a ‘click’ through the means of social media. With over 2.8 billion Facebook users and over 206 million active Twitter users worldwide, digital connectivity has become central for diplomatic actors as they discover the need to engage foreign publics by explaining policy, listening to feedback, and facilitating the export of information and services, via social media. The COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns, stimulated this process, pushing diplomatic actors to increase their online presence and even popularity as the competition between Twitter accounts of diplomats and MFAs accelerated. Against this background, a conversation between academics and diplomats organised in September reflected on a range of challenges and opportunities for the practice of diplomacy amidst the digital age and how far the development of digital technology has become embedded into the DNA of diplomatic activities.


Covid has not brought a radical change

The traditional functions of diplomacy – representation, negotiation, and communication – have not changed at its core. As diplomats emphasised, the essential skills used by diplomats remain the same and are being put to good use in COVID-times as much as pre-COVID. And whereas academics and diplomats agree on the fact that the DNA of diplomacy itself has not changed, it has been, without doubt, altered. The practice of diplomacy relies on the work done by diplomats in third countries who serve as the ‘eyes, ears, and mouth of the state’, so relying on digital tools impacts the establishment of bonding and creating a sense of community as the dynamics in physical meetings are difficult to replicate on the screen. Some international negotiations on highly sensitive topics such as disarmament could not be held remotely not only due to security reasons but also due to certain negotiations techniques applied in these settings. In connection to this, civil society organisations and think tanks which are dedicated to raising awareness on an international level and try to influence the agenda-setting were deprived of such opportunities. For diplomats who were posted in the last 18 months, the reality was a ‘de-facto imprisonment’ in their houses, far away from sources of support which undermines the ability to perform your tasks well and impacts the functionality of an embassy. While in capitals, newly hired MFA staff never left the premises of the ministry during their entire diplomatic career thus far and cannot get a sense of the ‘real diplomatic flavours’.


The pitfalls of the digital world for diplomacy

Instruments like WhatsApp, Email and Telephone have been used as such means by diplomats long before COVID, they were only further popularised by the sense of urgency and the increased demand from capitals for urgent information. Diplomatic language which serves as a form of action is misused in the world of ‘Twiplomacy’ to the extent that this diplomatic skill is ridiculed – who posts first and collects more social media trumps effective use of diplomatic communication. Also, since communication became much quicker, the quality of drafting and writing went downhill. Going digital, despite its positive effects of an increased online presence of diplomatic actors worldwide, impacted key aspects of the conduct of diplomatic work. The intimacy of diplomatic interactions was affected (mostly visible during negotiations): the challenge to create a rapport between fellow-diplomats serves as one of the examples. The move towards using digital technology with an ever-increasing pace comes with unintended consequences. For example, it comes with a hampering effect on building trust, quintessential for diplomats to get access to the right information with the latter most likely bringing about a compromise between two sides in the end. And while COVID made everyone cautious of shaking hands, it is the shaking of hands in diplomatic circles that seals the deal – as a nice metaphor for the importance of physical interaction.


Skilful diplomats get around the pitfalls by using digital tools

Under the pressure of the pandemic and the development of video conferencing, diplomacy became more inclusive as more states backed by larger delegations had the possibility to attend virtually high political forums without having to be physically present. This meant that certain states, especially from the developing world, welcomed the digital era as this was a relief on their budgets and because digital education was forced on their diplomatic esprit de corps in need of staying connected. MFAs who skilfully adapted to the digital era noticed strategic thinking and organisational efficiency. Many countries took this opportunity to deliberately engage with a wider variety of stakeholders which pre-COVID was unimaginable to organise in an online format. It also gave states the opportunity to reinforce their strategic alliances via organised online transatlantic summits. On the ground, relying on existing communication networks (an illustration of such networks can be found in this HJD article and in this teaching case-study) proved beneficial. Diplomats emphasised that digital tools had not changed fundamentals of diplomacy but helped them adapt to the different nature of diplomatic interactions. To a certain degree interaction became more intense and frequent for some groups within these networks and the use of digital tools, in certain cases, improved the diplomatic interaction.


Where lies Pandora’s box for ‘digital’ diplomacy?

MFAs and embassies are increasingly producing political content in form of media outputs and adopting a media logic in their daily operations via their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Public diplomacy, that method of an international actor to conduct foreign policy by engaging foreign publics, has developed into a distinct set of practices, with foreign policy narratives being increasingly framed in no more than 280 characters. This seems to have converted diplomacy from closed, secret state affairs to being accessible and open to the public at large. But one must ask themselves: did diplomacy, via digital technology, really advance to a full-blown dialogue with the broader public? Posting on Twitter or Facebook only makes the messages of diplomatic actors public, and thus far resembles a monologue. No doubt digital tools are useful means to accelerate diplomatic communication, especially true in Covid times, but when it comes down to diplomatic activity, the practice needs to move along the continuum of technological advancement so that it serves achieving set foreign policy objectives.

Last but not least, we should not take the concept of digital diplomacy lightly or equate it with public diplomacy: how we as academics or how diplomats define it impacts our own understanding and analysis of the practice of diplomacy.



Dorina Baltag, Excellence 100 research fellow at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance (Loughborough University London), draws insights from the conversation at the roundtable on digital diplomacy she organized between academics and diplomats at the 51st UACES Annual Conference.