Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 06, 2020
In the time of modern means of communication, diplomacy must evolve as well. The question is — what is the right direction of this evolution?
Technologies changing diplomatic practices: Pre and post-Covid-19 reality With the rise of technologies and new methods of digital communication it may seem that humanity has tangibly simplified ways of conversation and reaching agreement. However, when one steps back to see the whole picture, it becomes obvious that recalling any serious progress in the sphere of world diplomacy and conflict resolution in the last few years is not an easy task. Diplomacy has noticeably moved to Twitter and turned into monologues aiming to impress the audience, but not to have direct negotiations with the other party. Official accounts of foreign offices today compete in wit and sharp words. The problem of Twitter diplomacy is everlasting presence of the third party: spectators who immediately show you their support or dissatisfaction. This makes foreign policy highly dependent on domestic policy, likes and dislikes of a non-professional audience. As Russian diplomats and experts say, during recent years many serious negotiation tracks have been suspended and backstage communication has significantly narrowed. COVID-19 additionally boosted this process as the majority of international summits and forums have been cancelled or postponed until 2021 or even later. Zoom meetings do not grant space for normal backstage diplomacy. What we see is that the more digital opportunities you have, the less space there is for personal interaction. Flows of information create serious competition and challenges for “boring” official statements. If you want to attract attention, you need to be provocative and loud – that is the ‘normal’ logic of the informational society. That is why actions and opinions of officials in social media more and more often cross the red line or cause international scandals. Unfortunately, informational consumer society is more interested in negative and shocking developments in relations among states, and simultaneously this society is indifferent to neutral news of meetings, negotiations and new agreements conducted by political leaders and diplomats. Today traditional diplomacy in the public eye looks just like a set of ceremonies and pleasant protocol photos. Erosion of global institutions inevitably influences diplomatic practices and the reason for this crumbling is not solely social media and information technologies development. It is connected as well to the quality of modern political elites, the protracted and uncertain world order transformation and new values appearing amongst the young generation. Of course, in the time of modern means of communication, diplomacy must evolve as well. The question is – what is the right direction of this evolution? Official diplomacy is also becoming more transparent and less secret. Becoming more democratic and open is a positive trend, is it not? But practically it is not always conducive as full transparency of negotiations may spawn dead ends in most painful and tense issues because of the existing pressure from the networked society. There is always a dilemma about effectiveness of elite diplomacy and the importance of public opinion, but the latter can be ineffective if motivated by hostility and desire for revenge.

Covid-19: Changing the world

The case of necessary social distancing and reduction of personal contacts led to the situation where diplomats had to agree to hold all their meetings online. Technical glitches, digital illiteracy of officials and bad sound were not the only problems. Online conferences are deprived of chemistry which arises in personal interaction. No body language, no gestures, no hugs, and handshaking anymore. You cannot share your attitude and cannot even try to read what the other party really thinks of you and your suggestions. That is why many negotiations and meetings were just postponed to the uncertain post-COVID times. International forums and conferences which are so natural for diplomats, politicians, and experts, grant more than just new information and opportunity to express your position. They also provide opportunities for networking, fresh projects, new appointments, insights, and deeper understanding of processes in the international arena. When it came to online meetings, governments also had to think whom do the online platforms belong to. Are they safe? How do they operate with personal data? Do they keep privacy? Is it safe to use foreign platforms for negotiations in your country? Won’t your negotiations be transmitted to the third party? The situations of Zoom accounts put on sale by hackers or leaked private conversations demonstrate the vulnerability of modern technologies and unpreparedness for force majeure. Can negotiations remain private in such a situation? Not every country is able to develop their own software for online negotiations, moreover, there are no international agreements and conventions on digital diplomacy yet. Time for fixed rules on diplomacy in new online reality seems to have come. States and regional integrational projects are already elaborating their digital strategies, but without any global control it can lead to new conflicts and confrontation between countries. Technologies themselves have become an apple of discord. US-China technological competition may become the leitmotif of global affairs in the near future. The potential risk of this competition is that the wars of digital platforms and applications may destabilize the whole international environment, not only bilateral US-China relations. The digital sphere today is subjected to regionalization as all other political and economic spheres. Even such a simple thing as emergence of alternative joint platforms for the international community (for example, within international organizations) and for diplomatic meetings looks too idealistic now. Unfortunately, we have almost lost the habit of multilateral diplomacy. The Internet can also become a victim of regionalization if there are no attempts to agree on regulating the Internet space. Changes brought by rapid technological development, digitalization of everyday life and then Covid-19 pandemic are still inconclusive. Official visits and face-to-face meetings have been already restored but in a limited format and accompanied by new sanitary prescriptions. Even if soon we defeat the coronavirus pandemic, the digital sphere still will need strict rules of operation: how to resolve ‘digital’ conflicts, how to hold negotiations online privately, how to fight hacking, how to fix technical malfunctions and how to find and punish violators in the Internet? Who are those violators at all? Also it has become common that non-state actors influence international affairs, and with the access to the Internet it will become more and more easier for NGOs, political, business and intellectual leaders to participate in world politics – just from their home. The coronavirus pandemic gave impetus not only to the institute of state, but as well to the civil society activists and other non-governmental actors to become more embedded into the transformational process of societies. However, non-governmental actors are not a substitute for official high-level diplomacy. One of the most important conclusions is that real diplomacy happens when diplomats take into account not just informational effects and public applause, but when they perceive the result of negotiations and perceptible changes in world politics as the most important products of  their effort. Imitating diplomacy, which is so easy in the digital space, is not diplomacy yet. It can accumulate likes and attention on the Internet, but it usually does not bring any progress to material relations offline.
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