The Digital Diplomacy revolution


Foreign policy develops its own language to gain strategic control of the web.


As seen from Washington DC, the revolution that the internet has brought to foreign policy seems increasingly entrenched. It’s been five years since Anne Marie Slaughter, Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, with the backing of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, brought diplomacy into the digital age at the State Department, implementing new technologies to reach citizens, companies and NGOs.

The New York Times article of 2010 entitled “Digital Diplomacy” gave a detailed account of this change in form and substance. Since then, innovations have moved ahead. The US capital is the central hub of a new ‘ecosystem’ that has multiplied the opportunities for contact between embassies, foreign ministries and the outside world.

The revolution’s numbers speak for themselves. According to the latest edition of the Twiplomacy study published by PR and communications firm Burston-Marsteller, 83% of the 193 UN member nations have an official presence on Twitter. Over two-thirds (68%) of all heads of state and government now have personal social network accounts. 

In 2014, Dutch Prime Minister Alexander Stubb tweeted: “Most people who criticize Twitter are often not on it. I love this place. Best source of info. Great way to stay tuned and communicate”.

World leaders are well aware of this: the one with the greatest Twitter following is US President Barack Obama, with nearly 56.3 millions followers, followed by Pope Francis (over 19.3 million followers on nine accounts in multiple languages) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (over 10.6 million). The most popular European leaders on Twitter are Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (1.7 million followers), British Prime Minister David Cameron (931,000) and French President François Hollande (910,000). Diplomatic networks have also experienced massive expansion on social media. Today, there are over 3,500 ambassadors and embassies active on Twitter across the globe. In cities such as London, New York and Washington, diplomatic missions can no longer afford to ignore the frenetic activity of social networks.

The Italian embassy in Washington, under Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, is one of the most active in creating a “collaborative ecosystem”. The term was coined by Andreas Sandre, the embassy’s press and public affairs officer and a social media expert, who has written two books on the subject: Twitter for Diplomats (2013) and the recently published Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy.

Sandre explains: “The embassy is experimenting with social media both as a communication tool and in relation to the collaborative ecosystem that needs to be created around social media. We’re lucky to have an ambassador who supports a digital focus and who is personally present on Twitter. As for our collaborations, since 2012 the embassy has been hosting a series of discussions, under the heading Digital Diplomacy Series, where we invite people like Alec Ross, David Ignatius and members of the White House and State Department to exchange ideas that might help us establish best practices”.

One of their most popular discussions took place on 5 February 2014 with the president of the New America Foundation think tank, Anne Marie Slaughter, who was the first female director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.

Today, she said, there are two channels for foreign policy and both need attending to at the same time. The first is chessboard diplomacy, in which two principle players carefully study each other’s actions and then decide what to do. However, in a hyper-connected and globalised world, this traditional approach must be accompanied by the second channel of digital diplomacy, where the internet is “a metaphor, the network of all networks”. It is here where many actors – various nations and global networks of ministries, in particular of finance and justice – interact in real time.

These networks have different fields, which span everything from business and civil society to criminals and social movements. “Foreign policy today resembles a network of all these networks”, continued Slaughter, pointing out Hillary Clinton’s role in having recognised the shifts and restructuring the State Department’s activities onto digital platforms to reach those networks.

The road ahead is still a long one and, she argued, while we still have a political apparatus created primarily for chessboard diplomacy, we need another one for the internet world. And we need to grasp how to “maximise national and global interests” in that world.

In Foggy Bottom, the Washington DC neighbourhood that is home to some of the world’s leading financial and diplomatic institutions, one of the hottest frontiers of digital diplomacy is thwarting the propaganda of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its network of supporters, which currently publish 90,000 tweets a day. Operating at the centre of this strategy is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), founded in 2011 and directed by Richard Stengel, the current undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and former managing editor of Time magazine.

The goal of the CSCC is to coordinate and expand counter-information on behalf of much larger organisations (the Pentagon, Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies) and supply alternative narratives on the English-language sites used by jihadists for recruitment and fundraising. All this comprises yet another channel of communication for foreign policy, which approximately 170 years ago experienced its first technological shock, reportedly summed up by British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, who upon receiving his first telegram exclaimed, “By God, this is the end of diplomacy!” 


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