How are digital technologies changing diplomacy?

The current pandemic has forced international relations into the virtual sphere at a rapid pace, and as in so many walks of life, diplomats have had to learn to replace face-to-face meetings with Zoom. However, the use of new technologies in diplomacy is nothing new, and is likely to continue to change in the future, as Alex Manby explains.

Diplomats have long grappled with advances in technology. For the Tudor ambassador, for instance,  realist portrait paintings provided the cutting-edge medium through which to conduct diplomacy. The 16th century painter Hans Holbein was famous throughout Europe for his portraits of the Tudor royal family, which were circulated amongst foreign courts in an effort to demonstrate the might and majesty of the English crown. Indeed, such was the power of the painting, that Henry VIII nearly caused a diplomatic crisis when he divorced Anne of Cleves after declaring that Holbein’s portrait of the German princess significantly exaggerated her beauty.

Fast forward three hundred years, and in the 1860s, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is reported to have described the invention of the telegraph as signalling the ‘end of diplomacy’ altogether, predicting that it would replace face-to-face meetings between diplomats and ambassadors. Later, in the 1960s, the British diplomat, Sir Harold Nicolson expressed similar concerns. He described the telephone as a ‘dangerous instrument’ which he feared would end the practice of ambassadors being based in foreign countries. Though history would prove both Palmerston and Nicolson wrong, similar anxieties were also expressed of the impact of the fax machine and e-mail upon diplomacy.

So how should we understand the impact of digital technologies on diplomacy today? Well first, it’s important to understand exactly what diplomacy entails.  At its core, diplomacy involves the management of relations between countries by ambassadors, politicians, and diplomats. This can take place in public, for example at United Nations (UN) gatherings, presidential press conferences, and intergovernmental summits, as well as in private, as representatives broker compromises, develop partnerships, and engage in secret negotiations behind closed doors. Whilst diplomats and ambassadors must represent and communicate on behalf of entire countries, they are still people with their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Diplomacy is thus also about the development of carefully managed and close personal relations between individuals.

How have digital technologies changed these relationships? Well, embassies and foreign ministries are now increasingly using digital technologies to reach new audiences. Social media allows diplomats to bypass official ambassadors and politicians to communicate directly with the public, both at home and abroad. This presents opportunities but also challenges. Social media allows diplomats to communicate faster, for example when coordinating disaster response efforts – but this speed means that tensions can escalate quickly. This was evident when former US President Donald Trump used Twitter to threaten North Korea with military action and Russia and Canada engaged in a Twitter ‘War of Maps’ over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also forced diplomats to use digital technologies in novel ways. Trapped at home by lockdowns and global travel restrictions, ambassadors who would normally travel the world to meet in person were forced to switch to virtual meetings. Whilst this so-called ‘Zoom diplomacy’ has now become the norm, diplomats have complained that it makes it harder to establish the trust and close connection needed to form effective relationships or to have the private conversations which are often essential for hammering out deals between countries.

However, Zoom diplomacy also has its benefits. By removing travel costs, virtual participation can be more accessible, making it easier for representatives of less wealthy countries to attend diplomatic meetings. Similarly, without the need to fly, the carbon footprint of diplomacy is significantly reduced. Furthermore, though some researchers have cautioned about the potential cybersecurity threats posed by holding meetings online, others have suggested live-streamed meetings are more transparent, allowing new audiences to watch diplomatic gatherings from the comfort of their living rooms.

And finally, how might diplomacy look in the future? Zoom meetings look set to stay, but as part of a new, hybrid diplomacy, involving both in-person and virtual participation. This setup will allow diplomats to continue engaging in those all-important face-to-face meetings, whilst also ensuring widespread participation from those unable to attend in person. Importantly, the history of diplomacy tells us that whilst diplomats and ambassadors have often expressed initial apprehensions at the introduction of new technologies, they have always eventually embraced such changes and used them in innovative and creative ways. Though the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic continues to create new diplomatic challenges, this trend looks set to continue.

Alex Manby is a 3rd year PhD student at St John’s College studying Human Geography


First, read these three articles ‘Visual storytelling for diplomatic practice’, ‘The dos and don’ts of digital diplomacy in the COVID-19 world’ and, ‘On the use of narratives and images in digital diplomacy’.

Next, visit this page: ‘World leaders’ UN video call backdrops – ranked’. Choose three of the Zoom backdrops shown in the article. Using the resources above, and those in the further reading, write one hundred words for each picture on how the diplomats and politicians use their Zoom backgrounds to present themselves and communicate a message about their country to the UN. You might like to consider the placement of flags, the way the speaker is sitting/standing, and the kind of images used. Which background do you think is most effective, and why?

Further Reading

[Diplomat Magazine] Diplomacy in the age of Zoom
[The Guardian] Bye bye bilaterals: UN General Assembly to embrace Zoom diplomacy
[Exploring Digital Diplomacy] Why the UN should promote digital diplomacy
[Exploring Digital Diplomacy] On the use of videos in Digital Diplomacy
[BBC News] E-diplomacy: foreign policy in 140 characters
[DiploFoundation]  Diplomacy for the digital age

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