Return of the Jedi? – TechCrunch


As the British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher was one of the first ambassadors to “go digital.” Ten years later, he reflects on what the first wave of “techno-diplomats” did right and wrong, and where digital diplomacy is headed.

Like every industry or trade, diplomacy, a world once dominated by protocols and platitudes, maps and chapters, has already been greatly altered by digital technology.

Also like many professions, the most visible impact has been on tools: better kit, better communications (internal and external), faster pace. Again, like many, the real impact has been less visible and has to do with culture: the humility that comes from understanding how power has changed, the agility that new tools allow, the effectiveness that comes from being more inclusive. and the transparency that comes from a greater public understanding of what was once a closed world.

Ten years ago this fall, I was sent as Her Majesty’s envoy to Lebanon. At 36, he was young for the role. The Arab Spring was encouraging young people across the region and I was wondering if technological change could transform the way the art of government related to people. I started experimenting with what we started calling (after some clunky choices like “Twiplomacy”) “digital diplomacy.” A decade later, digital diplomacy has already gone through several phases, three in fact, and is on the threshold of a fourth. Much has been accomplished. But if we want to be successful in putting more street art into statecraft, we must take into account what we did right and wrong.

The first phase was a brave new world. With its 21st century state of the art program under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US Department of State spearheaded a period of enthusiasm and optimism about how diplomats could use the new tools of communication and connection. For the ambassadors of that era who genuinely adopted and adapted, these were heady times. The rules of the capitals were lax – a minister told me that he didn’t care what I tried as long as he stayed out of the UK media. Many of us were able to continue until they were arrested. There were many errors. And risks: the smartphone from which I relentlessly tweeted was also the device the terrorists used to track my movements.

But this was a period where we were able to surprise people with a desire to connect, participate, and show some humility. It seemed possible to imagine that social media would open societies and promote royal agency and freedom. A British ambassador drank so much of Kool-Aid that he even suggested that the most powerful weapon in the Middle East was the smartphone. I was wrong on that, until now.

The second phase was the institutionalization of digital diplomacy. We began to create structures around the larger dialogue between the old and new emperors. Concerned about the implications for geopolitics of the pace of technological change, I left the UK government to try to defend the urgency of this effort. After my 2017 report At the United Nations, the UN launched an effort to get big tech and government to talk for instead of last mutually. Both the UN High Level Panel and the Global Technology Panel were genuine and effective attempts to translate between those who disrupt global politics, the economy and society and those who are nominally still in charge, an alternative to trying to convene the Zuckerbergs before congressional or parliamentary committees. On “The Naked Diplomat”, I proposed that countries should appoint “technology ambassadors.” The Danes tried, successfully, challenging tech companies to engage with states in real dialogue.

Meanwhile, foreign ministries adapted to social media much faster than any previous technology. Having been one of only four UK ambassadors to Twitter in 2011, in a few short years all but four were, with some like John Casson in Egypt racking up more than one million followers. For a profession without many ways to assess impact, there was a real willingness to experiment with social media. I spoke at more than 20 ambassador conferences, urging colleagues to give it a go, show the human behind the control, and participate (rather than broadcast). I used to tell them it was like the biggest diplomatic reception you could imagine: don’t stand by, say nothing, or yell across the room. Yes, there were risks. But the biggest risks were not being in the conversation.

As more took this approach, foreign ministries faced new trade-offs between the agility and confidentiality of their communications. My 2016 revision The Foreign Office recommended a turn to the former: Perhaps Sir Kim Darroch, the prominent UK ambassador ousted by former President Trump for his leaked cables, might have subsequently disagreed. But now we depend on that ability to communicate at high speed.

Diplomacy in the last two years would have been unimaginable without Zoom and WhatsApp. For a profession that used to go to great lengths to minimize direct contacts between leaders, diplomats were quick to embrace video conferencing once technology made it a serious option. The pandemic spawned online summits and conferences, saving huge amounts of carbon with little obvious negative impact on outcomes.

The third phase overlapped with the second: the empire fought back. Authoritarian governments found new ways to use digital technology to suppress freedom. Trump took advantage of Twitter to stoke xenophobia, prejudice and insurrection. More creatively, he also used it, like at home, to woo potential allies and pressure diplomatic opponents. Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin used the Internet as a weapon against democracy and built troll factories. Twitter mobs made it harder to share the nuances of complex diplomatic positions, let alone use social media to reach compromise and common ground. The polarization was clickbait and the center did not hold. Governments realized that cyber was the new battlefield and began to think in terms of defense.

Meanwhile, Big Tech grew, transforming in some cases into more powerful and sometimes more reactionary entities than governments. Mischievously, he had asked me out loud in 2013 if we should ask Google to join the UN Security Council. Google might now ask why it should bother. As Big Tech grew and flexed its muscles, it quietly recruited talent, depriving governments of human capital and taxes. Symbolically, and perhaps inevitably, the (excellent) first Danish tech ambassador was caught by Microsoft and Britain’s Liberal Democrat leader was caught by Facebook. As the legal arms race intensified, the EU’s titanic clashes with big tech over data or incitement were a far cry from the idealism of the happy new world phase, when we genuinely believed that we could solve more problems together.

Where does this leave us today? Now I am more realistic about technology and diplomacy, but I remain optimistic. We can still solve challenges together, including the Sustainable development goals. But to do so, governments must be more honest about what they cannot do alone. Technology needs more patience to keep up with slower and often awkward moving states, and more honesty about where it has become part of the problem.

Meanwhile, diplomats can continue to use technology to make them more effective: my research group at New York University worked on wearable technology to help a diplomat read a room; a Diplopedia to improve the preservation of diplomatic records; and the intelligent and transparent use of sentiment mining to better understand public opinion. I hold the hypothesis that the more oversight the public has of war-related matters, the more peaceful government policy will be. Perhaps one of the most exciting areas for diplomacy will be the potential to combine it with the latest advances in collective psychology and social media to make peace between societies rather than between states, and between nations and their histories.

The next phase of digital diplomacy should also see work in the next great peace processes: with the planet, with Big Tech, between young and old, between hosts and migrant communities, and ultimately perhaps with technology itself. . I believe that digital diplomacy can help us achieve better results in each of them.

Finally, this next phase of digital diplomacy will see diplomats return to the basics of the trade. We will need a more focused effort to develop diplomatic citizens, equipped with vital diplomatic skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence – education is therefore bottom-up diplomacy. What I have proposed elsewhere, we will need an old school pencil and paper effort to rewrite the global rules for the protection of our freedoms in an online world. We will need embassies to escape the confines of buildings and return to their original mission as groups of people sent to connect. And we will need diplomats who can still do what Edward Murrow called the “last three feet,” that crucial human connection that will be the last diplomatic skill to be automated.

That is an exciting and urgent agenda. If diplomacy did not exist, we would have to invent it. But now we need reinvent that. And that is too important to be left to the diplomats.

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