By Dr. Luis Ritto, former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and Former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations. Emeritus Professor at the International School of Protocol & Diplomacy and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.
“Change is the law of life. And those who look to the past or present are certain to miss the future” – John F. Kennedy (1963).
A new area in diplomacy that has seen a steady increase in its use in the past 20 years or so is the one of “digital diplomacy”. Also called “numerical diplomacy” by the French and “e-diplomacy” by the British, digital diplomacy describes a new method of conducting diplomacy and international relations with the help and support of the internet and other communication technologies (ICTs).
A new method that is more inclusive, open and transparent than the diplomacy that was used in the past, which was more secretive and exclusive, working discretely behind closed doors. In fact, and as I wrote in my previous articles, diplomacy has evolved greatly in the past 100 years to become more public and open. Besides, it is managed nowadays by a great number of actors, like for example non-governmental organisations, elected politicians, cultural and trade organisations, academic experts and civil society organisations. This trend is there to stay and the new technologies of today are playing an important part in not only making diplomacy more efficient and cost-effective, but also by pushing it in the direction of being more open and transparent.
Experts say that communication is the essence of diplomacy. Stearns, as quoted by Jönsson & Hall in their book called “Essence of Diplomacy”, goes as far as to say that “there has never been a good diplomat who was a bad communicator” (1). This being so, it is no surprise that the technologies of communication have always been used to improve the communication work of diplomats. And as technologies progress, so have progressed the communication tools of diplomacy. The use of ICTs has in particular improved the service delivery of Diplomatic Missions with limited staff and which have high demands for provision of information to the public, as we will discuss in more detail later on in this paper.
To make my point clear, I think that it is worth to recall here how diplomatic communication has evolved over time and how it played a vital role in diplomacy. History books tell us that diplomatic communication dates as far back as two millennia. At that time it was rudimentary and mainly based on messengers and merchant caravans, who were charged to deliver the messages to the monarchs of other countries. The Greek city sates further developed communications, mainly in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, by using clay tablets and a cipher system for the protection of their messages. Messages in clay tablets are said to have been imported from Mesopotamia and were used for several centuries. Then in the Middle Ages (5th to the 15th centuries AC) the Papal diplomacy introduced parchments for diplomatic communication. The system of using parchments went on well into the Renaissance period, when the first resident diplomatic missions were established in Europe (first in the Principalities of Northern Italy and afterwards in other European countries). However, with the invention of the Guttenberg printing press (1450) the parchment was gradually replaced by printed documents, a system that is still in use today. Mainly since the Renaissance, diplomatic messages have been sent in sealed diplomatic bags (pouches) from one country to another.
An important step in the modernisation of diplomatic communications came in the 19th century (mainly after 1835) with the invention of the electric telegraph. It was a communication system that transmitted electric signals from location to location which translated into a message. By the end of the century it was possible to send messages from one continent to another (from the USA to Great Britain in Europe, for example). In a matter of decades, electrical telegraph networks allowed people and traders to transmit messages across continents and oceans almost instantly, with widespread social and economic impacts.
The electric telegraph had also a major impact in the world of diplomacy. Foreign Ministries and Diplomatic Missions were connected to telegraph systems and could easily communicate between them (mainly via cryptic messages). Instructions could be sent rapidly and regularly by capitals to their Embassies around the world. Ambassadors could consult with their superiors and were not any more forced to take decisions on important matters on their own without having government approval. Key Embassies started to receive daily briefs from home, making it possible for diplomats there to swiftly convey messages to the officials in the countries in which they were posted. It was possible also for the first time for Ministries of Foreign Affairs to contact each other directly in cases of urgent need. The impact of the telegraph was therefore of major importance for diplomacy and it marked the beginning of what some historians call the system of modern diplomatic communication.
After the telegraph, the telephone, which was introduced in the later part of the 19th century, helped to further improve communications between countries and diplomatic envoys, thus adding to the speed and precision of communications.
Then followed the fax system, especially after 1980. Fax, which means in fact facsimile and can also be called telecopying or telefax, is the telephonic transmission of scanned printed materials (both text and images), normally to a telephone number connected to a printer. The receiving fax machine interprets the tones and reconstructs the original image by printing it on a paper copy.
The fax system was, before the internet arrived, a revolution in itself. The fact that it allowed for the transmission of documents and images from one part of the world to the other in a question of minutes, helped greatly to strengthen communication in the diplomatic world. For example, it become possible for a French Ambassador in Tokyo to sign a Treaty with the Japanese authorities and for the French Foreign Minister to receive a copy of it by telefax in Paris less than ten minutes later! Originals of important documents (briefs, minutes of meetings, legislation, speeches, official notes, treaties, protocols, verbal notes, press releases, cabinet memos, letters, reports of all sorts….) started to circulate by fax everywhere in diplomatic missions. Foreign Ministries in capitals made sure, using the fax, that Embassies in the five corners of the world received regularly (daily in many cases) updated information about the activities of the Ministries and the main decisions of the government. Indeed, the fax allowed Ambassadors to be informed promptly about any issue of importance for their work and to know the point of view of their governments on all issues of importance for their countries. Consular services also availed themselves of the fax system to receive copies of important documents from their capitals (birth and marriage certificates, passports and visas…), thus allowing those diplomatic missions to provide a faster and more reliable service to their citizens abroad.
However, the best was still to come. And the best was the internet, which was introduced more than 20 years ago, especially after 1990. As all people know, the internet is, simply put, a global network connecting billions of people through computers. Better saying, it is a system of interconnected computer networks that use what is called “the internet standard protocol suite (or TPC/IP)” to link several billion devices worldwide. Diplomatic services everywhere have followed the trend and are now linked to the internet and rely on it for a variety of services (the most important being the e-mail) for their daily work. The importance of the internet and other new communication technologies (mobile phones, video-conferences, i-pads and i-pods…) is that they have overcome (more than other systems) the barriers of communication which include time and distance. E-mails facilitate instantaneous forwarding of even the most bulky documents and besides there is no waiting period for a person to receive the information sent to him. Moreover, their use allows for documents to be stocked easily in systems for future reference and use. And more than the fax, the internet has important research systems that allow for practically any matter in the world to be researched. The use of cell phones also aids instant consultations when in need of support during international negotiations. The wide scope of engagement in contemporary diplomacy and limited staff numbers of Diplomatic Missions has forced Foreign Ministries to use those ICT technologies to keep pace with new communication requirements. Besides, they allow for diplomatic resources to be pooled together, increases efficiency and capture economies of scale. Diplomats now use the internet to collect information and disseminate it, to report speedily to capitals, to send documents, to inform and engage the public and so forth (namely social networks like “Facebook” and “Twitter”). It must be remembered that the new technologies of communication are cost effective in the long run, especially when compared to other traditional means of communication such as air travel, fuel, snail mail and the logistical requirements of organising traditional meetings.
If diplomacy is essentially about communication— as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper— it is also very much about negotiations. In fact, negotiations are another area which lies in the heart of diplomacy. Diplomats are constantly negotiating something (both bilaterally and internationally) on a growing number of subjects: from the laws of the sea to immigration, from scientific and cultural cooperation to trade, tourism and technology transfers, from the environment to food security, from security to police cooperation, from medicine security to improved health services, from research to academic cooperation, from poverty to economic development, from children to women rights, etc. Often many of these negotiations take place simultaneously making it difficult for countries to send people to follow them. This is particularly true for small countries, which have limited means especially in terms of human resources and cannot pay for all the travelling costs associated with them. The internet, through the Skype and the system of video-conferences, allows countries to overcome these problems and to follow far way conferences and seminars from capitals, making it possible also for the officials of those countries to intervene in them and to make their opinions known.
On this issue, an example showing the importance of video-conferences is the one of a regional summit that was held in Africa in 2000 with the aim to solve the crisis in Burundi and Rwanda. President Bill Clinton could not travel to Africa at that time to attend that meeting, but he attended it from Washington with the aid of video-conference instruments, intervening in it and making his view points clearly known. He ended contributing decisively to the solution of the problems being discussed without having been physically in the conference hall in Africa. This is a major breakthrough which proves that virtual diplomacy is a reality in the world of today and can be used with efficiency.
When talking about the internet there are two matters linked to it that must not be forgotten to be mentioned here: security and e-governance. The internet has led nations to build security systems allowing for the confidentiality of the information materials transmitted. Also the internet systems used in Diplomatic Missions are part of wider efforts by governments in terms of e-governance. For sheer lack of space, we cannot analyse in detail these two matters. What we can say is that the internet offers today a high level of security, as good as any other systems with secure encryption techniques. What happened for example with the information leaked through “Wikeleaks” has nothing to do with internet security as it was a failure of the US authorities to monitor the use of confidential information by the officials who had access to it. It was due to no failure of secure internet communications.
By e-governance (or electronic governance) we mean in simple terms the employment of the internet and other electronic technologies to deliver official information and services to citizens and the general public. Its purpose is to provide government services online in a convenient, efficient and transparent manner. According to the UN, more than 100 countries in the world have adapted their working systems to the new electronic technologies and use e-governance to improve public services and their delivery. Diplomatic services have followed this trend and everywhere in the world Diplomatic Missions provide today efficient services online. In fact, most missions now have websites which provide information on travel (including immunisation information, common diseases, risky areas and contacts in case of medical emergency), visa application procedures and forms, etc. on their sites. A number of countries carry out online visa applications (including Canada, the UK and the United States of America), while others like Australia, Singapore, Cambodia and Kuwait even issue e-visas which has not only eased the process of visa processing but increased visits to such countries. The same happens with trade and investment matters and procedures. The use of the web as a source of information has also reduced substantially the number of people that visit Embassies and Consulates worldwide. This is an important change in terms of diplomatic working cultures as compared to the past.
We have tried to describe in this paper that a new era in diplomacy has developed in the recent past as a result of electronic means of communication. Digital diplomacy has opened a new world of cross-cultural communication and information that is more open and transparent than in the past and essentially based on soft power. In fact, ICTs have practically turned information into a source of power and influence. Whereas the methods of work of Foreign Ministries and Diplomatic Missions have essentially remained the same, the internet transformed communication from the traditional methods of information to the use of modern methods associated with instantaneous communication. Not the least, it has stimulated the missing part of an old dream that men always had: the access to information at anytime from anywhere. Diplomatic services have therefore explored the potentials of these new technologies (like the internet) for their own empowerment, in order to preserve their pivotal role in international relations. Through a well planned and well organised use of information technologies in a Foreign Ministry, a country —especially if it is a small state— can cope with a great number of challenges and stay informed of developments and emerging trends in modern diplomacy.
Only a century and a half ago, wind-powered sailing vessels served as the means of diplomatic communication. They were followed by steamships. Then communications evolved with the arrival of the telegraph, the telephone and air mail as the main systems of diplomatic correspondence. Nowadays the great revolution in diplomatic communication is due to the computer and to electronic means of communication, which allow for such communication to be more rapid, sure and efficient. Many things which once required a physical presence are now possible to exist in a virtual fashion. Diplomacy is not an exception.
The impact of the new information and communication technologies on modern diplomacy has been profound and with deep repercussions. The main areas within diplomacy in which technology has had a major influence and impact are diplomatic missions, negotiations and communication, as this paper clearly shows. Virtual diplomacy has improved the traditional diplomatic functions of missions, which are representation, negotiation, reporting, facilitation and coordination. It merges foreign and domestic policies and publics and allows diplomacy to occur through the media and information technologies. Virtual diplomacy is therefore a reality and it can be said that it has thus become a field of diplomacy in its own right.
(1). Jönsson, C. and Hall, M. “Essence of Diplomacy” (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).
Dr. Luis Ritto – Former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and Former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations. ISPD Emeritus Professor and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.
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