“Didn’t you get the memo?”: Changing Discourses of Diplomacy in the Age of Information

By Ben Fong
Volume XVIII, No. 3: Winter 2010

News of the U.S. Declaration of Independence took the same amount of time to reach Great Britain by boat as it did to reach the southern United States by land. In contrast, Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence in 2008 was heard almost instantly by governments and people across the world. Breakthroughs in transportation and communication technology have revolutionized the business of diplomacy. Upon receiving his first telegram in the 1840s, then British Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston reportedly exclaimed, “By God, this is the end of diplomacy!” Despite Lord Palmerston’s strong reaction, diplomatic corps have been traditionally slow to incorporate new technologies. However, the advent of the Internet and teleconferencing has continued to transform the environment and tools for diplomacy. Given the compression of time and space through development of information and communication technologies in the 1990s, foreign ministries have seen marked changes in the processes and discourses of diplomacy as they respond to a world complicated by rising media and non-state actors with states no longer monopolizing power. This study looks at the primary functions of diplomats in the context of this new environment and investigates how these functions have been adversely or directly affected by breakthroughs in information and communication technology. These functions are: collecting information; processing and analyzing information; receiving and relaying messages; and representing the country in both negotiations and in the public forum.

Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said that if foreign ministries and embassies “did not already exist, they surely would not have to be invented.” In modern times, the argument remains that modern communication technology has obviated the need for diplomats. Although the role of diplomats as messengers and information-gathers has receded, several critical functions remain, specifically analyzing and sifting through large amounts of information; liaising with the media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private businesses, and other non-state international actors; negotiating; and maximizing the potential of media technology.

Transforming Diplomacy
Traditionally, diplomats have served several key functions including collecting and processing information, relaying and receiving messages, and representing a country in negotiations as well as in the public arena. Information and communication technology of the 1990s has altered all three functions in critical ways. The types of diplomatic exchanges range from communication between foreign ministries, communication within a ministerial bureaucracy, and communication with foreign populations and entities such as the media and NGOs. Information technology has changed the way that each of these audiences is reached. Information and communication technologies have not only revolutionized diplomacy, but they have drastically changed the geopolitical environment surrounding diplomacy.

Collecting Information
Information and communication technologies have made finding news easier than ever before. Although diplomats have traditionally been in charge of collecting information about the events in a country and relaying it back to the ministry, this function is increasingly filled by the global media, which often breaks a story even before diplomats catch wind. Whereas reporters used to rely on diplomats for access to information, reporters now have independent networks that quickly find and disseminate news. This abundant and instant media has benefited greatly from the Internet and communication technologies such as satellite phones. These technologies have empowered the media to assert its own power and legitimacy on the international stage. As a result, the modern diplomatic corps often needs to play catch-up as principals at the ministry find out information from the news and want an immediate appraisal of the situation from embassy staff. In sum, the role of diplomats as the “mouths and ears” of the foreign ministry has lessened. The reversal in the role and power dynamic between media and the diplomatic corps represents a major change in the field of diplomacy in the 21st century.

In this globalized world, the media has increased access to previously confidential information. Not only does the media now have its own sources outside of the foreign ministry, but journalists have come to expect the foreign ministry to give them information freely in the name of transparency, a departure from the long-standing norms of diplomacy. In a world where democratization is increasingly conflated with transparency, foreign ministries like the U.S. Department of State are increasingly expected to divulge more information to the media. This in turn has bolstered the role of the media as purveyors of information in the information age. This increase in transparency has increased access for third parties. Furthermore new types of electronic information are easier to leak and can lead to situations where information is disseminated quickly and across great distances. As foreign ministries are increasingly placed on the defensive by both media pressure and coverage, media sources exert increasingly greater power in agenda setting and raising issues in the international arena.

Processing and Analyzing Information
On the other hand, it is increasingly necessary for diplomats to process and analyze information in response to this wealth of news. The heightened speed of communication has truncated the time for diplomats to prepare reports and analyses, complicated by the general public demanding immediate public statements following events. Whereas George Kennan had weeks to write the famous Long Telegraph in 1946, reports are now expected in days and under increased supervision. With increased communication around the globe, the public is aware of global events much sooner, depriving foreign ministries critical time to formulate a reasonable response to a crisis to meet popular expectations of an official response and statement. Professor Christer Jonsson of Lund University reports that this media environment has sped up the moderate tempo of traditional diplomacy. Diplomats have also traditionally relied upon academics to incorporate the social and historical background in the analysis of a situation. However, the increased demand for quick responses has limited the opportunity to consult such experts. Another potential consequence of the influx of media technologies is that an increasing number of analyses by the diplomatic corps originate from journalistic reports, reaffirming dependence on the media. In sum, the compression of time and space due to globalization has also compressed the amount of time and resources allotted to a diplomat to write a comprehensive report about a crisis or a cable about the status of a country.

Not only have diplomats lost needed time to deliberate and analyze a situation deeply, but increased time pressures have led to the loss of the strategic diplomatic discourse of signaling strategy and interpretation. For example, the careful signaling so characteristic of the Cold War is no longer possible as the global media instantaneously breaks stories and forces governments to make immediate public statements. Interestingly, new forms of signaling through body language, tone of voice, and visual backdrops have become increasingly important with widespread television and broadband penetration, as well as new technologies such as teleconferencing.

Receiving and Relaying Messages
The receiving and relaying of messages is largely an intra-department function as diplomats have to coordinate with their principals, who must coordinate with the foreign ministry. Whereas news of declarations and agreements used to take months to reach foreign and domestic audiences, today’s news travels almost instantaneously. Although diplomatic corps have traditionally been slow to incorporate new communication technologies, from the telegraph to the telephone, foreign ministries eventually have incorporated these technologies to improve efficiency.

The role of leadership within the embassy also has changed drastically in the world changed by abundant and instant media. Not only do professional diplomats have increased access to communication technology, but ambassadors have increased control over the planning process because of the speed and accessibility of new communication technologies. Given the heightened speed of communications, instructions can be relayed very quickly, and many diplomats report that instructions are more detailed and frequent. Finally, given the extremely high amount of information, the ability to recognize where and how that information was derived has become an ever more important skill for leaders. Diplomats and heads of state are more empowered than ever to influence policymaking in an increasingly interconnected world.

Media’s lightning-fast reporting has enabled decision makers to have instant access to information about a situation, whereas previously such information would come from the embassy via an official cable including background and context. This quickness of communications has sometimes forced decision makers to respond hastily, in some instances bypassing traditional diplomatic channels. As the middleman, the professional corps of diplomats must adapt to new forms of information relaying and communication and take advantage of the wealth of information and ease of communication.

Top leadership in foreign policy has also risen in importance, considering state-to-state negotiation. As transportation and communication technologies have developed, direct contacts between political leaders have become more frequent. The increase in the number of high-level summits has decreased the need for diplomats to mediate and represent their head of state. Negotiation has thus become more important to top-level officials as the negotiating responsibilities of the diplomatic corps has waned. However, negotiations remain a key role for diplomats in the information age. The increased sophistication of information and communication technologies enhances the ability of diplomats to provide immediate updates for principals and for the foreign ministry. Toward that goal, the 2005 U.N. World Summit on Information Society recognized laptops and the Internet as diplomatic tools. In fact, the summit found that computer exchange not only complemented established forms of diplomacy such as short chats, tête–à–tête, and corridor diplomacy, but sometimes replaced them. Although negotiations remain a component of a diplomat’s work, increased top-level contacts have decreased some of its functionality for the diplomatic corps.

Representing the Country Abroad
Information technology has not only shaped the way that diplomacy is accomplished, but diplomats have also actively utilized information technology to reach their goals, specifically in the field often termed “soft power.” Political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. defined soft power as the ability to produce outcomes through attraction instead of coercion. Whereas foreign ministries previously had little direct contact with foreign populations and media, today entire ministries are dedicated to culture and media relations. For example, Canada recently established a program to use information technology to get on the offensive in the global information space, proposing to lean forward instead of lean backward in influencing people’s attitudes toward foreign policy. Furthermore, communication between governments and foreign populations has increased in the past two decades, according to retired diplomat Wilfried Bolewski and other experts such as Gilboa in 2001 and Jonsson in 1996. Television and other electronic mediums have enabled foreign ministries to construct programs to reach a wider audience. However, these technologies typically disallow differentiation among audiences, as compared to targeting only one group as in the past. The rise of soft diplomacy, also referred to as public diplomacy, reflects the changing environment of global affairs due to the rise of information and communication technologies.

The influence of global media and business leaders aside, foreign ministries such as the U.S. Department of State have many communication and informational tools at their disposal. With increased capability to reach foreign populations through Internet outreach and programs like Voice of America, modern diplomatic corps have the enhanced ability to create and mold norms. Alan Chong wrote that information creates norms and represents a sphere of influence for foreign ministries within the global information space. With the advent of the Internet, the ability of foreign ministries to reach populations worldwide has increased tremendously. Additionally, ambassadors today write op-eds in both local and international newspapers, reflecting the increasing porosity of diplomacy and the increasing presence of diplomats in public spheres. In a world where public opinion and the media matter more than ever, the ability to affect what the media covers and what the public cares about is critical to foreign policymaking.

Norm-Setting: Case Study
The highly connected nation-state of Singapore is a particularly good example of the effective use of soft power. Since the 1970s, Singapore has created a niche for itself in the world system as a respected dictatorship through careful usages of communication technology. Singapore’s leadership and initiative to create norms that emphasize its “Asian values” have largely proven successful in justifying its authoritarian regime. Impressively, the Singaporean government has accomplished this feat in the face of American hegemonic cultural norms of liberal democracy and human rights. One of the ways that Singapore created these counter-norms was by suing regional and Western newspapers for slander when these newspapers criticized Singapore’s dictatorship. Singapore insisted that the government’s counterarguments be published alongside the criticisms. Singaporean politicians, including its founder and first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, have written articles in journals such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and National Interest about “Asian values.” In this manner, Singapore has prompted global audiences and governments to question their assumptions about liberal democracy to the Singaporean government’s advantage. Partly through the use of information and communication technologies, Singapore has created a space for itself not only within the global information space but as a legitimate actor in the international system.

Trends in the International System
Information and communication technologies have not only affected the various functions of diplomacy, but these technologies have altered the very nature of international relations. Information technology has blurred borders and territoriality, created new types of non-state diplomatic agents, and put official diplomacy on the defensive as increased information across the world strengthens critics of government policy. Not only has the media gained leverage over foreign ministries, but other actors such as NGOs and private businesses have considerable power both in traditional diplomatic channels and in their own interactions with foreign governments and audiences. Three hundred sixty years after the Treaty of Westphalia, national governments are no longer the sole loci of political power. Foreign ministries must recognize and adapt to this increasingly more complicated and multipolar world.

Information technology has begun to blur borders and territoriality as multinational companies cross borders, transnational agency networks crisscross the globe, and the Internet allows users to communicate with others in different locales. With this “deterritorialization” and globalization, new types of diplomats have been created, including businesses, diasporas, activists, NGOs, cities and regions, other ministries, news agencies, the intelligence community, and research institutions. As communication technologies have lowered the barriers for non-state actors to operate, increasingly more people and NGOs have obtained the capacity to influence foreign governments and peoples. Civil society now rivals the traditional medium of diplomacy, the foreign ministry. Furthermore, because of the density of networks created by globalization, diplomats must deal with more of these new polities. As diplomat Wilfried Bolewski puts it, “diplomacy has become privatized and popularized.”

In addition to the boost to media power because of information technology, businesses have also gained ground against state-led diplomacy. A 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report analyzing the effectiveness of public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East recommended that the U.S. Secretary of State develop a strategy that “considers private sector public relations techniques in integrating its public diplomacy efforts” in addition to training Foreign Service Officers in such practices. Such reports attest to the rising strength of non-state diplomacy that is recognized even within the government. The business community has also risen as an international actor in its own right, with one-third of international business transactions taking place within transnational companies. Companies also increasingly deal with foreign governments and peoples directly, decreasing the need for foreign ministries to manage their contact. In sum, businesses and other non-state actors such as NGOs and even individuals have more capabilities than ever before to engage with foreign audiences and governments.

Breakthroughs in information and communication technologies of the 1990s have revolutionized the diplomatic field both from within the bureaucracy and in the surrounding international arena. Diplomacy is more porous, less centralized, and more fast-paced than ever before. Within foreign ministries, diplomats must shift from their traditional roles as information collectors to analytical roles that involve sifting through abundant and instant media in a compressed timeframe. As responses are needed more quickly, diplomats must be trained to respond quickly to crises and use new information and communication technologies to reach their targets. This could be accomplished by implementing recommendations such as the GAO’s recommendation for diplomat training in information technology. Diplomats must be trained to quickly identify the source and legitimacy of information, assess the information’s significance, and efficiently pass on the most important findings using information technologies. Lastly, developing leadership and management is increasingly important as senior leaders have significantly more access to information and influence on policymaking as well as direct contact with diplomatic counterparts.

Diplomats historically have enjoyed a monopoly of information and high prestige, however, in an increasingly decentralized world diplomats must acknowledge their weakened role in traditional areas of responsibility. Although businesses, NGOs, and the media in the past have depended on the foreign ministry for access to information and influence, today these non-state actors have created their own power networks with the help of media technology. These new players can now challenge and pressure the diplomatic corps as they could not before. Foreign ministries such as the U.S. Department of State must acknowledge the rise of these new international actors and increase exchanges and interactions with these parties. By increasing the number of liaisons with the media, foreign ministries may begin to influence an underestimated force in international politics. In dealing with the media, diplomats must be proactive in their approach to use the media to further national objectives through soft power and norm setting.

As traditional responsibilities of diplomats recede, diplomats have great potential to harness the information technologies that have decentralized the globe. Public diplomacy acknowledges the increasing power of the individual and non-government entity in international relations as well as the new tools available to influence them. Although direct outcomes of influencing foreign audiences are difficult to quantify, being proactive and less reactive to events will enable diplomats to reclaim the upper hand in a world where diplomacy has lost its invulnerability and entitlement. The United States in particular has a strong interest in setting international norms of democracy, human rights, and international cooperation. The Singaporean example of leadership in norm setting represents a powerful way for nations to simultaneously establish both their presence in the global information space and their place in the international system. While the role of diplomats continues to change in the world of information technology, diplomats will continue to have a major role in navigating an ever more complicated global information space.

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