Diplomacy in the digital age

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2012 - 8:49 PM

Social media is an effective tool to talk -- and especially to listen -- to the world.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton works from a desk inside a C-17 military plane.

Photo: Kevin Lamarque, AP

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At first glance, there seems to be little in common between the digital and diplomatic worlds.

Digital industries dot Silicon Valley. Diplomats inhabit "Foggy Bottom," the swampland that's home to the U.S. State Department. Tech titans wear hoodies. Ambassadors are part of the "striped-pants" set. Digital innovators embrace virtual reality. Diplomats? Realpolitik.

The World Wide Web knows no borders. Diplomacy is also global, but its practitioners are acutely aware of national boundaries.

And yet, the State Department is strategically using social-media tools to protect and project U.S. interests, including promoting democracy, which is the topic of this month's Minnesota International Center's "Great Decisions" dialogue.

To date, State has a blog on Tumblr (DipNote); 196 Twitter accounts with more than 1.6 million followers; 288 Facebook pages with more than 9 million fans, and 125 YouTube channels with more than 25,000 subscribers and 14.4 million video views. From Washington, tweets are sent out in 11 languages (English, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, Turkish, Russian, French, Portuguese, Urdu, Hindi), and in country, tweets are translated into dozens of other local languages.

"Secretary [Hillary] Clinton has made 21st-century statecraft a key part of her agenda," said Victoria Esser, the department's deputy assistant secretary for digital strategy.

Pointing to examples of extensive outreach in Thailand, rapid social-media messaging in the wake of Japan's natural disasters, and a recent Google+ "hangout" regarding Iran, Esser said that, "Foreign policy is no longer just discussed at summits or one ambassador with a group of members of civil society in an embassy reception room. Technology has really enabled citizens around the world to have a more direct and real-time voice in policy conversations with government officials and with each other."

The effort to inform and engage works best when it's a "feedback mechanism," said Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and formerly an assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs. Schwartz explained that the goal is often to influence citizens in a country to pressure their own government for change.

There are risks in digital diplomacy, however.

The quick, colloquial nature of social-media messaging is antithetical to the cautious construct of diplomacy. So just like politicians and pop stars, tweeting envoys can be dangerous.

"It's so easy to hit send without really without really thinking it through," said James Barbour, head of communications for the British embassy in Washington, who described a buddy-system "sanity check" used due to fear of even "one spurious tweet."

Esser said Clinton has acknowledged the hazards, but still "encouraged us to take smart risks."

Easier said than done, according to Schwartz. "It's not easy for government officials to be very candid, quick and flexible," he said, adding that institutional barriers can create obstacles to social-media success.

And while social media can be used as a tool to promote democracy, it can also be used just as effectively by repressive regimes.

A social-media digital trail can ensnare dissidents, for instance. And, Barbour noted, "You can't always take comments at face value. There are some countries that have armies of people sitting at terminals using pseudonyms" for propaganda purposes.

And even sophisticated social-media tools can't replace an even more complex machine: human beings.

There's no face time with Facebook, after all.

"Part of your capacity to succeed as a diplomat has everything to do with relationships you form with your interlocutors," said Schwartz.

Yet Barbour believes digital tools can humanize diplomacy. "What this does is expand our ability to communicate not necessarily face-to-face in a physical sense, but in a very personal sense with our shareholders. ... If you look at the beginnings of social media, it was all about, 'Let's write this.' But it's evolved. ... It's the listening post that's the most exciting post to me."

That listening post, not the soapbox, may best promote democracy, said Schwartz.

"The real beneficiaries of social media are social movements that are promoting significant and systemic change around the world. And governments aren't the agent of change to that. I wouldn't call governments bit players, but the real significance of social media is the ability to amplify the efforts of nongovernment social movements."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.

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