Over the past several years much has been written about how social media has changed the practice of diplomacy. As someone who was involved in the profession of diplomacy over a 30-year career that encompassed the pre-social media age and its height, I understand what the writers are trying to say, but take exception to some of the broad, sweeping generalizations they employ to describe the impact of technology and social media on how diplomats practice their profession.
The situation when I joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1982 would probably seem stone age to many current diplomats, who were mere infants at the time – if indeed they’d even been born. We wrote our dispatches often in long hand at first, on yellow legal pads, using ball point pens or number 2 pencils. Then, using IBM Selectric typewriters, we transcribed them to the cable form, which was a multi-layer carbon paper monstrosity. If you made a mistake, you either had to make the change on each sheet individually, or scrap the whole page and type it over.
Fast forward to 2012, the year I retired, and drafting is now often done directly on the computer, and cables never actually need be on paper at all. You can compose the cable from your notes or memory, polish it, electronically send it around for comments and clearances, and then hit a key and it’s instantly on its way around the world.
So, you might say, that is a most significant change in the diplomatic profession. You’d be only partially right. It changes the mechanical tasks of what we do, but not the basic, underlying thing that diplomats do, and have done since the time of the Italian City States.
Diplomats represent their home countries and governments to the government and country of accreditation. The Vienna Convention uses the terms ‘sending state’ and ‘receiving state.’ The job of the diplomat is to study and understand the receiving state so that he or she can explain it to the leadership of the sending state. There is also the reciprocal duty of explaining the sending state and its policies to the receiving state. Scraping away all the high-sounding language, a diplomat is a channel of communication and understanding between nations.
In the past, because of the limitations of communications systems, that was done at what today would be considered a snail’s pace. You spoke with someone, and afterwards hastily scribbled notes of the conversation into a notebook before you forgot. When you got back to the office, you began the process of converting your notes into cable format, a process that could sometimes take several days. Once that green-sheeted cable was sent over the wire, you sat back and waited for any response. Sometimes, you might make a phone call to alert people, but connections overseas were often so bad, one didn’t bother except in an emergency or a really important situation. The cable would hit Washington, and paper copies would have to be made and sent around to the various offices and individuals to whom it was addressed. All of this took time.
Back at post, other than assistance to American citizens or interviews with visa applicants, most of a diplomat’s contact would be with officials of the government or with significant people in the economic sector. This was where communication was controlled, and where the power lay.
The situation today is far different. In the first place; with better telephone technology (video teleconferencing, etc.) and Email, communication between Washington and the diplomat in the field is often immediate and omnipresent. You can be discussing the subject of a report with someone via Email and that report will pop up on their computer screen. Things today move fast. That’s both good and bad. It enables quicker response to developing situations, but also limits the time to reflect on things before making decisions.
The other significant change is the shift in the center of power based on access to information. Information technology and social media have brought about an information revolution so that, now, power to influence or even initiate events has shifted toward people outside government. Witness the Arab Spring.
What this means is that diplomats can no longer just talk to the government or the power brokers of industry, because there are other power brokers out there that you ignore at your own peril. Diplomats now find themselves communicating with the population of the receiving state as much as, if not more, than its officials, if they want to know what is really going on.
When I was ambassador to Zimbabwe, I used social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and blogs (the embassy’s and my own) to engage in dialogue with the country’s young people. At any given time of day, in addition to talking to the ministers of government, I would be engaged in electronic conversation with thousands of young people. This often gave me access to information that the ministers didn’t have, as they were still wedded to the traditional model of top down rule rather than top down response to the people.
So, my thesis is that the new technologies haven’t so much changed the how and what of diplomacy as they’ve changed the how fast and with whom. Our basic mission remains the same, but we now have to do it at light speed, and do it with the student at the local high school or the news vendor on the corner, not just the foreign minister.