Digital Diplomacy 4.0: Return of the Jedi? – TechCrunch

Tom Fletcher, British Ambassador to Lebanon, was one of the pioneers of digital diplomacy.
Digital technology has already disrupted diplomacy, a once-dominant industry that relied on platitudes and maps, and was dominated by protocols and platitudes.

Like many professions, the greatest impact was on the tools. Better kit, better communications (internal as well as external), faster speed. Like many other professions, the true impact is not visible. It's about culture. The humility that comes with understanding the shifts in power, agility provided by new tools, effectiveness that comes through being more inclusive, and transparency that comes with a better understanding of what used to be a closed world.

This fall ten years ago, I was appointed Her Majesty's envoy for Lebanon. I was 36 years old and was not yet mature enough to take on the role. I was young and interested in the possibility of technological change to transform how statecraft engages with citizens. After a few awkward options such as Twiplomacy, I started to experiment with digital diplomacy. It is now in the fourth phase. Many things have been accomplished. It is important to remember what was right and what wasn't.

The first phase was a brave, new world. The U.S. State Department, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 21st century statecraft program, led a period full of optimism and excitement about how diplomats could use new tools of communication. These were exciting times for the ambassadors who truly adapted and adopted. The rules were not set in stone: I was told by one minister that he didn't care about what I did as long as it wasn't published in the U.K media. Many of us were able continue until we were apprehended. There were many mistakes. There were also risks: The phone I used to tweet incessantly was also used by terrorists to track my movements.

This was a time when people were surprised by our desire to engage, connect and show humility. It was possible to imagine social media opening up societies and promoting real agency and freedom. One British ambassador had so many Kool-Aid drinks that he suggested that the smartphone was the most powerful weapon in Middle East. That was a mistake.

The institutionalization of digital diplomacy was the second phase. We began to build structures for a wider dialogue between the new and old emperors. Concerned about the geopolitics implications of technological change's pace, I quit the U.K. government in order to push for this urgent effort. The U.N. started a dialogue between Big Tech and government after my 2017 report. The U.N.s High Level Panel on Technology and the Global Tech Panel attempted to communicate between people who are disrupting global politics, economy, and society. This was an alternative to trying summon the Zuckerbergs to Congress or parliamentary committees. I suggested that countries should appoint technology ambassadors in The Naked Diplomat. They were successful and challenged tech companies to engage in dialogue with the states.

Foreign ministries adapted to social media much faster than any other technology. In 2011, the United Kingdom had four ambassadors using Twitter. Within a few years, all four of them were on Twitter. John Casson in Egypt has over one million followers. Social media was a great way to test out new methods for assessing impact in a profession that doesn't have many options. Over 20 ambassador conferences were attended by me. I encouraged my colleagues to try it, show the person behind the handle, and engage rather than transmit. It was the biggest diplomatic reception they could have imagined. I told them to not stand in the margins, speak no or shout across the room. There were risks. The biggest risks, however, were not in the conversation.

Foreign ministries had to make compromises about confidentiality and agility as more countries adopted this approach. In 2016, my Foreign Office review recommended that we pivot towards the former. Perhaps Sir Kim Darroch (the outstanding U.K. Ambassador who was fired by President Trump for his leaks) might have disagreed. We rely on this ability to communicate quickly now.

Without Zoom and WhatsApp, diplomacy in the past two years wouldn't have been possible. Diplomats, a profession that was used to work closely with leaders, were quick to adopt videoconferencing when the technology became available. Summits and conferences were held online to save enormous amounts of carbon, with very little impact on the outcome.

The empire struck back. Autoritarian governments discovered new ways to use technology to suppress freedom. Trump used Twitter to incite hatred, prejudice and insurrection. He also used Twitter to court potential allies, and to press diplomatic enemies. Russia's Vladimir Putin used the internet to his advantage and set up troll factories. Twitter mobs made sharing complex diplomatic positions more difficult, and even harder to use social media to find compromise and common ground. Polarization was clickbait, and the center didn't hold. Cyber was becoming a new battlefield and governments began to think about defense.

Big Tech continued to grow, becoming more powerful and more reactive than governments in certain cases. In 2013, I wondered if we should ask Google for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Google may now wonder why it bothers. Big Tech continued to grow and expand its reach, but it also quietly recruited talent, depriving governments both of human capital and taxes. Symbolically and possibly inevitably, Microsoft poached the first Danish tech ambassador and Britain's Liberal Democrat leader. The EU's tense clashes over data and incitement with Big Tech grew more violent than the optimism of the brave new age phase, when we believed we could solve more problems together.

What does this mean for us today? While I'm more realistic about diplomacy and technology, I still believe in optimism. We can still solve problems together, even the Sustainable Development Goals. To do this, governments need to be more open about what they cannot do on their own. Tech must have more patience with slow-moving and sometimes clumsy states and be more honest about what it is doing wrong.

Diplomats can still use technology to improve their effectiveness. My research group at New York University developed wearable technology that could help a diplomat read a space; a Diplopedia that would better preserve diplomatic records; and an intelligent and transparent use sentiment mining to better understand the public's opinion. The hypothesis that the greater the public's awareness of war issues, the more peaceful the government's policy will be is true to my knowledge. One of the most exciting areas in diplomacy is the ability to combine it with recent advances in collective psychology, social media, to make peace between peoples rather than between countries and between their histories.

The next phase in digital diplomacy will also include work on the next great peace process: with the planet, Big Tech, between young people and migrants, and finally, perhaps with technology itself. Digital diplomacy could help us achieve better outcomes in each of these.

The next phase of digital diplomacy will see diplomats return to basics. We need to make more effort to train citizen diplomats with essential diplomatic skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence. Education is the next step in upstream diplomacy. As I have suggested elsewhere, we need a more focused effort to rewrite global rules that protect our freedoms online. We need embassies that can escape the confines and return to their original mission of connecting people. We also need diplomats capable of maintaining the crucial human connection Edward Murrow described as the "last three feet", which will be the last automated diplomatic skill.

This is a very exciting and urgent agenda. We would have to invent diplomacy if diplomacy didn't exist. We need to reinvent it. This is too important for diplomats to ignore.