Return of the Jedi? –

As the British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher was one of the first ambassadors to “go digital”. Ten years later, he reflects on what got the first wave of “technodiplomats” right and wrong, and where digital diplomacy goes next.

Like every industry or craft, diplomacy – a world once dominated by protocol and platitudes, maps and chaps – has already been vastly hindered by digital technology.

Also like many businesses, the most visible impact has been on devices: better kit, better com (internal and external), faster speeds. Again like many, the real impact is less visible and about culture: the humility that comes from understanding how power has shifted, the agility that allows for new tools, the effectiveness that comes from being more inclusive. And the transparency that comes from increasing public understanding of what was once a closed world.

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Ten years ago this fall, I was posted as Her Majesty’s envoy to Lebanon. At 36, I was too young for the role. The Arab Spring was draining young people across the region and made me wonder if technological change could change the way people engage. I started experimenting with what we began to call (after some clunky options like “Twiplomacy”) “Digital Diplomacy.” A decade later, digital diplomacy has already passed several stages – three in fact – and is on the threshold of a quarter. A lot has been achieved. But if it is to succeed in bringing more streetcraft into statecraft, we must focus on what we did right and wrong.

The first stage was a brave new world. With its 21st-century Statecraft program under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US State Department led a period of enthusiasm and optimism about whether diplomats could use new tools of communication and connection. For the ambassadors of that era who really adopted and adapted, these were prime times. The rules were loose from the Capitals: a minister told me he didn’t care about my effort as long as it stayed out of the UK media. Many of us were able to move on until we were caught. There were many mistakes. And the risk: The smartphone I constantly tweeted from was also the device terrorists used to track my movements.

But this was a period when we could surprise people with our willingness to connect, connect, and show some humility. It seemed possible to imagine that social media would open up societies and promote real agency and independence. A British ambassador drank so much Kool-Aid that he even suggested that the most powerful weapon in the Middle East was a smartphone. I was wrong about that, until now.

The second phase was the institutionalization of digital diplomacy. We began to build structures around the wider dialogue between the old emperors and the new emperors. Concerned by the geopolitical implications of the pace of technological change, I left it to the UK government to try to make a case for the urgency of this effort. Following my 2017 report on the United Nations, the UN begins an effort to speak up for Big Tech and government To instead of this past tense each other. Both the United Nations High Level Panel and the Global Tech Panel were genuine and effective efforts to translate between those disrupting global politics, economics and society and those still nominally in charge, calling Zuckerberg before parliamentary or congressional committees. One option to try. In “The Naked Diplomat”, I proposed that countries should appoint “technical ambassadors”. Dane went for it, with success, challenging tech companies to engage with the states in a real dialogue.

Meanwhile, foreign ministries became increasingly involved with social media than any previous technology. Being one of only four UK ambassadors to Twitter in 2011, leaving four in just a few years, some people such as John Casson in Egypt a million followers. For a profession without many ways to measure impact, there was a real desire to experiment with social media. I spoke at over 20 conferences of ambassadors, urging colleagues to try it, show the human behind the handle and engage (instead of transmitting). I used to tell them it was like the biggest diplomatic reception they could imagine: don’t stand on the margins, don’t say anything or shout across the room. Yes, there were risks. But the biggest risk was not being in the conversation.

As this approach was adopted, foreign ministries faced new trade-offs on the agility versus secrecy of their communications. My 2016 review of the Foreign Office recommended a pivot to the east: perhaps Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s outstanding ambassador who was lashed out by former President Trump over his leaked cables, might disagree with the latter. But now we rely on that ability to communicate at speed.

Diplomacy in the last two years would have been unthinkable without Zoom and WhatsApp. For a profession that did everything to minimize direct contact between leaders, diplomats embraced videoconferencing once technology made it a serious option. The pandemic brought summits and conferences online, saving enormous amounts of carbon with little apparent negative impact on the results.

The third phase overlapped with the second: the Empire counterattacked. Authoritarian governments found new ways to use digital technology to suppress freedom. Trump used Twitter to fuel xenophobia, prejudice and rebellion. More constructively he also used it – at home – to court potential allies and put pressure on diplomatic opponents. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin of Russia has weaponized the Internet against democracy and set up troll factories. The Twitter rush makes it difficult to share the nuances of complex diplomatic posts, let alone using social media to reach agreement and common ground. The polarization was clickbait and the center did not hold. Governments realized that cyber was the new battleground and started thinking in terms of defence.

Meanwhile, Big Tech has turned into entities more powerful and sometimes more reactionary than governments in some cases. Mischievously I thought out loud in 2013 whether we should ask Google to join the UN Security Council. Google may now ask why it should bother. While Big Tech stretched and flexed its muscles, it quietly recruited talent, depriving governments of human capital as well as taxes. Symbolically, and perhaps inevitably, the (excellent) first Danish tech ambassador was hunted down by Microsoft and Britain’s Liberal Democrat leader was hunted down by Facebook. As the legal arms race intensified, the EU’s titanic skirmishes with Big Tech over data or excitement were a long way from the idealism of the brave new world phase, when we truly believed that we were together more Can solve more problems.

Where does this leave us today? I am more realistic about technology and diplomacy now, but I remain optimistic. Together we can still face challenges, including through the Sustainable Development Goals. But to do so, governments must be more honest about what they cannot do alone. Tech needs more honesty to keep up with the slow and often clumsy states, where this has become part of the problem.

In the meantime, diplomats can continue to use technology to make them more effective: My research group at New York University worked on wearable technology to help a diplomat read a room; Diploma for doing a better job of preserving diplomatic records; and intelligent and transparent use of sentiment mining to better understand public opinion. I stand with the hypothesis that the more the public monitors issues of war, the more peaceful the policy of the government will be. Perhaps one of the most exciting areas for diplomacy with the latest advances in collective psychology and social media will be its ability to make peace between states and between nations and societies across their history.

The next phase of digital diplomacy should also see work on the next great peace processes: with the planet, with Big Tech, between young and old, between hosts and migrant communities, and eventually perhaps with technology itself. I think digital diplomacy can help us deliver better results on each of them.

Finally, this next phase of digital diplomacy will see diplomats return to the basics of the craft. We will need a more focused effort to develop civilian diplomats equipped with important diplomatic skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence: so education is upstream diplomacy. As I have proposed elsewhere, we will need an old school pen and paper effort to rewrite the global rules to protect our freedoms in an online world. We will need to escape the confines of the embassy buildings and return to our original mission as the group of people sent to connect. And we will need diplomats who can still do what Edward Murrow calls “the last three feet,” that vital human connection that will be the last diplomatic skill to be automated.

This is an exciting and urgent agenda. If diplomacy didn’t exist we would need to invent it. but now we need in a new way This. And it is very important that it be left to the diplomats.

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