World Affairs

As the World Tweets: The New Tools of Diplomacy

April 23, 2014  • Charles M. Firestone

Communications and Society Program Director Charlie Firestone discusses the use of social media and other technologies as tools for diplomacy in an episode of Comcast's Newsmakers series.

Of the world’s seven billion people, about 2.4 billion have access, in some way, to the Internet. The ability to connect many-to-many has led to some remarkable events and phenomena in recent years. The tools did not cause the Arab Spring, but they did allow for better organizing, amplification of messages, and the ability to show the world what was happening minute-by-minute, tweet-by-tweet. A self-immolation in Tunisia went pretty much unnoticed when only 28,000 of the country’s population subscribed to Facebook, but it was entirely different when that number was close to two million.

At times, leaders trying to hold off a wave of human discontent will try the age old remedy of killing the messenger – with the same results as in ancient times. Mubarouk’s short-lived kill switch of the Internet in Egypt worked about as well as Tayyip Erdogan’s recent banning of Twitter and YouTube in Turkey. In the 21st Century, pervasive two-way many-to-many communications is a political fact of life.

But the use of social media needs to be a diplomatic fact of life as well. Increasingly, diplomacy has become a matter of appealing to the people within a country as well as its leaders. Public diplomacy aims for the hearts and minds of the populace in what Monroe Price calls the “Market for Loyalties.” Twenty-first Century Statecraft, John Rendon quips, really needs to be thought of as “21st Century Streetcraft.”

These issues are the subject of an annual series of roundtables convened by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program called the Aspen Dialogue on Diplomacy and Technology. In association with the Josef Korbel School of International Relations at the University of Denver, the Dialogue series tackles issues that arise when the digital disruption comes to diplomacy — or when diplomacy is no longer a behind-closed-doors occupation. The series is sponsored by the Jane and Marc Nathanson Family Foundation (Marc Nathanson was the first Chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors).

The topic for the most recent Dialogue examined how social networks, peer-to-peer, and mobile technologies can change the landscape of diplomacy, particularly in the uses of soft or smart power. The group focused on the contrasting approaches by the US and China in the context of Southeast Asia, and explored the ways in which information and communications technologies are affecting diplomacy in the region. On the concluding day of the Dialogue, the group of 25 diplomatic, business, non-profit, and academic leaders from the United States, China and Myanmar/Burma engaged in a role-playing simulation of the US and China rivaling for diplomatic advantage in a hypothetical skirmish in Myanmar/Burma. The purpose was to see what lessons they might learn from exploring the role of new technologies in a highly-charged diplomatic crisis. The report, “Adapting for the Global Diplomatic Arena” by Shanthi Kalathil, comes to several interesting conclusions, which the report defines more deeply:

• Technology matters but do not neglect the importance of people.

• Hierarchies can collapse and unpredictable actors may emerge, particularly during crisis.

• Amidst information, misinformation and disinformation, trust is the most highly prized commodity.

• Social media literacy is a new, crucial component of diplomacy.

• Diplomatic structures must adapt to stay relevant.

The group concluded by calling for a reinvention of the apparatus of US public diplomacy. This will be the topic for the next Dialogue.