In a world of likes and hashtags, governments are using social media tools to reach beyond traditional diplomacy. Ministries and embassies are adopting new strategies for the digital age and exploring innovative ways to reach and engage domestic and foreign constituencies.

Leading thinkers in diplomacy and communications discussed the evolution of public diplomacy and the ways visionary diplomats are using these powerful new tools to connect cultures, increase awareness, and advocate policy positions, in an event cohosted by Carnegie and Fleishman-Hillard International Communications.

Paradigm Shift: The Disruptions of Digital Diplomacy

Martha Boudreau, regional president of Fleishman-Hillard International Communications,began by noting that the last decade has seen the unrelenting expansion of social media around the globe. But the importance of digital diplomacy stems from far more than just the increasing number of users of social media, she argued. In fact, it has fundamentally changed the way that governments interact with their citizens and it has changed how states manage the relationships associated with traditional statecraft.

  • Disseminate and Build: Boudreau argued that the rise of social media has allowed governments to disseminate information and amplify it in a far more targeted way. Social media has built new connections and raised the importance of monitoring and listening, and has empowered users by shifting power to the audience.
  • Connections as Power: Carnegie’s Tom Carver agreed, adding that the most powerful governments in the future will not be those with the largest armies, but rather those with the most connections and those at the center of the most networks. However, he also cautioned that social media is incredibly disruptive in both positive and negative ways.

Statecraft of the New Century

The panelists discussed how the rise of social media was changing the fundamentals of statecraft:

  • Building on Traditional Statecraft: Alec Ross of the Office of the Secretary of State argued that digital diplomacy builds on traditional statecraft, incorporating the new technologies, demographics, and networks of the modern era. He noted that the technology itself is not critical; instead, the point is how that technology can be used to advance U.S. foreign policy. Digital diplomacy is just a new means for advancing the same end, building on the traditional heart of diplomacy–discrete government-to-government connections. Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan Casamitjana of Mexico agreed, saying that social media is only an instrument and does not substitute for traditional foreign policy.
  • Transforming Diplomacy: Facebook’s Sarah Wynn-Williams argued that the potential of new technology means that diplomacy will continue to be transformed in fundamental ways. She noted that just a decade ago, the idea of virtual embassies would have been impossible; now, it is commonplace. Social media can also increasingly bring citizens into contact with their governments. She further noted that conversations over social media have become part of the diplomatic discourse, and that social media itself has humanized the leaders of states. While social media has not changed the objectives of foreign policy, she contended that it has changed what people expect from their policymakers, including those that focus on foreign policy.
  • Devolution of Power: Ross added that new technology is causing the devolution of sovereignty and power, empowering citizens—both for good and ill. Peruvian Ambassador Harold Forsyth agreed, saying that digital diplomacy is all about interactions and it has opened up a new space. If states do not move into this space, then citizens will, and may use it for illicit purposes as well as more beneficial ones. He added that in the future, international relations will be much more democratized because social media can serve to enhance transparency.

The Changing Role of Diplomats

  • No Longer Gathering Information: Wynn-Williams argued that the role of the diplomat has changed. Previously, diplomats primarily gathered information for their home government, but now, information is at everyone’s fingertips thanks to the Internet.
  • Bolstering the Message: Casamitjana argued that digital diplomacy adds nuance and context to the messages that emanate from a foreign service. But he also cautioned that foreign services must be careful to use the tools of digital diplomacy in a way that does not undermine traditional relationships.
  • New Information and Analysis: Social media should not be seen as simply a new channel through which to push the same message, Ross argued. Instead, he stated that the best use of social media is for analysis and bringing in information that would otherwise not be available.
  • Feudalization of the Foreign Service: Casamitjana added that embassies and foreign services used to be hierarchical and vertically-oriented. Now, however, social media has necessitated that ambassadors respond more quickly and nimbly to developing events, and as a result there has been increasing independence on the part of ambassadors, as well as the growing atomization of embassies.

Ross concluded by noting that social media technology is inanimate and value-neutral; it takes on the intentions and impulses of its users, and as a result, it is a force that governments need to learn how to harness. He argued that its increasing spread suggests that that more and more, states will face the rise of leaderless citizen movements. Ross saw this phenomena as fitting into the context of a larger tension between direct democracy and representative democracy, which social media is affecting in favor of the former. He cautioned, however, that social media also tends to punish moderation, and it often amplifies the voice of those at the extremes of society, so its increasing prevalence may present states with new challenges.