Digital, But Is It Diplomacy?

“Twitter didn’t start the protests in Iran, nor did it make them possible,” writes Lev Grossman in his article about Twitter in Iran.  He says it emboldened them, which may be the case.  But I think everyone, including myself, wants to know what role Twitter and other social media can have in acting as a catalyst, an inciter, a motivator.  Further, where does this fit into 21st century diplomacy?  Is using a medium that could be seen by nations as political in nature part of being a diplomat? 

I think it makes sense for the State Department to want to take advantage of new communications tools, and it’s a good thing that Alec Ross is addressing this at State.  In the conduct of diplomacy, reaching an audience whether it is one person or many with the right message via the right method is critical.  The field of Public Diplomacy focuses on doing this.  Communicating with people the way they communicate among themselves is a smart idea. 

The question of how these tools become implemented is what needs to be addressed.  Evgeny Morozov questions State partnering with Silicon Valley corporations that produce technology that will not be seen as value neutral, thereby making the State Department lose credibility.  This is a valid concern I think, but it is hard to say if other regimes see these new instruments as being inherently political.  They may, if the US government is in favor of them, but in most cases they use the technology themselves.  Morozov would be the first to say that these regimes use the Internet as a tool for maintaining control. 

  I think Twitter and Facebook have more politicization attached to it than anything used years ago, but the curious thing is that even as Morozov points this out, he, Gladwell, and others downplay the effect that these tools have on everything from motivating and organizing to providing actual utility for a revolt.  If these tools are more easily used to oppress the users, or don’t have an organizing effect, oppressive countries should welcome them.  If the uprising wasn’t all because of Twitter in the end, what do they have to fear?  After all, politicization goes both ways.

During the Cold War, The State Department published the magazine Ameryka which showed life in the USA.  It was a hot commodity whenever it came out, and would be passed around endlessly.  The Soviets published their own magazine in the USA with its version of life in the USSR, and no one barely looked at it.  Is there any doubt that each magazine was hyper-political in nature?  Both sides agreed to the exchange, it was part of diplomacy and print a big medium, but clearly each was stocking it with content to try and sway opinion to the other’s way of life.  The Soviets ended up being upset that so many people wanted to see the American publication, and in the USA no one was really interested in the images of happy peasants working the land.  The message didn’t resonate even if it used the same medium.

 A print magazine isn’t inherently political, but naturally it can be used that way.  Helping GE get into Russia during the Cold War wasn’t intended to help overthrow the government there as Morozov points out, but part of the idea for diplomacy during that time was that if people saw the Western way of life this would help against communist ideology more than anything.  I think an American kitchen on display in Russia was a very politically savvy move, if subtle, because it was right in line with State Department goals.   The point is that this type of engagement with available tools is necessary and has been going on for years.  The tools are different now and diplomacy has been adapting, changing, and becoming redefined, and will continue to do so.  Some may recall how George HW Bush told Saddam Hussein and our allies that the first Gulf War would continue on CNN.  An act that usually would have been in a private meeting between high level officials was announced to everyone at the same time because CNN was the quickest and easiest method.   This didn’t replace critical functions of person to person diplomacy, but to ignore it would have been to ignore an important new instrument that can provide value to diplomatic and political goals in the right circumstances. 

As Keller pointed out in his Time article, the big effect of new media was allowing the world to see what was going on in Iran.  State has made it clear that they are using these technologies in a variety of ways for everything from development to dialogue, and they will continue to encourage the use in other countries.  I don’t think it makes sense for them to shy away from using these tools solely because people may fear it makes them too political, or they are too connected with Silicon Valley.  Diplomacy in the 21st Century will have to take advantage of these new technological developments.  But it needs to stay grounded in the same fundamentals that have always made up diplomacy and use social media and the Internet as a way to achieve those same goals.  The best way to do this is still unfolding.

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