The debate around digital diplomacy is ultimately tied to the evolution of a less hierarchical and networked society - a society that is much harder to predict or control. The reality is, in the 21st century, most democratic states cannot exercise the use of force to achieve policy objectives. Instead, they are focused on winning hearts and minds. Digital tools can be a good way to for governments to create legitimacy by responding both to the needs of their people, and becoming more transparent to foreign citizens. But this new model is unpredictable and represents a radical departure from more traditional forms of diplomacy, in which states largely dictated the foreign affairs agenda based on a set of objectives. Instead, digital diplomacy embraces the idea that “global power will be defined by connections”.
A good example of Canadian digital diplomacy started largely as an experiment. In 2011, the Canadian Embassy in Beijing began using Weibo, a popular Chinese social media site, to communicate with Chinese citizens. A post by the former Canadian Ambassador to China sparked a furious debate in China about excessive government spending - a debate that Canadian officials were happy to attribute to our own good governance. Since then, Canada has increasingly invested in obtaining a digital “edge” through diplomacy. At a 2014 event dedicated to digital diplomacy at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and International Development, when John Baird, the then-Foreign Minister of Affairs asked how best to leverage digital diplomacy, the answer was to use digital tools to “promote Canadian values and interests abroad”. The launch of the @Canada twitter account shortly after received some gentle jabbing from amused Canadians, for example.
The power of digital diplomacy stems from something far greater than using twitter as a one sided communications channel to promote the activities of Canada’s Embassies and High Commissions (“Chinese netizens are indifferent or even hostile to tweets that appear bureaucratic and formulaic,”), or Canadian values abroad. What is important is that, when done correctly and conversationally, digital diplomacy can help to augment legitimacy, which ultimately happens, as many academics and journalists have argued, from allowing non-traditional actors to engage in real conversations with and about the nation state. Ultimately, it is linked with openness in government. The power of digital diplomacy represents a decentralisation of the power of that state, as new communities are formed, and outcomes are sourced from citizens – both at home and abroad.
The difficulty, as we have seen in Canada, is that digital diplomacy in its truest form - a conversation, not a communiqué - involves sacrificing some control over the message and the potential outcome. Risk-averse governments have far more control over potential outcomes coming from traditional tools of statecraft and foreign policymaking. Digital diplomacy - it its truest, crowd-based form, yields far less obvious outcomes and is far more uncertain. And yet - time and time again, we see the ability of social media to influence governments.
So can you crowd-source diplomacy? The answer is both yes and no. The tools exist for digital diplomats to innovatively engage in new forms of policy making. But the political will and government structures to consult, engage and act fully on digital communications often do not allow for two-way communications. Is this a place for Canada’s new government to gain a diplomatic “edge”? Time will tell.