Power to the People – are we all diplomats now?

5 February 2020

DRD Partner Duncan Fulton writes in the February edition of DIPLOMAT magazine.

2020 was supposed to be the year when everything was changed, wasn’t it? Just think of all those “2020: Vision for…” reports quietly shelved.

Of the many strategy docs and think pieces on diplomacy I have seen, many heralded the arrival of the ‘digital diplomat’: Ambassadors schooled in the finer points of Twitter, reaching out to the millions via Instagram, explaining the subtleties of statecraft on Snapchat, Facebook Foreign Policy.

Twitter wars

I’m not sure any of them, though, predicted that when January 2020 finally arrived we would be brought to the brink of war, fueled in part by a Twitter exchange between the President of the United States and the Iranian Foreign Minister. Days later, their series of Tweets heralded the de-escalation of tensions. This very public communication let us watch high-stakes diplomacy unfold in real time. Digital diplomacy is already here, for sure, but perhaps not in the way many expected.

The carefully calibrated demarches and escalations, the signalling, communiques and back-channeling of yesteryear have given way to a disintermediated and very, very direct new mode. Likewise, the unedifying spectacle of senior EU and UK politicians exchanging Brexit-related-barbs over social media was a reminder of why many aspects of foreign policy should be conducted behind closed doors. When calling for digital diplomacy we should be careful what we wish for – sometimes the old ways may be the best.

But looking beyond President Trump’s tweets, social media is shaping how foreign policy is conducted and profoundly so. Not just in the manner in which international relations are carried out but by whom.

Are we all diplomats now?

Diplomacy is no longer the preserve of confidential exchanges between nations, the elaborate courtship rituals between countries, the rules of the dance governed by arcane protocols and conducted by Ambassadors and career diplomats acting with the utmost care and tact. I am not sure it ever was in truth, there have always been numerous players on the stage, but what is certainly different now is the sheer number of them.

The ties of trade, travel, tourism, education and culture have greatly expanded global connectivity within a generation, but it is technology that has been truly transformative.

With an estimated 3.5 billion (and rising) social media users globally, the world is becoming a much smaller place. Global virtual communities of interest are forming and mobilising in ways that were unthinkable even a few years ago.

Today, publics are no passive observers of global events – they are both active participants and vocal commentators. Citizen activism and transnational campaigns are driving global opinion to an unprecedented degree. The power of such movements is already huge and growing with, I suggest, the potential swiftly to supersede the effectiveness of creaking multi-national institutions.

Climate change – the test of leadership

Take climate change. The climate emergency campaign is a manifestation of frustration, anger and fear that national governments and international organisations alike are failing in their duty and responsibility to take meaningful action. In contrast, 17 year old Greta Thunberg, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Time Magazine’s Person of 2019, created an entire social movement – #FridaysForFuture –  that on one day in September engaged more than 4 million people across 160 countries in the biggest climate change protest in history.

Against this backdrop of environmental #activism, the stakes are higher than ever for UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow in November, not just for the UK in hosting the biggest international conference ever to take place on British soil, but for the ability of institutions like the UN to drive global consensus. Can COP26 harness the dynamism and reach of climate activism? Can institutional structures move with the urgency that is required of them? Has global summitry had its day? Time will tell, but COP26 has a massive task on its hands.

The explosion of social media communities, citizen campaigners and digital diplomats all have implications for how a nation is presented to and perceived by the rest of the world. The notion of ‘soft power projection’ is well developed now – influence via cultural, educational or economic means – but what I think will be challenged is this notion of ‘projection’. Communication is no longer a binary matter of send and receive – whether in digital or physical realms. Rather achieving influence today is about developing a tissue of complementary but different partnerships and perspectives.

Where in the world is Global Britain?

The UK, through its excellent GREAT campaign has integrated strategic communications with policy making and, through the GREAT partnership model, government and British business both work together to champion the UK. While BREXIT may have taken some of the lustre off the UK’s international reputation, the importance of establishing a new global positioning is ever more important.

What a new “Global Britain” ultimately looks like – with the UK unshackled from the EU and free to plot its own international path, developing  new partnerships and rekindling those (like with some in the Commonwealth) that have fallen into neglect – will be a real test of political vision, policy and communications.

The recent UK-Africa Investment Summit is perhaps the shape of things to come. London in the sunshine, Buckingham Palace reception, the more photogenic Royals* (*at time of writing*), partnerships with the City of London, green financing – using the UK’s convening power to bring together heads of state, investors, business leaders and NGOs. The UK-Africa Summit was only missing the cast Downtown Abbey and the Beckhams for the UK Soft Power full house.

The limits of Soft Power

The challenge for governments is how to curate that ‘national story’ in an authentic way. This is not always easy when many countries lack the communications capacity and expertise. Today the phony is swiftly sniffed out. Much as campaigners are increasingly alive to corporate ‘greenwashing’ – the polishing up of one’s green credentials, without changing underlying behaviours – the public also are wise to obvious efforts ‘to influence’. Just as many corporates have moved beyond the traditional lobbying, advertising and public relations disciplines to project their brand and values, so too are governments.

Consider the reaction to the seemingly sudden recent discovery of Saudi Arabia by legions of internet-influencers, as physically attractive as they are well-followed. It shows both the increasing use of creative techniques commonplace in commercial branding, but also the risks inherent with such methods. Some paid-for posts will struggle to mask international opprobrium.

A similar principle applies with the hosting of major sporting events. As we have seen with the Qatar 2022 Football World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting event attracts the world’s attention. Working conditions, human rights records, attitudes to LGBTQ+ issues, environmental concerns all come into sharp focus. Big soft power events whether sporting, cultural or political are an incredible platform from which to tell these national stories. But ultimately, better storytelling is greatly assisted by having a better story to tell.

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