Ambassadors in a Digital Age

Note: This post originally appeared in Diplomat Magazine

On 30 MARCH 2017, the Cyprus High Commission and Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group co-hosted London’s first Ambassador’s Forum on Digital Diplomacy. The Forum examined the varied ways in which digitalisation has impacted the function of ambassadors, be it in creating new challenges or fostering new opportunities. Notably, this is not the first instance in which innovative communication platforms have transformed the role of ambassadors. Throughout history, technology has influenced the practice of diplomacy and, by extension, the functions of ambassadors.

From Extraordinary to Ordinary

Until the nineteenth century ambassadors were both extraordinary and plenipotentiary, meaning that they had the authority to negotiate on behalf of their monarch and even sign treaties in his name. This was a result of the communication mediums that were available at the time – letters sent by messenger that could take months to reach their destination. Beyond their role as negotiators, ambassadors would also personify their country’s character, culture and achievements. The French Ambassador to the Court of St. James was the very embodiment of France in England – his garments exhibited the latest French fashion while the artwork in his residence displayed French artistry.

The telegraph dramatically altered the role of ambassadors as information could now circle the globe instantaneously. Subsequently, diplomatic decision-making migrated from the ambassador to the foreign ministry. However, diplomatic decision-making still relied upon the information gathered and analysed by ambassadors at various courts and capitals. Moreover, ambassadors were still required to create a receptive environment for their nation’s foreign policy. This could be achieved by creating close and personal relationships with world leaders.

During the twentieth century, advancements in communication technologies once again altered the functions of ambassadors. World leaders could now converse over the phone thereby eliminating the ambassador’s position as a middle man between leaders. Even more importantly, world leaders could now meet with their peers on an almost regular basis. The relationships between world leaders thus became more pivotal to diplomacy than the relationships between leaders and ambassadors.

By the end of the twentieth century, world leaders overtook many of the tasks traditionally conducted by ambassadors.

Ambassadors and the Digital Age

The digitalisation of diplomacy has once again altered the role of ambassadors. Broadly defined, the digitalisation of diplomacy refers to the overall impact digital tools have had on diplomacy ranging from the creation of smartphone applications for delivering consular aid to the adoption of new norms and values such as practicing more transparent diplomacy. Importantly, digitalisation has bolstered the importance of ambassadors as power is migrating back from foreign ministries to embassies. While world leaders and foreign ministries have assumed the responsibility for multilateral issues, embassies have assumed greater responsibility for public diplomacy activities. Indeed, digitalisation has substantially increased an embassy’s ability to communicate with the population of a foreign country, create relationships with key audiences and opinion makers and manage its country’s image.

At its core, diplomacy centres on fostering and managing relationships. Digital tools enable embassies to forge relationships with varied audiences. For instance, Israel’s Embassy in London can utilise social media sites such as Facebook to converse with British university students who are critical of Israel’s foreign policy. Such conversations may enable the Embassy to better narrate Israeli policies and relay British criticism to the foreign ministry to aid the formulation of new policies. Similarly, Russia’s Embassy in London can create WhatsApp groups with diaspora leaders to plan community events. The Polish embassy can use LinkedIn to communicate with financial advisors and brand Poland as the financial gateway to Eastern Europe, while the Norwegian Embassy can host Twitter Q&A sessions with British journalists regarding Norway’s Arctic policies.

Even more sophisticatedly, embassies may leverage virtual worlds to expose foreign populations to their national culture. This was the goal of Sweden’s global embassy on Second Life which included art exhibits, poetry reading and meetings with Swedish authors. Ambassadors can guest lecture at schools and universities using Skype, while websites can offer the children of diasporas a host of online games familiarising them with their parents’ culture and history.

However, none of these activities can take place, and none of these relationships can be forged, without the support of ambassadors, because employing digital tools requires resources, long-term planning and strategic thinking. National images cannot be changed overnight while contentious policies cannot be explained in a single tweet. However, narrating a nation’s image and policies can be achieved through prolonged digital campaigns that target specific audiences. The conceptualisation of digital diplomacy as a long-term process, the creation of an embassy digital strategy and the definition of target audience are all dependent on the ambassador who defines embassy goals and priorities.

Moreover, digital communications require resources in the form of staffers who create and disseminate online content, diplomats who converse with online audiences on a range of issues, and the utilisation of software for audience and message analysis. Such resources can only be allocated by the ambassador. Lastly, ambassadors must make themselves available for online interactions as social media users and opinion makers are mostly interested in conversing with ambassadors who remain the official representative of a foreign country.

As such, ambassadors are now digital gatekeepers. It is they who determine the extent to which their embassies utilise digital tools strategically towards achieving diplomatic goals.

Beyond Gatekeeping: Digital Ambassadors    

Apart from facilitating embassy digital diplomacy, ambassadors may also utilise digital tools themselves. For instance, ambassadors who have migrated online can offer followers analysis and insight regarding global events. Given that they are foreign policy experts, ambassadors can help online followers make sense of a world that presently seems on the verge of perpetual crisis. In so doing, ambassadors can help reduce the anxiety now felt in nations the world over.

Ambassadors can also use digital tools to curate information for their followers. By sharing newspaper articles, policy papers and reports, or by recommending valuable websites and bloggers, ambassadors can help followers sift through the cluttered online environment. Crucially, by recommending and curating information ambassadors can help stem the spread of disinformation and ‘fake news.’  Lastly, ambassadors can employ digital tools to manifest their country online by sharing its art, culture and values. Such activities may help bridge differences between nations as followers come to realize that many countries share similar ideals, cultural heritage and historic narratives.

It is this utilisation of digital tools which suggests that ambassadors can no longer afford to stay offline. In the digital age, Ambassadors must step outside their embassies’ walls and engage with an opinionated and critical online public that is constantly attempting to make sense of the world around it.

Notably, the host of the Ambassador’s Forum, the Cyprus High Commissioner, Euripides L. Evriviades exemplifies the role of digital ambassador. Through his Twitter channel, the High Commissioner has created a vibrant online community that celebrates Cypriot culture, history and the achievements of the Cypriot Diaspora. This community also analyses global events and their influence on Cyprus and the UK while stimulating debates among the London diplomatic community and policy experts. There was therefore no better host for the Ambassador’s Forum, and no better way to end this article.

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