Is Digital Diplomacy A form of Liquid Diplomacy?

In the year 2000, Zygmunt Bauman introduced his theory of Liquid Modernity. Bauman argues that modernity (i.e., 18th-20th centuries) was characterized by solid social institutions such as nation states, with clearly marked borders, social classes, characterized by limited mobility, and fixed identities built around nations, religion or ethnicity. Late modernity, or the 21st century, is marked by constant, unrelenting change. The solid constructs of the 19th century have all become liquid. For instance, the borders of nation states constantly expand and contract. On the one hand, the borders of nation states can expand to include expats and Diasporas who use digital technologies to remain active citizens of their origin country. On the other hand, the borders of the state contract as immigrants and refugees are barred from even boarding a plane to a new destination. Thanks to digital technologies, these refuges can longer approach the entrenched borders of nation states.  

Globalization further liquidates national borders which become irrelevant in the face of constantly changing threats ranging from nuclear weapons to radical terrorism, climate change and global pandemics. Borders and social classes also become liquid due to the mobility afforded by globalization. Bauman asserts that individuals are now tourists who constantly transition from one location, occupation and social group to another. The creation of a sense of identity is never obtained as identity too is ever changing. Individuals can join and identify with protest movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter). Next, they identify with gender-based groups, then interest-based groups (e.g., pro-Brexit) and then location-based groups (e.g., the Global South).   

According to Bauman liquid modernity is similar to solid modernity in that there is a constant need to modernize- to merge, downsize, dismantle and become more competitive. Yet solid modernity had an end-goal in sight. Solid modernity was tied to secular reason, scientific inquiry, the age of Enlightenment, the re-ordering of social life so as to better an individual’s existence and the increased efficacy of production through new technologies. The secular nation state, was meant to replace the rule of monarchs anointed by God. Yet in liquid modernity there is no longer an end-goal. Modernity has become a perpetual process and as such, the re-ordering of life and social institutions is never over. New categories of identity are constantly created. Consider the evolution of the term LGBT to LGBTQA++. 

To be modern, argues Bauman, is to modernize obsessively. Every social institution or construct is immediately replaced with a ‘newer’ institution and so change is the only permanent feature of liquid mobility. In this sense, society as a whole acquires the traits of the fashion industry which is in a perpetual state of flux. Fashion is never fixed as each new pattern; color scheme or design is discarded as soon as it becomes popular and attainable. Every fashion fad is followed by another fad forcing individuals to become compulsive shoppers who change their entire wardrobe every few weeks. Being fashionable can never be obtained as he who is most fashionable today will become the least fashionable tomorrow.

An interesting question is where processes such as globalization and digitalization have given birth to liquid diplomacy? The audiences of diplomacy have certainly become liquid as they relentlessly move from one site to the next and from one platform to the next. This in turn introduces a constant state of flux as diplomats become tourists entering and exiting digital platforms on a regular basis. In search of publics, diplomats embrace Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and TikTok only to discard each of these once a new platform becomes fashionable.

Even more importantly, the ‘publics’ that diplomats seek to interact with have become liquid and are constantly re-defined and re-imagined. Diplomats first migrated online in order to counter Al-Qaeda’s online recruitment efforts. Following the Arab Spring, diplomats sought to interact with foreign populations. Globalization soon also led diplomats to interact with Diasporas, or with expats who were encouraged to return home after acquiring advanced skills and knowledge. Following the rise of digital propaganda, diplomats wrote code and sought to influence an entirely new public- social media algorithms. Finally, during the Covid19 pandemic, diplomats sought to interact with their own citizenry  and demonstrate diplomats’ contribution to national Covid efforts. The communicative goals of diplomats are also liquid and have morphed from creating relationships with publics to viewing publics as a problem that needs to be managed. In some countries, publics become a problem as they can sabotage nation branding activities through mass protests. In other countries the public is a problem as public opinion is easily warped through disinformation and propaganda.   

The societal role of diplomats has also become liquid. Given that diplomats now deliberately target their own citizenry they no longer face the world with their backs to the nation. In fact, the emergence of domestic digital diplomacy, which was widespread during the Covid pandemic, suggests that diplomats become important societal actors as they can shape the worldviews and beliefs of their fellow citizens. Diplomats can offer compelling answers to the questions who “we” are and what is “our” place in the world. Conversely, the constant emergence of global challenges forces diplomats to imagine a global citizenry which may be at odds with the national citizenry. National interests and global interests constantly diverge and converge as diplomats move from cabinet meetings, dealing with national Covid efforts, to Zoom meetings dealing with global summits.

Time itself becomes liquid as on digital platforms the past is always present. Through images on Twitter, Russia ties the Space Race to the Sputnik vaccine; the UK ties Brexit with the British Empire’s last stand in WW2 while Israel ties the appeasement of Hitler with the appeasement of Iran. Yet just as the past is made present, the present is experienced in near-real time. Diplomats now comment on world events as they unfold, be it coups, earthquakes or invasions. There is thus no shared future in diplomacy, only an endless present that is constantly changing as one crisis follows another. The suppression of student protest in China is supplanted by Russian troops massing near Ukraine’s borders which is immediately supplanted by a new Covid variant.  

Liquid diplomacy is most evident when examining the role of Ambassadors who alternate between several identities throughout the course of a day. In the morning they are official representatives who meet with foreign governments to advance bilateral ties. In the afternoon they are experts who use blogs or LinkedIn to narrate world events. By evening they transform into brands that are marketed on social media platforms. In the morning diplomats employ a professional tone filled with ambiguity and diplomatic jargon while in the afternoon they employ a conversational tone and by evening they adopt a humorous tone looking to bolster their online brand.

Above all Ambassadors are tasked with being “in vogue”, with being fashionable or able to transition from one digital environment to the next while embracing changing norms. Discretion is supplanted by transparency and the need to share an Ambassador’s personal life online, while the backstage of diplomacy becomes a new stage on which diplomacy is performed. Corridor talks and discrete conversations in multilateral forums are at once a diplomatic tool and diplomatic performances shared in real-time across multiple platforms reaching numerous, liquid, publics.  

The most important question is whether liquid diplomacy becomes akin to liquid modernity in that there is no end-goal in sight. If diplomacy too is trapped in a state of ‘change for the sake of change’, if diplomacy also becomes fashionable, then the obtainment of long term and shared goals may become impossible. Diplomacy may be reduced to dealing only with present-day crises while failing to deal with future catastrophes such as climate change. During solid modernity, diplomacy had some end-goal in sight such as the establishment of a multilateral system with institutions that facilitate global governance (imperfect as they may be). If diplomacy becomes liquid, so do these institutions. This only threatens to further reduce diplomacy into a crisis management system that is preoccupied with creating trending memes, as opposed to averting future calamities.

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