Will Digital Diplomacy Lead to the Extinction of Diplomats?

Dead Clade Walking. These three words shook the foundations of the scientific world several years ago. It relates to a theory which argues that some Dinosaurs survived the asteroid impact which triggered their extinction. Notably, the Dead Clade Walking theory did not argue that extinction did not occur, but rather that some Dinosaurs survived the impact of the asteroid only to die at a later time. In ecology,  Dead Clade Walking is also known as extinction debt, or a time delay between an event that impacts a species and that species’ ultimate extinction. For instance, it is possible that a certain species of birds still exists on Earth but that similar birds can no longer be born as their habitat has been destroyed. The remaining birds are living on borrowed time. They are not yet extinct but their extinction is already assured.

Over the past few weeks I have spoken with students at various universities across Europe discussing the topic of digital diplomacy. In all these meetings, university students made a similar argument- that diplomats have become redundant. Advances in telecommunications, transport and finance have rendered diplomats superfluous to the management of international affairs. In other words, students argued that diplomats suffer from an extinction debt– they too are living on borrowed time. Like certain species of birds, diplomats still inhabit the Earth but they are destined to disappear altogether.

Some students suggested that world leaders no longer need diplomats. Unlike ancient Greece, or the 14th century, leaders no longer need middlemen/women to communicate with one another and advance shared goals.  In the age of iPhones and iPads leaders can communicate directly with one another. The same is true of foreign ministers who no longer rely on Ambassadors to gather information from foreign courts. Gone are the days in which the French Ambassador to the UK facilitated communications between two states. The Prime Minister of the UK and the President of France can simply text one another to coordinate shared responses to mutual threats.

Students also argued that world leaders now frequently meet one another. Indeed, the digital age is marked by an abundance of world summits in which decision makers gather to advance shared interests. From climate summits to nuclear negotiations and UN General Assemblies, world leaders meet each other so frequently that they no longer require those diplomats who facilitate communications between states. Many students seem to have adopted Piki Ish Shalom’s concept of King Diplomats in which leaders steadily take over the roles traditionally assigned to diplomats.

Finally, some students argued that world affairs are no longer governed by diplomats, or even heads of states. Algorithms now manage the international arena. Some algorithms administer the global financial system deciding when and where to invest trillions of dollars. Other algorithms shape the images of nations. These include social media algorithms that determine what we know about the world and how we make sense of it. There are also those algorithms tasked with mass surveillance and flagging potential security threats. If a flag is not raised, then defense analysts and militaries are unaware that a threat exists. In other words, it is algorithms that determine when states go to war, and why.

Some may stipulate that the students in question were simply unfamiliar with the work of diplomats. That they failed to consider that every world summit is the result of months of preparations by diplomats and that such summits are merely the stage on which diplomacy is acted out. But it is in the backstage, inhabited by diplomats, that international agreements are actually debated, formulated and finalized. Others could argue that the students in question ignore the fact that everyday diplomats labor to ensure the tranquility of international affairs. That crises, wars and other calamities are ultimately resolved or even averted by diplomats. It can even be claimed that these students fail to account for the interpersonal nature of diplomacy. That alliances between states, and ties between nations, are often the result of close working ties between diplomats who serve as bridges over troubled waters.

And yet all the students in question are studying diplomacy and international relations. And many of them believe that diplomats have become extinct.

I responded by arguing that the digital age actually proves the vital role that diplomats play in world affairs. In fact, I believe that the 21st  Century onlu increases the centrality of diplomats in world affairs. First, digitalization necessitates international agreements and normative frameworks. Such is the case with international accords that define the limits of freedom of speech online or that regulate what data can be gathered on digital users. Similarly, the ability to digitally transfer funds, access foreign websites, stream online content and interact with foreign peers all rely on international accords. These will become increasingly important as the Metaverse takes shape. This next incarnation of the internet will demand international accords in the fields of commerce, trade and intellectual property rights. All of these accords will be shaped and formulated by diplomats.

Moreover, digitalization breeds uncertainty as it is becoming increasingly difficult to gather accurate information on world affairs. For instance, according to some websites there are now 100,000 Russian soldiers near Ukraine’s borders. According to other sites the figure is closer to 150,000, or 200,000 or even 300,000. According to other websites there are no Russian troops near Ukraine. As reality becomes harder to comprehend, feelings of alienation, resentment and nostalgia take hold leading to national crises and a political confrontation between “globalists” and “nationalists”. Diplomats’ digital activities, including their assessment of world affairs, offer digital users accurate information in a timely manner thus reducing feelings of uncertainty. A notable example is the UK Foreign Office’s blogosphere where British diplomats help readers make sense of regional and global events.

Finally, the 21st century is proving to be a contentious one. As the world undergoes a process of reorganization and hyper-globalization, shifting from unipolarity to hetero-polarity, more and more nations are adopting expansionist foreign policies including Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and India. These policies lead to complex, regional crises that impact the interests of many states. For instance, one cannot resolve the Syrian Civil War without addressing the interests of Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Russia, the US, Lebanon and Iran. As crises grow in frequency and complexity, diplomats will increasingly be called upon to manage strained ties between states.

The role of diplomats may alter in the digital age. But they are far from superfluous to international affairs and far from extinct.  

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