The digital revolution is changing the practice of foreign policy, but we haven't yet seen the full inevitability of technological progress, say five experts at the Global Media Forum on June 23, 2015, in Bonn.
Where foreign policy decisions were once the result of secret negotiations, the rise of the Internet and social media has allowed new players to enter the diplomatic stage and heralded a new age of transparency and accountability for existing players, including not only governments, but also corporations and the media industry.
"Digital change is affecting empowerment and therefore affecting the legitimacy, and the view and perception of the legitimacy, of those in power," Nick Gowing, International Broadcaster at the BBC and Visiting Professor at King's College London in the United Kingdom, told attendees at the 8th edition of the annual conference, which focuses this year on the opportunities and risks posed by "Media and Foreign Policy in the Digital Age."
"Everything will be visible, everything will be accountable," said Gowing.
Deborah Seward, Director of the Strategic Communications Division at the UN Department of Public Information in the United States, agreed. "People are still looking to the UN to craft solutions. … One of the big challenges (to that) is that there's a tremendous amount of information and coming in from different sources. It now has to take into account information that is coming from all over, from different parts. That must lead invariably to a great need for accountability."
While that may be true, Dr. Taylor Owen, an Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Canada and Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, says that it's the shifting power structures brought on by collaborative structures that are causing the greatest changes to foreign policy by challenging traditional hierarchical institutions.
"These hierarchical institutions have lost the monopoly they used to have over collaborative action. It used to be you needed big institutions to make lots of people do things and this is just not the case anymore, and this is a fundamental threat to these institutions," said Owen.
This shift poses two challenges to governments, according to Owen.
"Governments and states have a different role in our society. We have designed them to provide collective social goods. The risk is that if they don't transition, it's not that they disappear but it's that they become less efficient and less effective."
"The second challenge states face is that in this digital space of empowerment, the same things that empower what states perceive as negative actors – like the terrorist organizations or blackmarket retailers – are empowered by the very same capabilities and technologies that empower things we might think of as positive online. The digital commerce, the free expression, the activism – they use the exact same tools. The problem for governments is that the things that you have to do stop the negative actors will also stop the positive actors and will essentially break the digital space, break the Internet."
Not everyone sees the situation as so dire for governments. In a video message prepared for the participants, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke about how he views the role of diplomats in the digital age.
"Unlike the avalanche of images from crisis regions, the methods of conducting foreign policy may seem slow and old-fashioned. Diplomacy takes time and involves long days and nights of tough negotiations to find compromises. And very seldom do these result in fascinating photos! It can take months or even years to reach acceptable agreements. Compared to the waves of dramatic pictures in the Internet and on the evening news, it often appears that the international community is incapable of reacting quickly enough. But foreign policy must not be tempted to respond with supposedly quick and simple solutions. We must continue to seek diplomatic initiatives patiently and resolutely, regardless of how much time and effort this takes."
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, agreed. "It would take much longer if we were to use more traditional ways. Virtual diplomacy is a huge challenge for diplomats. We are all more exposed to the outside world. We are becoming more transparent, more reachable, but also more accountable. … But this cannot in any way replace traditional diplomacy."
Like his fellow panelists, Prof. Dr. Jan Melissen, Senior Research Fellow, Clingendael - Netherlands Institute of International Relations and Co-Editor of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, sees the changes resulting from this shift to a digital age as inevitable. "The key functions of diplomacy are all related to digital. Diplomacy is about negotiation. … It's about communication. It's about representation."
That hasn't changed. As Melissen said, "It's not the end of diplomacy. It's the end of diplomacy as we know it."
International partners and co-hosts
DW's partners for the approximately 40 workshops and events being held at the 2015 Global Media Forum include, among others, Amnesty International, Grimme-Institut, the United Nations, the OSCE, Reporters Without Borders Germany and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The conference is co-hosted by the Foundation for International Dialogue of the Sparkasse Savings Bank in Bonn. Support is also kindly provided by Germany's Federal Foreign Office, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the City of Bonn and the Robert Bosch Stiftung.