Digital diplomacy and its effect on foreign policy

by Avgi Hadjizinoviou, Columnist

What is digital diplomacy?

In the traditional perspective, the states are the dominant actors in the international relations stage and have the capability to incentivize the vital tools to achieve their interests and intentions through closely related collaboration on global issues. During recent years, we are being confronted with one of the major periods of the twenty-first century in diplomatic communication, namely, the idea of “Digitalization”. This period is portrayed by online connectivity which is enabled by bi-directional communication between governments and foreign publics, and in particular, is fulfilled within the informal sharing of information and services aiming to a common interest and enhancing the global power system.

Among the most noticeable perspectives of recent foreign policy is digital diplomacy. Digital Diplomacy is a form of new public diplomacy and is based on the conduct of foreign policy through the dissemination and usage of digital-based platforms and tools, aiming to construct global connectivity among the people and government. This nature of diplomacy may be defined as the way to foster a better understanding of foreign and domestic publics on influencing and forging their beliefs and expectations on global challenging issues. The governments, including foreign ministries and diplomatic legations, through the Information and Communication Technologies, have aspired to establish, evolve, and adopt Digital Diplomacy strategies and promote the culture, awareness, advocating specific policy positions. 

The idea of “Digital Diplomacy” is related to American policy, and this phenomenon was primarily adopted by the United States. Many American scholars have pursued to develop a more intensive dialogue among actors to effectively improve the understanding, enlighten and arrange more positive mutual perceptions. In the view of Digital Diplomacy, the usage of interactivity and sharing user-generated content via online platforms, introduce us to the direction of a contemporary mechanism of diplomacy. 

It is noteworthy that digital communication and strategy tools play a pivotal role in associating domestic policy with the foreign public. In the 2008 Presidential Elections, Obama had succeeded to introduce Digital Platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in the strategy of his campaign. The above Digital Platforms were indisputably the principal factor of his success, accomplishing to cultivate the relations between the government and the public via democratizing government communication strategies. According to Cohen (2010), effective, innovative communication and advocacy can be implemented through Public Diplomacy whilst the empowerment of citizens, severe accountability, and developing capability are exclusively related to political skills. 

Being under the influence of recent developments, the changing foreign policy environment entered a new period of actualization of diplomacy, which has been radically changed and is progressively influenced by the traditional diplomatic elements. Mentioning to American case, it is paramount to perceive the inspiration of Virtual Student Foreign Service, which was designed to pledge civil society in the work of government, utilizing the competence and digital capacity-building of US student citizens. When considering the emergence of digital diplomacy, it is substantial to realize the students’ contribution and imaginativeness across a wide area of human rights, environmental issues, and fundamental global economic issues. 

Additionally, the establishment of virtual embassies is predominantly discovered in Sweden, where the first Virtual Embassy was opened, attempting to afford adequate information about Sweden’s culture and history. After the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and the concomitant dissolution of the diplomatic relations with the US, in 2011, on behalf of the US, is created a Virtual Embassy in Tehran, constituting the core channel of communication with the Iranian society. An important point of this fact is that the US didn’t succeed to influence the public and enhance the resistance against the Iranian theocracy. 

In the networked world, social media accelerated to intensify the significant role of Twitter. Taking into consideration the meteoric progress of Digital Diplomacy, world leaders and their governments, use Twitter accounts to emerge daily activities, to communicate with foreign and domestic audiences, and to exchange views in open forums with their colleagues and counterparts.  

The use of Digital Diplomacy, furnished each government with tools, to transform foreign policy and diplomacy into more efficient, inclusive, and more engaging elements. Although Digital Diplomacy is characterized by its productive and effective use, diplomats in order to preserve traditional relationships, in certain situations need to purpose face-to-face, and not digital-based communication. 

Digital Diplomacy and its weaknesses or limitations of EU foreign policy

The proliferation of information and communication motivated the policy-making agencies to compound information about norms and to compare policies and best practices on new communication technologies with a deep impact on several negative events. The wide propagation of Digital Diplomacy constitutes the core lever of terrorism enhancement by facilitating the spread of extremism, xenophobia as well as the imposition of foreign ideologies and authoritarian regimes. Research on the criticism of Digital Diplomacy is commentated as a crucial danger, considering that the internet increases actors and interests directly involved in the international policies, implicating international decision-making and emasculating each country’s exclusive control in the process. It should be pointed out that different actors in the international system have different interests, goals and values and, in consequence of this, the management of this situation is varying. 

Furthermore, freedom of the internet and social media enclose the possibility of harmful elements that threaten the state’s security guarantee, character, order, territory, and demographic integrity. The uncontrollable use of communication technology tools and platforms is associated with arbitrary enforcement of anti-democratic ideologies, absence of transparency, accountability, and the spreading of inaccurate information. The vulnerabilities of digital dissemination caused risks that are increasingly being evolved. 

Focusing on lack of knowledge about the use of communication tools and digital platforms a lot of consequences can emerge, including the presence of conflicts, ignorance, and discharges of some judgment. The policymakers need to be cautious on the publishing in various digital platforms to ensure nondisclosure under confidentiality, abolishing negative effects. The technology revolution is an important part of diplomatic communication in the international sphere, and all the world governments need to use rightly the new communication technologies, the internet, and social media, to spread credibility-based information. It is significant to note that all users of these digital platforms need continually to be trained and to adopt new digital technologies, for the purpose of obtaining the necessary knowledge about using them and avoiding risks of this nature.

In the context of the digital world’s growing pervasiveness, it is appropriate to clarify that the existence of digital diplomacy and the distribution of non-transparent knowledge, provokes some cyberspace attacks aiming at undermining all the major states and their government systems. Hacking is a crucial risk that is directly related to the above declaration. The attacks of government systems mainly occurred by diplomatic rivals, by striving to exploit significant information, and all the data that would serve them for certain purposes. In the framework of the wide use of Information and Communication Technologies, states need to protect their reputation against the profound impact on leading world affairs. Over the recent period, cybersecurity issues have included in the core priorities of the international diplomatic and political agendas of the most important organizations and institutions, such as the United Nations, NATO, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The risks that are emerged from the usage of digital tools and platforms, forced the adoption of national cybersecurity strategies and legislation by the involved countries. 

Hence, the EU created a range of effective foundations for confronting the new technology platforms and offering the opportunity of a new kind of diplomacy and politics. The subsequent section will describe some EU initiatives in the area of combating disinformation that is derived by Digital Diplomacy impact. 

What the EU has succeeded in this area and what are the initiatives that the EU has taken in this area? 

During the period of uncertainty, the European Union strived to sustain its raison d’être, especially concerning its identity, values, and ethics. One of the core values stated to be at the heart of the European Union’s identity, the evolution of global communication, technological developments, and digital tools, comprised a more profound force in the construction of international ethics and values. 

The use of Digital Diplomacy about the management of mission-critical events can incite many hazards and controversies in strategic sectors of each countries’ policies. Since 2016, in the framework of cybersecurity threats’ fighting, European Union has proceeded with significant measures to combat the evolution of the digital crisis and especially criminal activities. In particular, in 2016 EU justice ministers adopted the conclusions on fighting criminal activities as well as enhancing criminal justice in cyberspace. The ultimate goals included the rationalization of Mutual Legal Assistance, and more accurately the mutual recognition utilizing standardized electronic forms and tools. Furthermore, improving cooperation with service providers, succeeding the enhancement of the common framework, and the beginning of reflection process on the possibility of enforcement jurisdiction in cyberspace.

In accordance with the progress of cooperation to address cyber-attacks, the European Union succeeded in considerable measures in order to ensure and strengthen its cooperation regarding the fight against cyber-attacks by the key countries. Also, on behalf of the European Union, cyber activities have been confronted, underlining the significance of a global, stable, and secure cyberspace. Human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law constitute the structure of the European Union, and the responsible agencies needed to give priority in consideration to combating all the threats that may be emerged in the digital space. Principally, European Union attempted to develop constant cybersecurity, enhancing the EU’s deterrence, resilience, and response against hybrid and other cyber threats. 

It is generally recognized that the wide use of Digital Platforms in foreign policy, may provoke disinformation. The recent worldwide developments, prove that the idea of disinformation is oriented at the core level of the measures on combating cybersecurity threats. Strengthening resilience and addressing hybrid threats are the most profound distal pursuit on the handling of new technologies and crises, such as the ongoing pandemic, eradicating the motivations for hostile actors to expand their interference activities.


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