How technology changes the world of diplomacy

Tanzania embassy

The 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania was one of the events leading to the acceleration of electronic diplomacy in the State Department, according to a new report.

The increasing use of social media, mobile apps and other technology is changing the way diplomacy works, according to a new Brookings Institute report. And the U.S. State Department is at the forefront of that change.

The report, written by Fergus Hanson and called "Baked In and Wired: eDiplomacy@State," traces the department's adoption of electronic tools to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998, and credits Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretary Condoleezza Rice with accelerating the effort.

However, Hanson notes that technology brings risks as well as opportunities for foreign ministries. In summarizing both sides of the coin, he offers this list:

  • The opportunity to influence and speak directly and more frequently to large audiences, which can in turn build political influence. In the case of State, this involves its emergence as a de facto media empire.
  • The opportunity to segment audiences and target messages to key groups.
  • Broadening awareness among diplomats of political and social movements that are driven from the bottom up by providing an early warning capability.
  • The chance to listen to voices and receive information previously unavailable to diplomats. With the new opportunity to monitor the views of so many people on so many topics all the time, technology should help good listeners to better understand the complexity of politics, society and culture beyond the elite views represented in traditional diplomatic sources.
  • The risk of economically costly damage to a country’s reputation or key exports in incredibly short time-frames.
  • The challenge of competing for a voice when everyone can communicate and, in some cases, with individuals or organizations that are more successful at controlling a foreign policy message than governments.

The full report is available on the Brookings web site.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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