Its participants included Dr. Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook – Executive Director, The Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, Samuli Sirén - Founder & Managing Partner of Redstone, and Dr. Eberhard Sandschneider – Chair in Chinese Politics and International Relations at Freie Universtät Berlin. The panel was moderated by Jan Techau – Director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum. This event was organised in the framework of the Digital Diplomacy project of the American Academy, which held an expert workshop at the ICDS on 6-7 November.
The traditional post-Cold War global order is not just challenged by emerging powers, economic shifts, and the weakness of multilateralism but also the digital revolution. Technological change driven by digitalisation is altering power relations in the international system, shaping a new global order and altering the character of war, all of which represents unique challenges to diplomacy and to statecraft in general.
Turning first to the institutional consequences of digitalisation, the discussants examined what role inflexible organizational structures might have on their future. Institutions that are conducting diplomacy are still organised in a very hierarchical way and we still expect them to address issues related to particular geographical regions and nations. However, they need to also become tools of statecraft in a highly networked world and conduct diplomacy in the networks of actors, enabled by digital technology and spanning territorial borders. Rigid hierarchical governmental agencies are often ill-suited to advance national interests in such a networked and globalised environment.
Overall, states are often struggling to regulate the new environment and exercise some degree of control over it. Creating normative order is a very slow process compared to the pace of the disruptive technological change. Among the most significant potential ’disruptors’ is the rise of cryptocurrencies – for the states (central banks, governments) this could mean a loss of control of outflow of currency, which in the times of domestic financial crises has huge political and economic implications.
Increasingly, the challenge to the political systems is efficiency and effectiveness—delivering upon the expectations of the societies and producing solutions which are quick and effective despite the surrounding technological, economic, societal or geopolitical complexities. The failure to deliver makes those political systems vulnerable to the proponents of simple solutions (i.e. populists). It has become necessary for political institutions to explain newfound complexity to the citizens in an understandable way—including complexity and uncertainty generated by new technology—and this is a major challenge given that governments themselves are incapable of anticipation and oblivious of broader implications of technological revolutions .
Another challenge will be the protection of human rights and liberties. Digital technology empowers not only individuals but also authoritarian states vis-à-vis their citizens (e.g. China). The Internet is not just the space of freedom, but also an instrument of controlling and modifying behaviour of the citizens. China and Russia use it as a tool of anticipatory statecraft in order to stamp out the behaviours that threaten their political regimes or the fabric of the imposed social order.
Similarly, digitalisation is disrupting or supporting business models not only of the governments but also of the private sector, yet the private sector has proven rather adept at changing and staying abreast of the developments in order exploit new profit opportunities. More worryingly, technology companies such as Facebook that set out to create a virtual “public square” are now trying to exercise their own forms of societal control—manipulating behaviours by employing intelligent algorithms to generate more clicks and views, as a way to expand and maintain revenue stream.
For the private sector, the most valuable commodity online is human attention. However, tools that manage to capture this attention and shape public sentiment are increasingly being deployed, and rather effectively, by nefarious political actors, including foreign powers interfering with domestic political processes. As a result, the objective truth no longer seems to be relevant, as personalized and targeted truthes are now readily available online. It is therefore crucial to educate citizenry to think critically. There is a need for active, well-informed, critically thinking and engaged citizens in order to mitigate the misuse of the virtual “public square”.
Grass-root civic activism and engagement are very important drivers of “bottom up” political change—locally as well as globally. However, it still takes strong organisational capacity to have a lasting impact in a digital networked environment. Behaviour of civic organisations and NGOs often may fall short in this regard: they might be able to generate a lot of online activism (and consequently build up lots of anger on social media networks), but this may not necessarily translate into constructive and meaningful political action for real change. Clicks, shares and likes are not substitutes for such action.