2nd October 2012 Beirut, Lebanon
The Naked Diplomat
Tomorrow, we’re hosting in Beirut a conference on how diplomats can respond to the way in which social media is changing our work. We’ll be hosting a tweetup (#digiconflb) and drawing on the feedback so far on the FCO’s digital consultation.
I was lucky to take part in a panel on social media during last month’s Oxford Analytica #GlobalHorizons conference – Glastonbury for us foreign policy geeks. Alec Ross headlined – he has pioneered 21st century statecraft for the US government, the market leaders in the field, and has enough Twitter followers to start a medium sized country. Lara Setrakian (who was on to this early enough to have a one name Twitter handle, @lara) and Yasmin Dolatabadi (Google Ideas) were able to tell us where social media will be tomorrow (and therefore where digital diplomacy will be in a year’s time).
It was one of those sessions where you measure interest not by the number of people not on their smartphones, but the number of people on their smartphones.
I’ve blogged before about the massive impact social media has to have on the way we do diplomacy. When I look at the changes sweeping the Middle East, I sometimes wonder whether I am already too old to be an ambassador @HMATomfletcher. The Arab uprisings were accelerated rather than caused by social media. But they showed the power of the best of old ideas allied with the best of new technology – iFreedom.
Our core diplomatic tasks require social media: information harvesting; analysis; to influence; to promote English as the language that unlocks cyberspace; for crisis management (the consular response to the volcanic ash cloud relied on social media more than ever before); and to transform our commercial work.
The conversations in Oxford made me think further about what this means.
Firstly, about the skills we need to do the job. Jamie Oliver has pioneered the idea of The Naked Chef – pared back, simplified, focused on the essential essence of the job. Maybe we should think about the Naked Diplomat, if we can bear it. Where do we add most value? And what will we need to be equipped with in the 21c? As of now, a smartphone. But also the skills that have always been essential to the role: savvy, an open mind, and thick skin. I think, like the best traditional diplomacy, iDiplomacy comes down to authenticity, engagement and purpose. But diplomats must not lose sight of our bottom lines: what makes my country richer? what makes my country more secure? As @NickJefferson argues, the message still matters more than the medium.
Secondly, we have yet to get our heads round the biggest point of all. For the first time ever, diplomats now have the ability to engage directly on a meaningful scale with the countries we live in. Sure, in the past we could meet people, do traditional media, map influence, engage civil society. But social media changes the context completely – we no longer have to focus solely on the elites to make our case, or to influence policy. This is exciting, challenging and subversive. Getting it wrong could start a war: imagine if a diplomat misguidedly tweeted a link to that offensive anti-Islam film. Getting it right has the potential to rewrite the diplomatic rulebook. A digital demarche, involving tens of thousands, could be more effective than the traditional demarche. An Avaaz campaign has more impact than a note verbale (many of which, we still receive – ‘the embassy of x presents its compliments to the embassy of y, and has the honour to convey its distinguished views on the subject of zzzzz’). We can’t put the genie back in the bottle – once non-state actors are part of the conversation, they must not be ignored. Increasingly, the reaction I get from colleagues not yet entering this space is no longer derision, denial or dismissal, but fear of the unknown. In this new terrain, we have to be even more confident about what we stand for.
Thirdly, enthusiastic as I think we should be about the potential of digital diplomacy, I’m not at the libertarian end of the Assange/Kissinger scale. I don’t want to live in Wikiworld, and don’t think you should want that either. There was a report recently that concluded that social media could not replace diplomacy. Of course it can’t, and no-one said it would. There is still a vital need for direct private conversations between leaders (though, having been at too many, I would love to bury once and for all the big set piece international conference). For intelligence and confidential interpretation/analysis. For robust discussion of national interests. And as Yasmin says, we can’t chase real time approval ratings like traded companies obsessed with their share price. Some of the best diplomacy will often remain in the grey areas, where the nuances and subtleties do not always translate into 140 characters, however many of us become what the Economist calls ‘Tweeting Talleyrands’.
All of this strengthens my view that we need to stop having the debate as to whether or not to be part of the digital revolution. That is like a 19th century farmer debating whether or not to be part of the industrial revolution. This is happening all around us, with or without diplomats. No-one controls this space. It presents threats as well as opportunities. But so did the printing press, the telephone, air travel.
And we diplomats must be pioneers of this terrain if we are to remain relevant: @DarwinC, @FSPalmerston and @Magellan would have got that.