Modern diplomacy in a digital age

Together with Editorial Intelligence, the Embassy of Sweden yesterday hosted a panel discussion on “Modern diplomacy in a digital age”. The discussions were moderated by Bridget Kendall, Diplomatic correspondent, BBC and the panel included Alex Ellis, Director of Strategy, Foreign and Commonwealth office, Mark Turrell, Founder, Orcasci & Young Global Leader, WEF, John Worne, Director of Corporate HQ, British Council and myself.

The discussions focused on the way in which technological advances are currently, and will in the future, influence diplomacy and foreign relations; whether they will strengthen diplomatic relations or weaken existing ties; and if they have the potential and create “good” across the global community. It was a lively panel discussion with many interesting questions from an audience of 100 people.

In my opening remarks I said – among other things that – that no thoughtful person can ignore the worldwide explosive development in this field. And change in culture. Everything moves so much faster. The Internet has grown from 360 million users in 2000 to 2.3 billion users in 2011. 90 % of Swedes have access to Internet and 50 % of Swedes are on Facebook. We are just at the beginning of this technological revolution of hyper-connectivity.

Foreign ministries have to be fast learners to stay relevant in this busy and competitive marketplace. We can only understand the culture of two-way Internet if we are part of it. A new way of looking at our diplomatic agendas – focus less on traditional players and here the advantages of social media are clear.

It is inexpensive, overcomes longstanding problems of distance and timezones. But above all soft power, excellent early warning system and a means of correcting misinformation quickly. The critical factor is trust.

Sweden has come a long way since the former Prime Minister Carl Bildt’s first email to President Bill Clinton in the early 90s. This was the first email exchange between a head of state and head of government. Bildt continued pioneering and started a blog in 2005. He was an early avatar in the world of second life and inaugurated a virtual 3D embassy in cyberspace in 2007. Bildt has some 150 000 followers on twitter and is a master at conducting foreign policy in 140 characters.

Social media increases the visibility of what is happening in the world. What is visible is trackable and targetable. Diplomacy was until recently reserved for diplomats. Now individuals empowered by the internet, often organized in groups, are affecting international events on an unprecedented scale. Networks challenge hierarchies and can unsettle regimes. It is harder to be a dictator today than 20 years ago.

It’s important to remember that nothing will ever be as effective in diplomacy as a face-to-face meeting. The Mubarak regime in Egypt fell in part because of Internet, but it would most likely not have happened if the protesters had not gone to Tahrir Square.

Internet freedom will be one of the defining issues of this century. The struggle between an open and a closed Internet. Access to information and opportunity should not depend on where you live. Internet freedom deserves to be at the very top of the agenda.

Only the future can disclose what the future will be, but in the meantime, exploring the present will give us some valuable hint about where we might be heading.

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