Diplomats in a Networked Age


Tom Fletcher has launched another thought provoking blog on the world (https://blog.oup.com/2017/06/digital-diplomacy-law/). But I wonder, if this time, his enthusiasm for new technology (https://youtu.be/sWtNgVykELY) has got carried away. The networked world he describes, where new technologies undermine the power of the state and empower citizens, for good or bad, to shape their world directly, may be further away than he thinks.


The blog makes a series of important claims: “technology gives the prospect of the world’s population having an instant, global and unfiltered means of communicating, of consuming information, of forming opinions, preferences and communities”; that this could be a force for global development, but also leave us feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to corporate algorithms; and that as a system based on states and hierarchies weakens, the role of Diplomats becomes more important. Against this background, Tom sets three challenges for diplomacy: using social media in massive campaigns of influence; thinking about the implications of AI, not just for diplomacy itself but more generally for our societies; and digitising service delivery. It is a fun vision, but raises a number of problems.


Firstly, it exaggerates the extent to which ICT is undermining the authority of the nation state. This was a common position some years ago (Manuel Castells and Parag Khanna have much to answer for). But since then the nation state has made something of a come back. It is not only that authoritarian states like China and Russia increasingly control cyberspace within their sovereign territory, putting the globality of the internet at risk. Developments in cyberspace, and especially cybersecurity, are reinforcing the role of the state. Recent cyberattacks (http://www.shaunriordan.com/?p=481) make all too clear the limits of technical perimeter defences, against even relatively unsophisticated attacks. Discovering intruders once they are inside a system is not easy (on average it takes companies over 150 days to realise that their systems have been penetrated). The most effective form of cyber defence in the future may be the penetration of the computers of would be hackers to explore their capabilities and intentions. Governments already do this (Ben Buchanan’s “The Cybersecurity Dilemma” explores some of the IR implications of these defensive penetrations). But companies may lack both the technical capacity and legal cover for hacking potential hackers. They may end up as dependent on government for security in Cyberspace as they are in physical space.


Secondly, although it does mention the risks of corporate algorithms, it may underestimate the extent to which algorithms already mediate our online interactions. Far from an “unfiltered” means of communication and interaction, our interactions are shaped and limited by the algorithms that drive platforms like Facebook, Google or Twitter. These algorithms reinforce echo chambers, distort the information (news) we receive and insure that our personal networks consist of the like-minded (and similarly prejudiced – Facebook will never suggest I be friends with a Trump supporter). Some lobby groups already know how to manipulate these algorithms (e.g. the Neo-Nazis who gamed Google to give prominence to holocaust denial webpages). We may already have lost this game. Liberal idealists may want to fight against the algorithms to secure the unfiltered communications they yearn after. But it is not clear why diplomats would want to. Algorithms should matter to them, whether using then to analyse big data or understanding how they shape foreign public opinions (even learning how to game them), but as part of broader diplomatic strategies in pursuit of policy objectives.


This raises the main problem (and one I seem to be banging on about too much at the moment). Nowhere does Tom say what he means by diplomats and diplomacy. At one stage he seems to mean government diplomats. But it is difficult to see why government diplomats are particularly well placed to help us manage the challenges of cyberspace (“shape debates on how to protect our basic human needs in the Networked Age?”), especially if the role of state’s and governments is being undermined. If by “diplomacy” he means something that goes beyond government diplomats, then he needs to say what it is, what it is like to be a diplomat and why this is relevant to meeting the challenges of a “Networked Age” and managing AI in our societies. It is the same point I’ve made on “new diplomacies”: if we want to extend the concepts of diplomat and diplomacy beyond governments without emptying the concept of meaning we need to have some idea of what makes a government employee a “diplomat”.


I will conclude where I agree with Tom. Cyberspace poses a series of challenges to governments and their diplomats, and so far they have not done very well. It is not just a question of improving services to citizens, although that certainly needs to be done. But it also needs intellectual rigour. We must not confuse the better use of digital tools in pursuit of broader diplomatic strategies with the use of diplomacy to tackle the problems arising in cyberspace. If Tom is right that now we need more diplomacy, it is because the techniques and mindset of diplomats can be successfully adapted to managing the latter.

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