Track four brought together Mr Shaun Riordan (Director, Diplomacy and Cyberspace, European Institute for International Studies), Mr Arvin Kamberi (Online Meetings, DiploFoundation), Dr Kristin Eggeling (Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark)), and Professor Jeffrey Robertson (Associate Professor, Yonsei University, Korea) for a discussion on digital diplomacy and diplomacy by video conference. The discussion was moderated by Mr Vladimir Radunović (Director, Cybersecurity and E-diplomacy Programmes, DiploFoundation).
What is the experience of diplomats in using digital technology? Diplomats have already started using digital technologies, though capacities on how to use them meaningfully are often lacking. Digital tools may enhance diplomatic practice in many ways, and will continue to do so.
What elements of diplomatic practice do not translate easily online? There are elements of diplomacy that are hard, if not impossible, to implement online. Confidentiality remains a critical aspect of diplomatic work in many instances. Due to the nature of cyberspace and how digital data (be it documents, messages, or audio and video signals) flows (from a source, via multiple servers and routers in various jurisdictions around the globe , to a destination), the risk to confidentiality remains even when using strong encryption mechanisms.
What about the ‘corridor’? Another element are the corridor talks during negotiations, or informal consultations among diplomats, which are essential for creating bonds and trust. In spite of the ability to create breakout rooms in online meetings, this can’t replace live contact.
Have some of the promises of digital technology in diplomacy, such as greater transparency, come true? It is important to critically approach ‘promises’. For instance, online meetings may enhance inclusiveness only if they are organised to embrace online participation rather than online observation. In other words, it is crucial to have creative approaches for increasing participant engagement.
To what extent is transparency important for diplomacy and what are the challenges? Transparency may not be easy to acquire, and may not even be welcome on a larger scale. The abundance of information (documents, messages, meetings) create a ‘paradox of plenty’ in which it becomes increasingly hard for diplomats to make their key messages heard or to receive the messages that are important for their work. In addition, the vast use of social media by diplomats may only cause a false sense of transparency.
How can we work towards an equal playing field in online participation? While online meetings make it easier and more affordable for all states and stakeholders to participate, they are still not able to participate on an ‘equal footing’. Some will have limited bandwidths and unstable connections or power supplies (thus being occasionally cut off), while others will have more advanced settings and visual performance (HD cameras, green screens, professional lighting, etc.). Additionally, the online environment, including home offices, bring about many distractions.
What are some of the longer-term changes? For example, what about embassies? As social distancing measures, and the general trend of turning online, will continue, one systemic measure that governments will have to take up is to pass the key role for diplomacy from heads of governments and ministers (who are used to shuttle diplomacy) back to the embassies who may still be able to conduct informal physical meetings and strengthen bonds.
Are there any advanced and emerging technologies that can help? Another technological measure will be moving to games and virtual environments which may increasingly mimic elements of physical meetings, including ‘distance’ between speakers, the movements and presence of people, and corridor talks. The evolution of virtual reality and augmented reality may enhance this even further. It may be useful, however, to further discuss in-depth what are the specific elements of face-to-face meetings that are so essential and can’t be replaced (such as spontaneity, smells, and the unpredictability of situations).
What can the next generation of diplomats bring to the table? The new generations of diplomats, most of whom are digital natives that grew up with the online environment (or, rather, hybrid) may find new ways to make up for the ‘missing aspects’ of traditional diplomacy through other means and tools. It will be important to give them the space to innovate and find practice-based and intuitive solutions.