H2H Solutions to S2S Problems in the Information Age: A Case for Digital Diplomacy in East Asia

The world we live in is digital, and individual, as it is also political and persistently statist. State actors' control of economic resources, combined with their monopoly in the legitimate use of force, has helped maintain their superiority over non-state actors. This disparity has for the most part prevented the Westphalian world order from being challenged. Despite economic interdependence and norms like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the state-centric logic has survived even through some of the most recent thinking toward a new world order. When we think of the world, we still think mostly in terms of the states that comprise it.

The information age demands that we envision state-to-state, or S2S interactions in a new light. The idea that a state government speaks on its citizens' behalf in foreign policy is increasingly giving way to the idea that S2S interactions should, at least in part, be the aggregation of human-to-human, or H2H connections. Insisting that states are still unitary actors distorts our reality by focusing disproportionately on military power. A human-centric approach to foreign policymaking remains underexplored in spite of our expanding technological toolkit. One byte may not be mightier than a bullet, but what about one byte per person? What about two (which, by the way, is what it takes to text "<3")?

Digital diplomacy is by no means new. From the U.S. State Department's Office of eDiplomacy to the Digital Diplomacy network of the U.K. Government, state actors have already engaged millions of common citizens in partaking in cultural diplomacy that was traditionally reserved for career diplomats. As much as East Asia has attracted ballooning interest in the most recent decades, as a region it has made relatively few attempts in this direction. An enormous amount of cultural capital remains untapped for building H2H connections across national borders. Deep-rooted ideologies and entrenched cognitive biases have caused tension among East Asian countries, but many such ideologies are also shared and can be explored constructively. At the recent National Committee on American Foreign Policy's quadrilateral meeting on East Asia, one Korean delegate called for greater efforts from all countries in the region to work toward building a "new Asian identity." The challenge is for all sides to architect their respective cultural idiosyncrasies into an organic and forward-looking identity that reflects the region's, and the world's fast changing political landscape.

Cultural diplomacy through such initiatives as South Korea's Asia Song Festival has seen success in fostering understanding and amity among participating countries. The key is to see these initiatives as an opportunity not for promoting political messages top-down, but for generating public interest bottom-up. Technology's comparative advantage for achieving the latter is illustrated by examples such as Eurovision's audience engagement via a mobile app. The use of information technology for addressing political issues is necessary and inevitable, as it is advantageous in two interrelated ways: First, it reaches end users more efficiently by supplementing the traditional, unidirectional bureaucratic model of public outreach with a traffic-driven, interactive business model. The public, who are at once political constituents and the "C" in this B2C relationship, can thus be engaged more effectively on an individual, and even personal basis. Second, in this new model information travels both ways, as data gathered from users serves to inform not just political decision-makers - the "B," but also the users themselves. Fair and transparent use of the data would therefore be crucial to ensure that such an innovation creates a more open political environment and not another information black box.

Technology should also be playing a greater role in facilitating dialogue between individuals across borders. Recent incidents have attested to the enormous power in information transmission of social media apps like China's WeChat. WeChat's formidable and growing user base notwithstanding, it is still mainly used by those within China. One can imagine the amount of conversation that could occur across countries in East Asia should there be an app that enables direct communication between Chinese, Japanese and Korean speakers in the region, such as through an embedded translator and interoperability between WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk. The significance of such a virtual regional platform is twofold: It would primarily benefit the younger population who has greater influence over the region's future, and it would allow these young users to bypass the media and exchange opinions directly.

Taken together, these new possibilities require us to approach interstate confidence-building from a more creative, inclusive and technology-enabled standpoint. To address S2S issues from the root we need more H2H contact. Interstate relations do not exist independent of the interpersonal rapport that transcends sovereign borders. Most important, we must acknowledge that our statist worldview is being quickly outdated by the capacity with which technology has empowered individual citizens of the world. Bringing technology into politics is but the means to an end. Digital diplomacy or not, East Asia or elsewhere, international politics in the information age will be increasingly about bringing the human factor back.