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To Deliver Soft Power, Digital Diplomats Need to Move Beyond Platforms

Woman taking selfie with smartphone
Woman taking selfie with smartphone

It feels like generations ago. It felt like a time of great promise when digital gunslingers were going to take the stuffy world of international diplomacy and change it forever, ripping up the rulebook and starting afresh. The set text for the time was a 2010 New York Times piece where Jared Cohen and Alex Ross were pictured in moody black and white, and profiled as the great hopes for a new generation.

It was a different world where the big surprise was the fact that they actually understood Google -- indeed, Cohen went to work there. And there was grudging admiration for the fact that they built entire strategies around Facebook -- the numbers they built through content and paid for on pages aimed at Indonesia impressed and daunted many. And they used Twitter. And they did so from their Blackberries.

Blackberries. Exactly. It was a different time.

What mattered then was the hardware (even if they were Blackberries) and the platform. The adoption of new social tools -- the emergence of social media as a mass medium, the colonization of the kind of platforms the rest of the world used and the experiments, successes and failures on a range of platforms and outlets, from Soundcloud to Quora -- were celebrated as steps on the way to a new time, where diplomacy was enacted on a shared stage, rather than one for which you needed a security pass and an invitation. That promise has yet to be fulfilled.

The early rush to colonize third party platforms and develop the institutional mechanics to deliver better has only resulted in the patchy delivery of meaningful content and worthwhile engagement. Done well, digital diplomacy ought to be the use of technology to deliver soft power and public policy messages, alongside the ability to engage with wider audiences of both state and non-state actors and use that feedback loop to understand more and to deliver better policy.

Amongst all that, the use of digital tools to deliver those soft power messages ought to be a default position -- targeted delivery direct to the audience. Instead, what's striking is how resolutely analogue it can make soft power look. The technology is used to amplify offline events -- so that the content on the channels is consistently talking about what happened elsewhere -- the meeting to which you were not invited, the event which took place without you. As tech economies grow and transaction and delivery become digital, the record of two diplomats shaking hands in front of an oil painting or of an exhibition of an approved artist is not digital diplomacy, it's simply a record of the same processes. The amplification is simply a concession to modernity without significant risk.

There are, of course, those who go beyond that, and who don't confuse the adoption of a platform with genuine progress (see Portland Communications' excellent soft power ranking for clarity on who). There are shifts in approach which tend to be counted in moments, rather than trends, but which are significant nonetheless -- the moment of U.S. President Obama's 2013 Twitter exchange with Iran's President Rouhani. Twitter is, of course, blocked in Iran and the messages were deleted anyway, but they were still seen as major moment in the delivery of public diplomacy. Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posed for the world's most power-driven selfie with Chinese premier Li Keqiang.

Another moment pored over by the diplomacy geeks as laden with promise.

The trick now is to turn such moments of soft diplomacy into a pattern where they become the norm rather than curiosities. There are already examples for foreign ministries to turn to: in the corporate world, organisations use digital technologies to build their brands and affirm their values, interacting with consumers and influencers alike. Countries can take note, and some have.

One example is Estonia's model of e-citizenship, where we can all become digital citizens of a country we may never visit, is a deliberate attempt to create a point of difference and make a new country stand out from its peers amongst the post-Soviet nations. As a brand statement, it is bold -- as a mechanic to get people to create virtual, and even real, business based on their new citizenship and Estonian domains, it helps to build a digital economy.

Kosovo, starting from even further down the grid and driven by deputy foreign minister Petrit Selimi, is using digital tools to define itself as a country (and a brand), using lobbying and digital campaigning to gain recognition from those bodies which wield power in the world, both traditional (UN, NATO etc) to the more modern, soft powers of Facebook. And if you're trying to influence people, not institutions, there is a strong argument that being branded a legitimate country by Facebook is as valuable as some of the more traditional levers of power.

Even the snarkier side of digital behaviour isn't beneath nations -- Canada's "trolling" of Russia during the invasion of the Ukraine, posting graphics to help "confused" Russian soldiers escalated from an exchange of "educative" maps to pictures of toy tanks to enable the recognition of enemy forces. Such face-to-face goading would never take place under the chandeliered ceiling of traditional diplomatic exchanges and it's perhaps the beginning of a new public tone to diplomacy, performed for an audience rather than for those directly involved.

Much of this is still posturing, a semi-adolescent adoption of cool moves to impress the watchers rather than with any thought as to the direct impact, like a school kid giving cheek to the teacher to impress his friends, not bothering to wonder whether the teacher will react.

Yet it is increasingly important. Digital tools, especially social ones, will become the default weapons of soft power -- the ability to create and deliver country brands will need the mechanics that can deliver huge audiences, as only cross-national digital arenas can.

To build the awareness that such brand-building needs, they will have to adapt to the consumption patterns of their audiences and concentrate on mobility and sociability as their unbreakable rules. And to understand the impact they will need to learn to listen to what people are saying about their country, their culture, their actions and their policies. Only digital tools, monitoring (public) social and news media will give the insight to be able to understand properly. In the corporate world, companies listen to their customers to give them better products. With foreign ministries, the delivery of better "product" (policy and its implementation) would need more nuance, wider influences and a longer timescale.

In truth, delivering diplomacy and soft power through digital tools isn't all that difficult. There's only two things to conquer, and neither of them are the technical obstacles that people claim are in their way. The tools are easy (that's why so many people use them). The issues lie in approach. It's too easy for foreign ministries to claim that the technology is an obstacle and cite security, most often, as the issue. The issues are not ones of levels of geekery, they are ones of trust and control:

Trust (1): There are no security issues above and beyond what are already there. Security is breached by people and it is just as easy (and less attributable) to breach security in the old fashioned way (print it, steal it), than it is to do things digitally, which tend to leave a trail of identity and ISPs.

Control: The issue is really one of control -- digital media is two-way so the conversation may spiral in directions which the government isn't keen on. The loss of control over the exchanges -- or even worse engaging with people who don't use the formalized language and etiquette of the diplomatic world can be alarming to some.

Trust (2): The ubiquity of digital means that communication around topics and policy can be devolved to those who are expert in the issue, rather than expert in communications. Ministries need to learn to trust a whole new cadre of people whose jobs have just become public facing.

With those simple, but perhaps fundamental, adjustments the adoption of genuine digital diplomacy to build profile, create policy and engage around it with whole new audiences can come to fruition. While the soft power agenda is obvious to government in so many ways, the obvious route to delivery is still the road less travelled.

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