The Blog

The New Golden Age of Diplomacy

While secret diplomatic negotiations and contacts remain important, the boundaries between transparency and secrecy are shifting to open up more of the previously closed world of diplomacy.

Social media makes diplomacy matter again. The Internet not only broke existing information monopolies, it also brought about a renaissance of diplomacy. But this new diplomacy is very different from the old cliché of secret negotiations and champagne filled receptions (if they ever existed outside the Bond series).

Diplomacy in the digital age is about storytelling. As Joseph S Nye says, "in the information age, it's not just whose army wins but whose story wins". And governments have their diplomatic corps as their best tool to tell stories to the world: stories that bring investment and open up markets, stories that stop people from joining terrorist cells, stories that bring development aid.

This new breed of diplomats are acting as journalists, economists, development specialists, lawyers, statisticians, designers, geeks and they are out there "where the wild things are". When the Dutch foreign minister opens Google's Zeitgeist with a speech on the Game of Thrones, you know that traditional lines between diplomats, NGOs, media, investors and even politicians are getting blurred.

While secret diplomatic negotiations and contacts remain important, the boundaries between transparency and secrecy are shifting to open up more of the previously closed world of diplomacy.

The diplomatic revolution is of course part of the wider information revolution that we are seeing every day. And this is chaotic and even frightening as old sources of trusted information (e.g. traditional newspapers with a network of foreign correspondents) are disrupted, put out of business by new tools, but we don't yet have the right strategies for evaluating the flood of information coming through new powerful tools. "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." (Antonio Gramsci)

To put these changes in context, we should think of a previous information revolution: the invention of book printing. It was more disruptive to information flows than anything we ever experience today. A look at book prices gives an idea of its sheer scale: the price of five manuscript pages by scribes was about one florin (making approx. £130 today), so pre-Gutenberg the production cost of a 500-page book would arrive at around £13,000 in today's money. With the invention of printing, production costs have dropped almost "overnight" by three-hundred times to around £45. (Calculations on book prices come from Nate Silver's excellent book, The Signal and the Noise)

This allowed the cheap dissemination of any information and the number of books in circulation has literally skyrocketed. The bestsellers were mostly maps, "heretical" religious texts (Luther's theses sold in 300,000 copies in three years - a decent result even in today's terms) and science or pseudo-scientific books. As a result, not only religious wars broke out, but slowly our understanding of the existing world changed forever and book printing ushered in the Renaissance, Reformation and the Industrial Revolution.

The diplomatic revolution may not trigger wars, however it is changing government and political communications forever and it's changing them fast. The US State Department was an early adopter of e-diplomacy, but the Foreign Office is catching up quickly with digital diplomacy. The European Parliament is probably the most followed parliament in the world on Facebook, the Israeli Defence Forces (and Hamas) use social media platforms to support their military effort, Russian diplomats are on Twitter and we can even follow Rupert Murdoch's life behind the scenes on Tumblr.

It's not only the behaviour and opinions of people that are changing, but also the goals, means and character of diplomacy. What all of this means for the art of diplomacy we cannot yet tell, but there's no going back. I am starting this blog to filter out some interesting signals from the noise, try to make sense of some of the changes and to draw attention to the continuing need for good diplomacy in a world of turmoil.

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