Disruption and #DigitalDiplomacy

I’ve talked before about how new technology is disrupting diplomacy, undermining some of the traditional monopolies inherent in the trade, and making it a much more contested vocation (see http://ausambisrael.com/2015/06/29/diplomacy-in-the-digital-age/). It seems clear to me that we all need to update our business model if diplomats are to remain relevant in the conduct of diplomacy. To survive, we need to conceive of ourselves in a new role: as part lobbyist, part spokesperson, and part thinktank.

I’ve since been giving thought, though, to how innovation and disruption might be harnessed as a positive force for transformation. In other words, beyond the threats, what are the opportunities for diplomacy inherent in this new world? This is necessarily a work-in-progress. But some decent answers to this question are integral to any credible articulation of ‘digital diplomacy’.

To start with first principles, I tend to think of successful disruptive innovations as falling into one of three categories.

Firstly, there are those innovations that disintermediate – which cut out layers of intermediaries and successfully bring producers and consumers, or buyers and sellers, closer together. This is your eBay, your Amazon for books, or indeed even the Internet at large. The intermediaries suffer, but the producers and consumers both benefit.

Secondly, there are those innovations which harness a previously underutilised or unexploited resource. This is the sharing economy. Outfits like Airbnb have harnessed the stock of underutilised housing to disrupt the hotels sector; Uber is doing the same for transport; Flexicar and others are doing the same for the car rental business; Snapgoods is doing it for high-end household appliances; and more creative platforms such as Expert 360 are doing it for the labour force – tapping skilled workers who don’t want the restrictions of a job but nonetheless have surplus labour to sell.

Thirdly, there are those innovations which create a genuinely new category of product, and which create a new demand or market entirely. Think of Snapchat or Facebook or Twitter here: who would have guessed there was such a latent demand, previously unknown and untapped, for communicating in this way?

If we take these three categories of disruptive innovation and apply them to how we think about diplomacy, where does it lead us?

Let’s start with disintermediation. Viewed on the downside, this is in fact one of the biggest threats to a diplomats role. The ability of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers to text, telephone and direct message one another is a great example of disintermediation – they are disintermediating diplomats out of one of our traditional roles, as a conduit for communication.

But there is also an upside. New communication tools, and especially social media, allow us diplomats to engage directly with the public in the country we are trying to influence, often in quite a targeted fashion. We are no longer forced to work through intermediaries, such as the mainstream media or the foreign ministry. We can now take our case, our point of view, to the public direct. To do so takes a degree of bravery and media savvy. It requires a stomach for public debate and confrontation, and a thick skin towards the inevitable trolls. And it requires a supportive government at home. But the tools are now there to engage our target audience in a more direct and focused fashion than previously. Used smartly – and the best ambassadors around the world do use these tools smartly – this can be a huge asset.

How about an underutilised asset? Well, the backbone of any diplomatic service is its overseas presence. We own a lot of bricks-and-mortar infrastructure around the world. The flag and the chancery, the titles and the flummery, still count for a lot, as do the secure premises, secure communications, networks and contacts, and local expertise.

This – the infrastructure of our overseas network – is the great, underutilised resource. We need to broaden our conception of an embassy beyond just a vehicle for engaging in traditional diplomacy and the conduct of foreign relations. We need to move beyond the bread-and-butter stuff of third person notes, formal diplomatic exchanges and negotiations, and set-piece discussions, usually conducted with the host foreign ministry.

We should be utilising our overseas presence as a platform and enabler to advance interests across a much broader spectrum, and for a much broader set of stakeholders . Trade and commercial diplomacy have always been traditional partners in this respect, but we need to look much further afield. Australia’s decision to establish high-tech ‘Landing Pads’ in Tel Aviv and San Francisco, to help emerging entrepreneurs engage these high-tech ecosystems, is a great example of the sort of creative thinking needed. These Landing Pads are about exploiting and adapting a traditional embassy presence to support a whole new set of clients, in a way that is non-traditional but nonetheless firmly in the national interest.

Once you begin to think of the embassy network as a backbone of enabling government support for a whole lot of other, non-foreign ministry, interactions, your horizons open immediately. You might use the embassy to support collaborations in areas as varied as youth mental health, or medical marijuana, or surf life-saving (some areas where the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv has been active). These areas will depend on the complementarities and opportunities that exist, but the trick is to think of the embassy as a facilitator of productive interaction and a broker of relationships, and to get more value out of the overseas network.

Lastly, new products. I think there is still a pretty pronounced tendency amongst us diplomats to consider the diplomatic cable or telegram – with its searing analysis and nuanced judgements – as the gold standard of our product. (We all secretly hope to produce the modern-day version of the George Kennan despatch from Moscow, which provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Cold War containment strategy.) Undoubtedly the cable still has its place, but the readership for this product, especially amongst senior decision-makers, has been in decline for years. We are in a much more competitive information environment these days, and we cannot rely on the supposed supremacy of our product alone to guarantee our views a hearing. People simply don’t have the time.

As a result, we need to embrace new ways of communicating important information and analysis to our political masters and stakeholders at home. Sometimes a Tweet can be enough to draw direct attention to an issue of importance. Sometimes a WhatsApp group is the best way to keep people updated on a developing issue. Sometimes Wickr is the most surefire way of getting a message through. Sometimes an Instagram photo says more than 1000 words could. And sometimes just sending on or re-posting a particularly good piece of news analysis – with a comment or two – is all that an issue requires, rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel. And then of course there are text messages, phone calls and emails – all legitimate methods of communication.

There is still, and will remain, a time and place and audience for well-considered and insightful diplomatic cables, but this should not be our default method of communications. For many issues, it is too slow, clunky, cumbersome and limited in its reach. Instead we need to embrace the full spectrum of communications and think about where our audience is and how best to reach them, and select our medium accordingly. Choosing how to say something is as important as choosing what to say.

My conclusion? The threats to the traditional practice of diplomacy are real. But the same forces of disruption that threaten the old business model also present opportunities. Seizing these opportunities, discarding some traditions, but remaining true to the underlying purpose of diplomacy – that is the challenge facing us today.

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