How Digital is Redefining Diplomacy

On September 22, 2012, I had the honor of participating in a panel on “How Digital is Redefining Diplomacy,” at the Social Good Summit in New York City.  The summit was opened with a streamed speech from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which she said, in effect, “Anyone can be a diplomat, all you do is hit ‘send.’”

On the panel with me were Victoria Esser, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Digital Strategy, Ambassador Dino Patti Djalai, Indonesian ambassador to the U.S., and Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican ambassador to the U.S.  The panel was moderated by Chrystia Freeland, digital editor for Thomson Reuters.

Esser gave an excellent overview of how the U.S. Department of State is using social media to extend its reach to previously underserved audiences.  The two ambassadors described how they use Twitter to reach thousands who would otherwise not get their messages.  I talked about how the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been used when I served as U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe to get around efforts of some in that country’s government to restrict our access to youthful audiences.

The bottom line of all our presentations was that social media and digital platforms are amazingly versatile tools that can be used to pursue diplomatic objectives, but, in the end, they are only tools.  They’re not doomsday weapons that will destroy your career if you misuse them any more than the traditional methods of diplomacy; nor are they magic wands that will, with a simple wave, solve all your problems.  Digital does not replace traditional diplomacy.  What it does is extend it.  It gives diplomats a means of reaching audiences that don’t have access to the more traditional methods, or, who prefer to get their information by nontraditional means.

One thing that I observed in my three years of social media interaction with thousands of young Zimbabweans, as well as many from other parts of the world who subscribe to my Facebook and Twitter pages, is that the younger generation likes to be part of the conversation; to engage in dialogue rather than being passive recipients.  The benefit of digital is that it allows this two-way communication on a global scale and is not bound by time or space.  The audience, unlike with traditional methods of two-way communication, can be truly global and 24/7.

While face-to-face interaction is still the most effective way to share information, when circumstances make this difficult or impossible; as it often does in countries with repressive, controlling regimes, social media can fill the gap.  When, for instance, hard line elements in Zimbabwe’s government began disrupting or stopping my face-to-face contacts with youth audiences, my staff and I initiated live Facebook chats, and I opened a dialogue with young people through my Facebook page, getting around the restrictions, and expanding my audience exponentially.  I often found myself engaging in chats with young people late at night when I couldn’t sleep; and the subjects were wide ranging.  The flexibility and immediacy of social media allowed broader coverage than I’d ever been able to achieve in traditional face-to-face meetings.  Follow up was facilitated, and conversations often went on for weeks instead of a few minutes as would happen during a normal meeting or public event.

It might seem counter intuitive, but social media also allowed me to give more personal attention to individuals than would have been possible in a physical encounter with a large audience.  During a Facebook chat, I was able to interact with in individual on a specific issue, while at the same time maintaining the general conversation with everyone else in the discussion thread.  That is impossible to do in a face-to-face encounter.  In addition, there was continuity that is also hard to achieve with traditional meetings.  When a physical meeting is over, everyone goes back to wherever they came from and follow up is sometimes difficult to arrange.  With social media, you’re always there, just a few keystrokes away.

Social media will not replace traditional diplomacy, but, it has already redefined it.  In order to be effective in advancing their nations’ aims, diplomats must now add this tool to their toolbox.  It’s no longer enough to communicate only with government officials or elites.  In order to be truly effective, diplomats must reach out to a global audience, even on local issues, and digital is the flavor of the moment.