Think Tank (2/2021)
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Digital Diplomacy After COVID-19: Estrangement and Disruption
22 Apr 2021

The Centre for Multilateralism Studies brought together experts to discuss the transformative effects of digitalisation on international diplomacy.  Professor Rebecca Adler-Nissen, University of Copenhagen, and Associate Professor Corneliu Bjola, Head of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group, spoke at the webinar held on 22 April 2021.

Prof Rebecca Adler-Nissen addressed the changes in diplomacy that have taken place since COVID-19. She stressed that digital diplomacy is not novel. Before the pandemic, for instance, diplomats often sent text messages to their administrations back home seeking further information. Nonetheless, digital diplomacy is more common now than before, even if it has not displaced traditional forms of diplomacy altogether. Prof Adler-Nissen noted that the increasing use of digital diplomacy raises several challenges, including the difficulty of building trust and securing confidentiality online, Zoom fatigue, and digital disparities between countries, such as in internet quality. These concerns contribute to a resistance to using digital diplomacy among foreign service officers and a lingering preference for face-to-face interactions, particularly among high-ranking officials.

Assoc Prof Bjola discussed how governments use digital diplomacy for crisis management. In particular, governments use online platforms such as Twitter to make sense of and symbolically structure crisis narratives, although their responses can differ depending on the stage of the crisis. Government messaging during the initial stages of crises, for example, may simply reflect their autopilot reactions (or standard operating procedures). A delay in taking control of the narrative during an unfolding crisis may demonstrate a government’s desire to see how others react first. Studying crisis communications, in his view, thus reveals governments’ diplomatic reflexes. For instance, a government’s messaging and chosen hashtags can reflect its foreign policy stances, whereas publicising outreach to its diplomatic partners on digital platforms could be one way of shoring up support for a country’s foreign policy among international and domestic audiences.

The webinar concluded with both panellists weighing the advantages and disadvantages of digital diplomacy. Assoc Prof Bjola observed that the speed that digitalisation affords is a double-edged sword: meetings are more effective, but practitioners now have time for even more meetings, which adds to Zoom fatigue. Prof Adler-Nissen, for her part, noted that diplomatic outcomes may have been negatively affected by digital diplomacy. In particular, diplomats feel that physical meetings would have enabled leaders to better convey their countries’ desperation to their peers and strengthened international solidarity. She added that the use of digital communications in diplomacy may reduce transparency. Notably, the press cannot sit in during virtual calls as they have done in some face-to-face meetings, and it is unclear how this lack of insight into diplomatic proceedings will affect democratic policymaking.

Catch it here on the RSISVideoCast YouTube channel:

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