Sanjeewaka Kulathunga follows developments in digital diplomatic spheres

Predicting the future of international relations is a challenging task best left to clairvoyants as the current political and economic context consists of unexpected deviations from established norms. However, one foresees that international relations will become digitalised thanks to unprecedented advancements in ICT.

Electronic communication has been able to transcend national divergences and geographical boundaries. The internet is the prime communication system that has transformed the globe into a small virtual village.

The internet has affected all aspects of human life globally including international relations. As a tool of foreign policy between nation states, international diplomacy is also evolving rapidly due to globalised internet connectivity.

Virtually every nation state around the globe is focussing on the use of digital media in the field of international diplomacy to pursue their respective foreign policies. Therefore, countries cannot afford to be left behind in the use of digital diplomacy.

Digital diplomacy is the use of multifarious modes of digital communications (e.g. social media) by diplomats to communicate with each other and the general public to achieve specific diplomatic objectives.

Negotiation is a major pillar of diplomacy. Therefore, diplomats have to conduct negotiations and discussions on a growing number of international or bilateral issues and trends. These range from laws on maritime borders and immigration to scientific and cultural relationships, trade and tourism, international security, environmental protection, R&D, academic cooperation, and human and animal rights.

However, it is time-consuming and costly to frequently dispatch diplomats to other parts of the world. Digitalised video conference systems and software applications such as Skype run on the internet, enabling countries to hold negotiations between international delegates across the world both efficiently and effectively.

Due to digitalised international communications, the scope of diplomacy has expanded to involve the public. The stakeholders participating in international diplomacy including the worldwide public have increased manifold whether this be in relation to state to state affairs or international organisations and NGOs.

Today, international diplomats must be concerned with the views of the general public that appear on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram prior to meeting diplomatic objectives.

Traditionally, international relations have consisted of government to government interactions. But today, with the rapid penetration of mobile technology and proliferation of online social media, diplomatic engagement is taking place between people, and people and government, thereby venturing beyond authorised diplomacy.

This form of direct link and access for general citizens to government enables official diplomats to connect with unconventional audiences; it enables citizens to constructively influence and criticise governments in a manner previously thought impossible. At present, world leaders and diplomats tend to use social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to express their views, and convey messages directly to viewers whom they want to influence.

Accordingly, the internet and social media can be used by governments as a unique diplomatic tool to promote their positions and views, on different global and regional issues in a peaceful way while building a positive image of their respective countries within the international community.

Diplomats have also become dependent on social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter or blogs to obtain information speedily and communicate with colleagues. However, information that passes through social media may not be reliable and this is becoming a growing concern.

Most countries have started to seize opportunities afforded by the internet revolution, actively promoting their foreign policies to garner a positive and peaceful image through the creation of websites and blogs, and the use of social media networks. These global trends have transformed and added a new dimension to countries’ international policies.

The biggest change that Twitter brought vis-à-vis international relations and policies has been the wide access to unfiltered information and global engagement, irrespective of national and political status.

In addition, a growing number of mobile phone users across the globe have empowered and democratised information sharing. As a result of this phenomenon, citizens and civil society in developing countries are able to hold governments accountable for political, economic and social policies outlined in election manifestos and statements made by politicians.