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Ediplomacy: The revolution continues

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COMMENTS

29 October 2012 13:55

Fergus Hanson is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

As with many new things, a lot of foreign ministries were initially skeptical of ediplomacy. What did 140 character messages and social media have to do with serious diplomacy?

There have now been more than enough social media infused international crises to silence those critics. When the tweets of an angry pastor in Florida can catalyse deadly riots around the world, a Weibo message by an assaulted Chinese student in Australia can threaten a massive export industry and an obscure NGO can reshape the global narrative on Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army, foreign services need to adapt.

The diplomatic operating environment has changed. And one foreign ministry in particular is taking up the challenge with some intriguing innovations in ediplomacy: the US Department of State. In 2011-12, I was lucky enough to spend nine months in the US researching ediplomacy at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution. That included time embedded in the Office of eDiplomacy at the US State Department where I conducted interviews with nearly 100 State Department officials. Today, Brookings has published the culmination of that research.

The underlying message of the paper is this: the point has now been reached where a foreign ministry will fail the national interest if it does not adapt to this new operating environment.

The paper zeroes in on the three areas at State where ediplomacy has so far attracted the most resources and greatest innovation. The first is public diplomacy.

Social media is opening up access to a traditionally difficult to reach diplomatic audiences: the general public and youth. State now communicates directly with over 16 million people on Facebook and Twitter, double the 8 million it was reaching at the end of January 2012. The paper identifies six different ways it is using this new capability.

The other two areas the paper covers – internet freedom and knowledge management – receive far less public attention, but are both striking examples of bureaucratic innovation.

The internet has rewritten traditional foreign policy issues such as taxation, privacy and intellectual property, but it has also created new foreign policy issues: among them internet freedom. State's policy in this area is gutsy. In one respect it is simply applying its offline support for basic human rights to the online world. But spending nearly $US100 million since 2008 on directly countering efforts by governments around the world to filter and censor the internet is not what many associate with orthodox diplomacy. Unsurprisingly, this policy has created some challenges, one of which is when close allies such as the UK pursue inimical policies.

Knowledge management is where State's innovation has attracted the most private sector interest. The State Department has essentially set up a research and development facility aimed at overcoming some of the most difficult informational challenges technology is throwing at large organisations the world over. So far, it has produced an intriguing suite of solutions.

The detail is in the paper: Baked in and Wired: ediplomacy at State. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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