Last week the Lowy Institute hosted a speech by Australia's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. If you haven't already listened to it, you can do so here. It's worth staying tuned for the Q&A where Bishop skilfully handled a number of tough questions.
The speech itself was rather simple. The Foreign Minister told of how she interprets Australian soft power, outlining a number of Government initiatives intended to help project this power (including what is becoming a favoured soft power tool, and one with replication potential, koala diplomacy). The Australian aid program, currently under fire for its lack of transparency, was described as a 'vital aspect' of Australian soft power, with Bishop's innovationXchange initiative getting significant attention.
But in a speech on Australian soft power which was characterised by themes such as innovation, reform, technology, ideas and modernisation, there was one startling omission: digital diplomacy.
A decade ago this would have gone unnoticed. Even five years ago this exclusion wouldn't have been unusual, but would likely be picked up. Today however, international relations is increasingly characterised by state and non-state actors wrestling for online influence. So failing to even mention, let alone outline, Australia's plans for digital diplomacy was particularly strange, further illustrated by the fact that none of the social media accounts available to the Foreign Minister (DFAT now has over 100) communicated her speech in real-time. Nor was there a coordinated effort to engage with this large online network on the policies and initiatives raised in the Minister's speech.
Bishop missed a huge opportunity. In a major speech on soft power, digital diplomacy wasn't discussed and digital diplomacy didn't occur.
This oversight is particularly worrying for two reasons. Firstly, it renders the Foreign Minister's vision for Australian soft power incomplete, because the options available to the Government to influence key stakeholders, including on initiatives raised in Bishop's speech, are entirely inadequate. For example, how can the Government's economic diplomacy policy reach its full potential when the Government is not yet effectively using the internet to promote and discuss the policy, or to identify and engage with potential beneficiaries of the policy.
Secondly, the omission could be taken to suggest that the Foreign Minister and her office give little thought to how the growth of internet access and mobile telephony is transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the Asia Pacific, and how internationally-focused government agencies — from intelligence to defence to diplomacy – need to adjust. Australia is already far behind most countries, including the US, UK, India, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Sweden and Israel (just to name a few), who are all excelling in the digital diplomacy space. Unlike Australia, these countries have invested serious resources, and they have plenty to show for this investment.
Most of these countries have formed dedicated digital diplomacy units and are executing long-term strategies. They unleashed their diplomats on social media years ago (not just ambassadors) and are developing new ties with global tech companies (much like public-private partnerships) to help propel their efforts. They have diversified their reach beyond social media through multilingual podcasts and blogs (even Tanzania's diplomatic corps has a blog!). They are working through various methods of reaching and influencing different audiences. Their foreign ministries are experimenting with new online tools (like live-streaming apps Periscope and Meerkat) and different ways of connecting with people in order to assess which tools and methods best suit their needs.
It is worth noting that the Foreign Minister's recent silence on digital diplomacy is a new development. In 2011, as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bishop wrote an op-ed on the power of social media and the critical role new media played in the Arab Spring and President Obama's political campaigns. The same year she praised US digital diplomacy in Indonesia and discussed opportunities for Australia in using new media tools to engage with grassroots communities. In 2014 it seemed a digital diplomacy strategy was taking shape when the Foreign Minister announced, in reference to the Australia Network's $22 million budget, that the Government could find more effective ways to promote Australia.
One year on, Australia finds itself with more social media accounts but stuck in a cycle of broadcasting rather than influencing. These accounts rarely sway from safe and light-hearted topics such as koalas, food, studying and holidaying. As I have said before, these are not unimportant topics. But because of the risk-averse nature of Australia's online diplomacy, we are not seeing the kinds of power and influence we should expect from our overseas representatives. Instead, the Australian Government is projecting a meek global voice while our peers use the same tools to stamp their views and position their policy on current events. This is in stark contrast to the strong international voice the Foreign Minister referenced in her Lowy speech and completely at odds with how Australian diplomacy is conducted offline.
In today's internet-drenched world, the Foreign Minister must turn her mind to digital diplomacy. 20,000 visitors might have witnessed koala diplomacy at Singapore Zoo, but this figure pales in comparison to the almost 1.3 million social media followers DFAT has amassed over the last few years through its posts and ambassadors (not including the unexploited Australian Aid account).
The potential of these accounts is enormous. With each 'like' and re-tweet, the Australian Government exposes its content to new audiences. A coordinated and creative online effort could see the Australian Government's koala diplomacy initiative reach tens of millions of people around the world instead of just thousands. But before that can happen, the Foreign Minister needs to capitalise on the growing momentum in her Department and champion a forward-thinking digital diplomacy strategy that commits resources and helps her to find the right expertise. Only then can she pull Australian digital diplomacy out of catch-up mode and into real-time.