Public Diplomacy in the Digital Age

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
Corneliu Bjola Oxford Department of International Development, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford Oxford OX1 3TB United Kingdom

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Jennifer Cassidy St Peter’s College, University of Oxford Oxford OX1 2DL United Kingdom

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Ilan Manor St Cross College, University of Oxford Oxford OX1 3LZ United Kingdom

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As data fast become the ‘new oil’, the opportunities for public diplomacy to grow as a field of practice are real and game-changing. Drawing on social informatics research, this article seeks to advance our understanding of how digital technologies shape the context in which public diplomacy operates by reshaping the medium of public communication, blurring the boundary between foreign and domestic affairs and empowering new actors. Despite inevitable challenges, the future of public diplomacy in the digital age remains bright, as digital technologies create tremendous opportunities for public diplomacy to build stronger, more diverse and more enduring bridges between offline and online communities.


By 2025, the number of data-driven interactions per day per person (that is, interactions between individuals and their digital devices) is estimated to increase twenty-fold, from an average of 298 in 2010 to the staggering amount of 4,909 connections, amounting to one digital interaction every 18 seconds. Furthermore, real-time data usage will grow from 15 per cent of the datasphere in 2017 to nearly 30 per cent in 2025, meaning that the effectiveness of data-driven activities will increasingly depend on the availability of data with low-latency responsiveness (instant data).1 In other words, the scope, volume and intensity of global data connectivity are expected to explode in the coming years. While most of these interactions will likely be mediated by intelligent assistants, the disruption produced by this transformation will have, by necessity, far-reaching implications for the way in which individuals, communities and societies define and conduct themselves as social and political actors, and, by extension, for the way in which public diplomacy as a practice of building bridges with foreign publics will adapt and evolve in the digital age.

Drawing on social informatics research, this article seeks to advance our understanding of how digital technologies shape the context in which public diplomacy operates by reshaping the medium of public communication, blurring the boundary between foreign and domestic affairs and empowering new actors. By offering insights into the relationship between information technologies and social contexts,2 social informatics (SI) research moves beyond facile interrogations of how information technologies are functionally integrated by interested actors in their work and emphasizes instead their ability to embed themselves in the social and institutional context in which they emerge and proliferate. In other words, instead of exclusively focusing on the qualities of the technological artefact, social informatics takes a critical view of the ways in which people and information technologies interact3 (arrow 1 in Figure 1) and seeks to bridge the gap between professional claims about the social values and uses of information and communication technologies and the empirical reality of such claims.4 In this way we can gain a better sense of the dual enabling and constraining roles played by information technologies in shaping public diplomacy practices.5

Figure 1
Figure 1

A social informatics approach to understanding the interaction between digital technologies and public diplomacy

Citation: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14, 1-2 (2019) ; 10.1163/1871191X-14011032

To this end, this article will first examine how the materiality of digital technologies shapes the context in which public diplomats work (arrow 2 in Fig. 1), and, second, how the digitized context constrains and enables public diplomatic engagement (arrow 3 in Fig. 1). The analysis will be pursued in three sections, each exploring one key aspect of the evolving dynamic of public diplomacy in the digital age: the evolution of the medium of communication; the digital blurring of the foreign and the domestic; and the rise to diplomatic prominence of technological-based non-state actors. We will thus argue that despite inevitable challenges, the future of public diplomacy in the digital age remains bright, as digital technologies create tremendous opportunities for public diplomacy to build stronger, more diverse and more enduring bridges between offline and online communities.

Digital Communication: From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg

As Christer Jönsson points out, ‘without communication, there is no diplomacy’,6 and rightly so, as diplomats would hardly be able to represent or negotiate their interests without the means to express them in a manner that is sufficiently intelligible to all parties. While diplomatic communication has traditionally been embedded in a textual-oriented culture7 that has favoured ‘constructive ambiguity’ over precision, politeness over frankness, reason over passion and confidentiality over transparency, the arrival of digital technologies has infused the public sphere in which diplomacy operates with a set of new elements that have already started to reshape the way in which public engagement takes place. Some of these elements are already visible (including information overload, visual enhancement, emotional framing, algorithmic-driven engagement), others are expected to become visible soon (non-physical interaction and empathetic connectivity via augmented and virtual reality simulations), but many others are yet to reveal themselves, as the technologies to support them are still in the ‘drawing board’ phase (such as artificial intelligence, blockchains and 3D printing).

Take, for instance, the case of digital data, the ‘bloodstream’ of the digital revolution. It is expected that by 2025, the global datasphere will grow to 175 zettabytes (ZB, a trillion gigabytes), which represents ten times the 33 ZB of data generated in 2018.8 To put things into perspective, every two days we create as much information, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once claimed, as we had done from the dawn of civilization up until 2003, roughly five exabytes of data9 (or 0.005 ZB). This massive process of data generation inevitably increases competition for attention in the online space and stimulates demand for new skills and the algorithmic tools that are necessary for filtering, processing and interpreting relevant data. The cognitive short cuts that online users have developed in reaction to information overload are tailored to addressing the challenge of conducting effective communication in the digital space. Visual enhancement highlights, for example, the power of images to pack a large amount of information in an easily absorbable format. Emotional framing seeks, on the other hand, to stimulate online engagement not by the quality of the information, but by the intensity of the moods and feelings conveyed about the topic under discussion, a process that has the potential to become even more intimate in the immersive context of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies.

As social informatics researchers will not hesitate to point out, the impact of these transformations on public diplomacy will much depend on how diplomats interact with the new communication features that digital technologies will make available. If these features are recognized as making useful contributions to improving the effectiveness of public diplomatic work and to advancing foreign policy objectives, then they are more likely to be accepted and supported by ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs), embassies, and rising non-state actors with diplomatic capacities and aspirations. If, on the other hand, these features are seen as fostering an environment in diplomatic communication that will find itself at risk of being hijacked by the ‘dark side’ of technology and redirected for disinformation and propaganda, then institutional resistance is likely to be much stronger. More specifically, one would expect three particular areas to influence considerations about the significance of digital technologies for the future of public diplomacy, namely whether they will prove effective in ensuring that public diplomacy messages would be better heard, listened to and followed by the relevant audiences.

Given the challenge of information overload and the growing competitiveness of the online space, machine learning will likely become an indispensable tool for studying pattern recognition and making data-driven predictions about the main issues of concern for the target audiences. As the volume of data-driven interactions continues to grow at an exponential rate, one can make oneself heard only by professionally learning how to separate ‘signals’ from the background ‘noise’ and by proactively adjusting one’s message accordingly in a manner that ensures maximal visibility in the online space, in real time. Making oneself listened to would require, by extension, better understanding of the cognitive frames and emotional undertones that enable audiences to connect meaningfully with a particular message. Most importantly, the ongoing transition from a textual to a visual or audio form of communication is likely to accelerate and, consequently, public diplomacy campaigns are expected to become increasingly sophisticated in visual or audio terms. Augmented reality technology is particularly well suited to take advantage of this trend by allowing, for instance, public diplomats to use geolocation-based apps to showcase issues of interest in a tailored and interactive manner. Intelligent assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home’s smart speaker could also prove effective in providing tailored and engaging public diplomacy context via specially developed skill sets.

Making oneself recognized and followed as a soft-power leader would come with a particular set of challenges. First, the idea of ignoring or downplaying the significance of the digital medium is likely to turn increasingly counter-productive. ‘To define yourself or be defined’ has now become a critical guiding principle of digital engagement, as in fluid, overcrowded and dynamic digital contexts, diplomatic reputations, political perceptions and institutional images can be relatively easily reframed or undermined, as illustrated, for instance, by the Twitter spat between Turkey and the Netherlands when the Dutch government prevented Turkish officials from campaigning in the Netherlands.10 Second, digital platforms do not simply add value to pre-designed communication strategies, but they gradually usher in a new language of communication with its own grammar rules in which data, AR/VR simulations and algorithms are the new syntactic units to which various combinations of visuals, emotions and cognitive frames are attached to create semantic meaning. Third, and potentially revolutionary, the new semantic meaning to be generated by digital tools will likely be tailored not to the preferences of generic audiences, but to those of each individual, in line with his/her specific habits of news consumption and patterns of media diet that big data analytics should be able to reveal.

Moreover, the line between message and action becomes increasingly blurred, as diplomatic communication in the digital context is no longer about merely reporting or occasionally instigating action, but about performing action with diplomatic meaning and implications, especially in times of international crises. This is where the issue of digital emotional intelligence (DEI) — that is, the ability to read, interpret and manage emotions inhabiting the digital medium — can prove critical to the theory and practice of public diplomacy. Paying close attention to how genuinely and intensely people feel about a particular situation in their online communication can help to avoid embarrassing moments with potential disruptive implications for bilateral relations. By improving awareness of how emotions affect the thinking of digital diplomats, DEI can also help to strengthen their problem-solving capacity. Positive moods stimulate creativity, drive interest in new possibilities and foster risk-taking and ambitious planning. By contrast, negative moods tend to keep people focused on the tasks at hand, make them pay more attention to details and increase their resistance to making mistakes. Finally, DEI underscores the value of learning how to detach oneself from emotionally charged situations in the digital sphere. Managing emotional responses to powerful triggers is a difficult exercise, but with potentially strong positive implications.

To conclude, digital technologies will continue to reshape the context in which social communication takes place in a subtle but profound manner, ranging from the use of machine learning for understanding patterns of communication, the employment of intelligent assistants for message dissemination, the resetting of the ‘grammar rules’ of communication in support of more engaging and performative actions tailored to individual preferences and the cultivation of digital emotional intelligence to facilitate smooth digital navigation through emotion-laden situations. On the critical side, the continued inability to process vast amounts of data in real time creates favourable conditions for the construction of ‘alternative realities’, in which interpretations of social reality are disconnected from evidence-based reasoning and anchored instead in deformed or falsified frames that are designed to serve the foreign policy interests of the day, as the disinformation campaigns in Europe that are attributed to the Russian government regrettably demonstrate.11

Domestic Digital Diplomacy: From Whitehall to Townhall

Traditionally, foreign ministries were tasked with managing relations of friendship and enmity with other states, while diplomatic communication saw interactions between diplomats and foreign constituencies.12 Diplomats thus faced the world with their back to their nation and seldom communicated with their national citizenry. Yet globalization and digitalization have blurred the lines between the foreign and the domestic. In a globalized world, one cannot easily separate the domestic from the foreign, as local challenges such as climate change, terrorism or even employment require regional or global solutions. Digitization further blurs the distinction between domestic and foreign, as citizens’ migration to digital platforms creates new opportunities for diplomats to rally domestic public support for foreign policy achievements or sway public opinion in favour of a chosen policy. From a social informatics perspective, the more that digital technologies blur the boundary between the foreign and the domestic, the more that MFAs will have to face challenges about whether they can continue to do their job effectively without also engaging in the public conversation at the domestic level.

The digital blurring of the foreign and the domestic could be best captured by the concept of domestic digital diplomacy (DDD), which refers to the use of digital platforms by governments in support of their foreign policy.13 In 1988, Robert Putnam conceptualized diplomatic negotiations as a two-level game in which national and international politics often collide.14 At the national level, interest groups and constituents (such as labour unions and activist groups) pursue their interests by pressuring the government to adopt favourable policies. At the international level, governments attempt to meet the pressures of their domestic constituents, while at the same time minimizing the possible adverse impact of foreign developments. Putnam argued that ‘the political complexities for the players in this two-level game are staggering’, as leaders must walk the tightrope between domestic and foreign demands.

From a public diplomacy perspective, digital technologies may be used to facilitate or impede the two-level game of diplomacy. For instance, foreign policy institutions may now use digital platforms to communicate with the national citizenry to obtain public support for diplomatic treaties, which may translate into political support. In a recent paper, Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor explored, for instance, how the Obama White House used Twitter to engage with the American public and gather support for the Iran Nuclear Agreement, which ultimately led to Congressional endorsement of the Agreement.15 As digitization has dramatically increased the ability of online actors to counter government communication, Bjola and Manor expect the issue of DDD to become more prominent in the coming years. MFAs will likely face a growing demand to monitor the activity of foreign opponents in the domestic public sphere, map their arguments and refute them in near-real time.

At times, the opposite may also occur, as domestic public diplomacy leads to foreign ripple effects. One classic example is a ‘selfie’ published by former First Lady Michelle Obama in 2014. The ‘selfie’ depicted the First Lady holding a sign with the hashtag ‘Bring Back Our Girls’, referencing the abduction of more than 270 Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram. The tweet may have been an attempt to draw US public attention to the plight of the kidnapped girls. Yet within hours of the tweet’s publication, a counter campaign was launched with individuals publishing ‘selfies’ bearing the hashtag ‘Bring Back Your Drones’ and referencing the Obama administration’s affinity for drone strikes. This example is not unique but rather inherent to digital communications, as online publics may accept or reject diplomatic messaging, leading to ripple effects at both the domestic and foreign levels. Overcoming this limitation requires that diplomats continue to employ digital tools towards public engagement and online conversations. Indeed, the power of digital tools lies not in their ability to disseminate messages, but to foster and nurture relationships through meaningful dialogue.

Algorithms are particularly well suited to influence diplomatic negotiations, as they enable the creation of digital content that increasingly resonates with the biases of certain populations. Big data and sentiment analysis can be used to classify conversations taking place in various digital forums. Once biased groups have been identified, digital propaganda may be disseminated among members so as to strengthen their bias and harden their political stance, thus impacting a government’s ability to negotiate an agreement. During the Crimean crisis, disinformation was used to promote fake stories in Ukraine alleging that Ukrainian extremists had raped Russian women or established concentration camps in eastern Ukraine.16 These fake stories were used in an attempt to sway public opinion against a possible agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. As algorithms grow more sophisticated, their ability to sway public opinion in a foreign country against an agreement may also grow.

Yet algorithmic technologies may also facilitate the two-level game of diplomacy. The Israeli MFA currently uses algorithms to map social-media filter bubbles that promote either positive or negative narratives about Jewish communities. Once these have been mapped, Israel’s MFA attempts to engage with members of negative filter bubbles by providing factual information, countering racial stereotypes and conversing with those members who are willing to do so.17 This, in turn, helps the MFA to build relationships with hostile online publics, which may then come to support Israel’s policy stance, such as Israeli insistence that any negotiated settlement with the Palestinians include the continued military presence of Israeli forces along the border with Jordan.

Future technologies will also continue to digitally disrupt the two-level game. For instance, it is estimated that by 2025 virtual reality will provide digital publics with immersive experiences that could challenge one’s notion of reality.18 Virtual reality may be defined as an artificial environment that is experienced through sensory stimuli provided by a computer and where ones’ actions partially determine what happens in the environment. From the perspective of domestic digital diplomacy, MFAs may use virtual reality to offer citizens a virtual experience in which they are transported to the scene of a global crisis and witness first-hand the events that are unfolding on the ground. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) could, for instance, offer British citizens the opportunity to virtually witness the Syrian civil war. This, in turn, may enable the FCO to obtain public support for demanding that any negotiated resolution to the war include the removal of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet virtual reality experiences may be based on fact or fiction, reality or narrative, hence the importance of the social dimension of digital technologies. The Russian MFA could also virtually transport British publics to Syria, while exposing them to a false reality in which the Assad regime is fighting Islamic terrorists rather than its own people. Subsequently, British publics may come to regard Russia’s involvement in Syria as legitimate, thus harming British attempts to broker a negotiated solution to the war that sees the removal of President Assad. Importantly, digital publics may be susceptible to visual manipulation, as images play an evidentiary purpose in modern societies. They are used in courts of law and history books to prove that certain events did in fact take place. As ‘seeing is believing’, virtual reality could substantially disrupt the two-level game as MFAs promote false realities.

In the same vein, it is estimated that by 2025, tele-presence will replace applications such as Skype as a medium for remote communications.19 Tele-presence is a holographic conferencing communication technology that enables people to interact with holographic images of their counterparts. Tele-presence could also substantially complicate the two-level game. As a tool for domestic digital diplomacy, holographic imagery could enable diplomats to hold townhall meetings throughout their country to raise domestic support for diplomatic treaties without ever leaving their office. As a tool for traditional public diplomacy, tele-presence may impact the diplomatic capabilities of relatively poor countries that maintain small embassies abroad. Rather than have a physical diplomat rally support for, or against, a diplomatic accord, diplomats will be able to engage holographically with foreign opinion-makers and elites, so as to facilitate or impede the domestic ratification of an international agreement.

This is not to suggest that face-to-face diplomacy will no longer hold relevance. Just as one may separate the domestic and foreign levels of diplomacy, so can one distinguish between the stage and the backstage of diplomacy. Tele-conferencing may especially be useful on the stage of diplomacy in which diplomats act in front of a global audience. A holographic image of a world leader may address the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, a holographic ambassador may address the UN Human Rights Council, while a holographic trade representative may give an address at a diaspora business forum. Yet the backstage of diplomacy will continue to be dominated by face-to-face interactions. For it is in the backstage that diplomats foster personal ties with stakeholders and leverage these ties to obtain national goals. Coalition-building at multilateral forums and establishing ties with diaspora leaders rest on diplomats’ ability to establish a positive rapport with their counterparts. This can primarily be achieved through personal interactions.

Importantly, the blurring of the domestic and foreign realms of diplomacy is also evident when examining the impact of digital disinformation. While digital technologies may augment public diplomacy activities, one cannot ignore the fact that state and non-state actors employ digitalization towards undermining diplomatic processes. Doctored images, fake videos, bots and fictitious news sites are all used to sway public opinion, stoke emotions of fear and distrust, and erode the foundations of open societies. Thus, while some actors may use digital tools to create bridges, other use them to destroy bridges. Combating the emergence of digital disinformation has seen diplomats operate at both the domestic and foreign levels. Domestically, some MFAs now play an active role in mapping and stemming the flow of digital disinformation in their own country. The Israeli MFA and the British FCO have created digital units tasked with identifying and neutralizing foreign social-media bots and fictitious news sites. In the foreign arena, some MFAs now share their experience and expertise with their peers. The United Kingdom, for instance, is training digital units in Baltic nation MFAs so that these may also track and neutralize disinformation campaigns. Going forwards, diplomats may further contribute to their nation’s digital resilience by working with other ministries on digital literacy programmes that help citizens to identify nefarious digital content. At the international level, diplomats may create coalitions with technology companies, civil-society organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) so as to create a ‘trusted digital environment’ in which actors share the burden of mapping and neutralizing disinformation campaigns.20

In summary, the next wave of digital disruption will continue to blur the boundary between the domestic and the foreign and the real and the fictitious. Reaping the benefits, and contending with the limitations, of innovative technologies will demand that MFAs adopt a proactive approach to digitization and begin today to acquire the skills that are necessary to practise digital domestic diplomacy as a key new component of the public diplomacy of tomorrow.

Silicon Valley Diplomacy: From State to Technology-based Representation

As digital technologies grow in their agency and impact, it seems justified to pose two pertinent questions: who are the diplomats and who needs public diplomacy in the Digital Age? In seeking to answer these questions, we can highlight two distinct future trends when it comes to evaluating the evolution of diplomatic representation and in particular its impact on public diplomacy in the digital age: the tendency to see diplomats in terms of the skills that they possess and the jobs that they do, rather than who they represent; and the ever-increasing institutionalized multilateralism aimed at a stronger international order, either by improving digital cooperation between states or transcending the need for it. From a social informatics perspective, the first tendency speaks to the digital transformation of the context in which diplomacy operates (the rise of new powerful actors with diplomatic capacity and aspirations), while the second highlights the implications that these new actors may have on new methods and forms of public diplomatic engagement.

Shining a spotlight on the latter trend first, it seems justified to state that the progressive inclusion of non-state actors in the realm of foreign policy-making is playing a seismic role in shaping the current, and undoubtedly the future, evolution of diplomatic representation, in particular the inclusion of technological giants within the borders of Silicon Valley. Indeed, this ever-intertwining relationship between these actors and a nation-state’s foreign policy construction is being publicly and actively addressed by the actors themselves, signalling to the world at large that the international political order has indeed changed. The CEO of General Electric (GE) Europe, Ferdinando ‘Nani’ Beccalli-Falco, for example, goes as far as to call himself ‘the Foreign Minister of GE’ because of the nature of his work. Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman and former CEO, has made visits to North Korea and Cuba with the public aim of meeting with state officials to promote a ‘free and open internet’. Schmidt is regularly called Google’s ‘Ambassador to the World’ for his work in representing the firm on global trips in an attempt to expand Google’s operations worldwide. Thus, for the student and the practitioner of diplomacy, the trend concerning diplomatic actors and their evolving representation seems clear: corporations are growing in their capacity to engage in public diplomacy efforts, a field that once remained almost exclusively in the domain of sovereign states.

Indeed, a host of the aforementioned actors now have resources exceeding those of some sovereign states and can bypass the formal structures of their home nation’s diplomatic bureaucracy. They are also increasingly being shown to constrain the role of contemporary MFAs in setting and implementing policy, both at home and abroad. When viewed through the lens of the evolving nature of diplomatic representation, this constraint represents one of the growing challenges that has emerged within the framework of what we can now label a ‘Silicon Valley foreign policy’. Non-state actors, specifically technological-based non-state actors (TBNSAs), are directly challenging our historic notions of power and influence in the realm of foreign policy-making and are shaping with considerable force the context in which MFAs now choose to conduct their public diplomacy efforts. This reshaping of the diplomatic domain by TBNSAs has been done, and it seems justified to predict that it will continue to be done, by: a) disrupting the historic structural order of diplomatic institutions (in this case, that of diplomatic representation); and b) the heightened influence and reach that these new actors now hold over the public domain — a degree of influence and reach of which MFAs could only ever dream and one that many are now rightly seeking to emulate and integrate in their future conduct of public diplomacy.

However, as with any change to the make-up of diplomatic practice, be this in regard to public diplomacy objectives or otherwise, serious challenges arise. As the Head of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, acknowledged, one serious challenge for the future of diplomacy stems ‘not from the rapid increase in the number and types of international organizations, but from diplomacy’s (representative actors and institutions) inability to adapt to them’.21 As noted, TBNSAs are continuously demonstrating their capacity to take the centre stage, even when facing traditional powerful state actors. In contrast, MFAs at large are continuously demonstrating their incapability to react to the power, influence and motive of these new non-state actors. With that said, when seeking to predict and analyse the future aims and practices of public diplomacy, and how best an individual MFA can adapt the historic component of diplomatic representation to meet the changing demands and needs of the new international order, we do require some sort of blueprint, a benchmark, in which to base our predictions and recommendations.

This blueprint begins first, in our view, with the case of Denmark, a nation that not only acknowledged the changing landscape of diplomatic representation, but acted upon it, and swiftly. Recognizing that the intensity of growth of international actors arose nearly exclusively from technological actors based in Silicon Valley, and that few issues today lie completely outside their purview, Denmark made the pioneering move to appoint veteran diplomat Casper Klynge as the world’s first ‘Tech Ambassador’ to Silicon Valley. The spark, or the catalyst, for this appointment came in 2016, when Denmark noted that their national GDP for 2016 was smaller than Facebook’s entire market capitalization. When publicly announcing this decision, Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs Anders Samuelsen stated: ‘Companies such as Google, IBM, Apple and Microsoft are now so large that their economic strength and impact on our everyday lives exceeds that of many of the countries where we have more traditional embassies’.22

Furthermore, Denmark’s decision, while pioneering in its initial conception, did not stand alone for long, for in November 2017, France appointed Ambassador David Martinon to Silicon Valley, thereby creating the nation’s first role of ‘Ambassador for Digital Affairs’. Ambassador Martinon’s portfolio focuses on forming, maintaining and fostering relations between France and Silicon Valley, with his jurisdiction extending to digital issues, already present within the French MFA. This includes digital governance, international negotiations on cybersecurity, support for digital companies’ export operations, intellectual property issues online, and France’s participation in the Open Government Partnership in conjunction with ETAPA (the French task force for open data). These recent ambassadorial appointments signify not only the important socio-economic and political roles of technology, but also how diplomacy is evolving and adapting to the disruptive changes in our societies. These developments mark the prominence of so-called ‘tech-cities’ on the global scene. Nation-states are no longer the only players in international affairs; cities are also taking centre stage.

Formally creating the first ambassadorial posting to Silicon Valley undoubtedly captured the attention of people around the globe and sent a strong signal to the international community at large that the global power game was changing. This appointment demonstrated clearly what many MFAs have yet even to acknowledge: that many aspects of the historic roles and responsibilities of a nation-state’s ambassador and embassy have changed, chief among them, the multitude of actors who now hold power in the international system and who thereby influence both foreign and domestic policies. As a result, MFAs are being forced to re-examine who represents them in the global sphere, where and how.

With that said, one should note that Ambassador Klynge’s appointment did not emerge in a vacuum. Take the case of Taiwan, for example. Taiwan has increasingly and openly demonstrated its intention to deepen its relationship with Silicon Valley. The most public step came with the launch of the Asia Silicon Valley Development Plan in September 2016 by Taiwan’s government. The plan is still in progress, and maintains the core aim of connecting Taiwan to global technological clusters and creating new industries for Taiwan’s next generation. A number of other smaller states have followed this example and worked to create an influential presence in the region. The Republic of Ireland is one example, establishing a strong presence in northern California, with its office directing a large proportion of its attention to the technological sector, alongside other sectors including bio-pharmaceuticals and financial services. Other nations take a slightly different approach, choosing to combine private-sector expertise with the aim of bolstering and strengthening their diplomatic capacity on the ground. Priya Guha, for example, who previously held the title of the United Kingdom’s consul-general to San Francisco for five years, worked extensively to convince technology start-ups to expand to Britain.

Meanwhile, it remains noteworthy that an international presence within Silicon Valley is not always easy to spot, with a number of nations preferring to engage in a more implicit manner. This style of engagement tends to reflect the motivation behind the actor in question, with indirect intervention suggesting a desire for indirect control. For example, Chinese companies frequently source failing US firms and target small enterprises making valuable technology, such as semiconductors. Chinese companies also invest heavily in dollars, and other resources, in technological firms in Europe and the United States as a way to capture innovation before it becomes ‘mainstream’ and loses advantage against its competitors. This is illustrated also in Sunnyvale in the heart of Silicon Valley, where US digital giants such as Microsoft, LinkedIn and Yahoo all have a presence. Next to a Google complex is a building housing the offices of Baidu, China’s largest internet provider and Google’s rival. Baidu opened its innovation centre, called the Institute of Deep Learning, in 2014, with a focus on a self-driving vehicle called Apollo. Other digital Chinese powerhouses, such as Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei, also have Silicon Valley research and development centres.

Regarding the direct implications for the public diplomacy efforts of the states named (and indeed unnamed, but existing in their practice), they emerge as distinct and novel when viewed in the lineage of diplomatic history. This is primarily done by leveraging the heightened influence and reach that these technological giants possess, and the increasing power that they now hold over the global public domain at large. Denmark and Ireland may be relatively small countries compared to, say, Germany, but those metrics no longer weigh up in the same way. States and the governments that they appoint have ceased to dominate people’s existence in the same way that they did a century ago. Instead, it is a new era dominated by cross-national identity politics, (mis)information and data. Denmark’s prioritization of ‘techplomacy’ is in itself a public diplomacy tool for the state. It is an area where, according to Klynge, ‘we punch above our weight’ among the 28 EU member states.23 Ambassador David Martinon and Ambassador Klynge acknowledge that public diplomacy is now being conducted in a new era where material forces or wealth are not the most important trump card, but data and information instead. Technology in all its guises, Klynge states, ‘will define the winners and losers of tomorrow and whether countries, including developing economies, will be able to reap the benefits of the digital age’.24

Another key benefit of the growing inclusion of non-state actors at the ‘table of power’, and the increasing power of multilateral diplomacy, has been for those MFAs that lack the resources to establish resident embassies in every country, as they can look to the virtual world as a strategic alternative. Virtual reality may give rise, for instance, to a new generation of virtual embassies. Traditionally, virtual embassies were used to overcome the limitations of traditional diplomacy such as lack of bilateral ties. America’s virtual embassy to Tehran, for instance, was meant to facilitate dialogue between American diplomats and Iranian society. Studies suggest, however, that virtual embassies have failed thus far to elicit dialogue or create relationships between diplomats and foreign populations.25 Yet that may change in the future, as virtual reality may create a more realistic and intimate experience in which diplomats meet face-to-virtual-face with foreign populations, converse with them in real time and even engage in joint cultural or sports activities. Therefore, far from being in danger of becoming an endangered activity — rendered increasingly irrelevant by technological progress — diplomatic representation in the digital age can be harnessed to increase diplomatic power and become a critical instrument in an age of complex interdependence and globalization.

Ultimately, we can see that future technologies and the actors that represent them are likely to continue to digitally disrupt diplomatic representation, first in terms of the growing incorporation of non-state entities into global affairs, which has been illustrated clearly with the proliferation and intensification of digital power houses such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, a proliferation of influence that shows no signs of slowing down, and, second, in how MFAs choose to respond (strategically or otherwise) to their increasing inclusion in the international realm at large. It is therefore more important than ever that the diplomatic arena and all those residing within it recognize this increasing evolution, and the power and influence that both entities can hold to ensure the relevance and viability of the diplomatic craft in the twenty-first century, particularly in how it can shape and push forth the aims and objectives of an MFA’s public diplomacy strategy. Technological companies, too, should seek to learn the tools and apply their resources towards diplomacy to engage with countries on a national level, rather than just through global mechanisms as they currently do.


As digital technologies continue to reshape the context in which public diplomacy operates, it is also important to note that when used to craft and implement public diplomacy strategies, a key strategic advantage of digital platforms lies in their ability to uncover and enhance traditionally marginalized voices. The current technological climate is testament to this, as demonstrated clearly and frequently by non–state actors adopting and utilizing digital technologies to project their voices online, MFAs implementing digital campaigns in order to strengthen their interaction with minority voices online, and the creation of new diplomatic relationships between diplomatic and non-affiliated, non-official, online actors — relationships that were once deemed unconventional, or irrelevant, to the practice of public diplomacy, but that are deemed strategic today, and even necessary, for effective diplomatic practice. The stark evolution of these relationships is a direct result of new and emerging technologies, technologies that shifted the locus of power and influence within the diplomatic realm, thereby creating new opportunities for voices to be heard, to raise questions and to work towards producing a strong community online.

With that said, the direct relationship between public diplomacy and online marginalized voices can be found in a diverse range of strategies and initiatives. Indeed, prominent public diplomacy campaigns have worked to ensure that the dispossessed and the marginalized are offered the chance to find their voice. One prime example is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) International Mother Language Year (2015), which sought to connect and inform all citizens about the UN’s values and goals, by ensuring that any material produced was linguistically diverse and culturally relevant online material. Or the work of the Global Fund for Women (GFW), which continues to work alongside diplomatic partners worldwide to ensure access to technology, control of it, and the ability to create and shape it, as a fundamental issue of women’s human rights. The GFW also works to ensure that all women can acknowledge their voice, and are given the means to express it, if they wish. Alongside diplomatic actors, the GFW holds the core aims of helping to end the gender technology gap and empowering women and girls to create innovative solutions to advance equality in their communities.

As data become the ‘new oil’, the opportunities for public diplomacy to grow as a field of practice are real and game-changing. Looking to the next five to ten years of technological transformation, we should expect the medium of public communication to be increasingly populated by machine-learning algorithms and intelligent assistants, with the fading boundary between foreign and domestic affairs making room for digital domestic diplomacy and the rise of technological-based non-state actors to challenge notions of power and influence in the realm of foreign policy-making. Despite these inevitable challenges, the future of public diplomacy in the digital age remains bright, as long as MFAs, embassies and TBNSAs continue to engage creatively and positively with digital technologies and stay committed to the mission of building bridges between offline and online communities. Digital technologies can play an influential role in how individuals, communities and societies not only interact with each other, but also how they redefine themselves as social and political actors in the digital age.

Corneliu Bjola

is Associate Professor in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Oxford and Head of the Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group. His research focuses on the impact of digital technology on the conduct of diplomacy, with a focus on strategic communication, digital influence and methods for countering digital propaganda. His most recent publication is the co-edited volume (with James Pamment) on Countering Online Propaganda and Violent Extremism: The Dark Side of Digital Diplomacy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018).

Jennifer Cassidy

is Stipendiary Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford. Her primary research focuses on the themes of digital diplomacy, questioning how diplomatic agents use social media platforms during times of political crises, and to what extent their use during a conflict can be deemed effective within diplomatic crisis communication strategies. Her most recent publication is Gender and Diplomacy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).

Ilan Manor

is a D.Phil. candidate at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on diplomats’ use of digital technologies during times of geopolitical crisis. His most recent publication is The Digitalization of Public Diplomacy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).


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