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Soft power as an important structural component of a foreign policy strategy of a state

Galina Sidorova

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The architect of the ‘soft power’ concept Joseph Nye focuses on ‘the ability to achieve the desired through voluntary cooperation, not by coercion or tricks’. The name of the theory and its interpretation are clearly in conflict because voluntary participation may not involve any force, even if it’s soft. Moreover, the author of the theory believes that the power of modern States consists of three parts: military force, economic power and ‘soft power’. However, the author himself claims it doesn’t seem to be simple to combine hard and soft powers in one strategy. The main idea of the concept of Joseph Nye is that it is ‘soft power’ that helps to achieve great results in world politics. A careful analysis of the techniques of ‘soft power’ used by various States in practice, can prove that it is only a kind of power impact, i.e. ‘hard power’. It’s just an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’.

“Soft power” is neologism in political vocabulary. However, its content is hardly  new phenomenon. Throughout human civilization, the techniques of cunning rivals have been used to achieve their goalies. They were named differently or were not named in any way. Recall, at least, the proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. For 10 years, the Greeks have failed to besiege Troy. It was the subterfuge of Odysseus that helped to take the rebellious city. He offered to give a present to Trojans in the form of a great wooden horse, hiding the elite force inside. There is also another example from modern history. For many years the USA and NATO have been using “soft power” as information influence to disintegrate the Eurasian are wreak havoc and cause instability in the countries neighboring Russia. The United States considers “soft power” an effective means of conducting geopolitical struggle between states. According to O.A.Belkov, “they actively use it in order to defeat or weaken their reel and potential adversary states in the international arena”. The tools of American “soft power” are used as the main component in the strategy of conducting “hybrid warfare” (another neologism in political vocabulary). As is known, the aim of “hybrid warfare” is total or partial disintegration of a state, the establishment of external ideological and, after it, political and economic control, and as a result, complete submission to dictates by other states from without. As political analysts A.Bogachev and M.Latugin rightly say, the “concept of “soft power” implies the creation of such an image of power or any political force (including the opposition) that is capable of influencing behavior, forcing the masses to take actions beneficial to the actor of “soft power”. The idea of “soft power is based, first of all, not on the arguments of reason, but on the strength of “information and images” and on the influence of “meanings”.

China, in contrast to the USA, keeps a low profile and does not try to suppress others nations to its will. Its “soft” intervention into political and economic spheres of various countries have become noticeable practically on all the continents including Africa. However, it looks like PRC is not interested in politics. This implicit impact on the Africans has enabled China to get full control over African markets and profit from them significantly. Ten years ago, in 2007, the Democratic Republic of Congo and China signed “the Contract of the century” worth $9 billion. Lately it has been renegotiated because of the outraged reaction of western colleagues. China was obliged to put into effect restoration of the railway infrastructure with a length of 3200 km, a highway (3600 km), construction of the airport, housing, hospitals, medical centers, universities and colleges. The joint company “Sicomin” was created under the agreements between the Government of RD Congo, the state enterprise “Gécamines” and the consortium of Chinese corporations “Sinohydro”, “China Railway Engineering Corporation”. 68% of this enterprise belongs to the Chinese government and 32% to the “Gécamines” group. The “five pillars” aimed at strengthening of China-Africa relations announced during the African tour made by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1996 and 1997 became the ideological basis of Beijing’s cooperation with African countries. Among these principles there are: enhancing of the sincere friendship “come rain or shine”; equal treatment of all the partners and maintaining of the non-interference principle; quest for development on a mutually beneficial basis; activation of consultation and cooperation in international affairs; creation of the new prosperous world. These principles got broad support in African countries.

Apparently, they attracted Africans by the fact that China positioned itself with African States as an equal player who has common interests in bilateral cooperation and on the world scene.  Africa accepted cooperation with Beijing as the most viable opportunity to move towards equitable development. Sudanese President Omar Hasan Ahmed al-Bashir once said, «China is a friendly country that never interferes in the domestic affairs of other states» . Is that so? Further analysis of China’s policy in this direction will show its «flip side».

Beijing emphatically puts African countries on the same step of a pedestal of priorities as its own country. «We need to make it clear to the world – says He Wenping – that we have a common position on some fundamental international problems» .

Taking into account the destruction of the bipolar system, the Chinese leadership publicly affirmed «the natural preservation of good relations between Africa and the West» because China has always provided assistance to developing countries. However, Beijing, though covertly, put emphasis on the juxtaposition of Africa and itself with the Western community.

An important development mechanism of China’s relations with African partners is their interaction within the framework of regular Chinese-African cooperation forums, such as the «France-Africa», «Africa-European Union» summits or the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). At the first meeting in Beijing in October 2000, the policy documents on the development of relations with Africa were adopted, including the «Beijing Declaration» and «The China-Africa Cooperation Program on Social and Economic Cooperation». China made commitments to cancel partially or completely the 1,2 billion dollar debt to some of the poorest countries in Africa in the coming two years and also to establish the fund to support investment of Chinese enterprises in the economy of the continent.

At the same time, the Chinese representatives emphasized once again that they did not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. At the opening ceremony of the Forum, former Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Jiang Zemin said, ‘No country should impose its social system and ideology on another country, especially interfere in the internal affairs’.

The phenomenon of ”soft power” has always been used by priests. This was both an instrument of the missionaries’ influence during the colonization period, and also the way used by the modern church to participate in the politics of most African countries. African authorities often rely on the church to achieve political and economic stability in the country.

For example, the church (mainly Catholic) plays an important role in the life of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Religious leaders hold high posts in the parliament and the government. For instance, Head of the Church of Christ in the Congo M. Bodo, who is a protestant, has for a long time occupied the post of Chairman of the Senate (the upper house of the Parliament), or Catholic priest M. Malu throughout the electoral process headed the Independent Electoral Commission till the national elections and was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor of France. During the transition period (2003-2006), the leaders of the Church addressed people and the government, calling the civilian and military population of the country for tranquility and balance, and political opponents – for the sanity and conduct of a peaceful dialogue in order to avoid anarchy and unrest, for the bloodless end of the transition period and the peaceful settlement in the country. During the elections, religious missions were observers and they provided technical assistance to the Independent Electoral Commission, and carried out advocacy in the provinces.

Clerics remain active in educational and social spheres. Catholic schools and the university acquire authority in the capital. Many hospitals, children’s shelters are maintained with funds of the church. For a long period of time the church will preserve its strong positions in the DRC and will continue to affect «softly» Congoleses’ formation of the world view.

Different developers of the concept «soft power» have a different attitude towards it. Political and international scientist M. A. Neymark proposes his own vision, a detailed analysis of theories and the application of the «soft power». In the chapter “«smart power» of soft influence” the author concentrates the attention on the fact that «soft power» is an interconnected integrity of various components and their synergistic conceptual and practical-political correlation – cultural, humanitarian, civilizational, socio-political, economic, military factors. The resource capacity of this mechanism of influence is the sociocultural and ideological values that are attractive to the object of impact. According to M. A. Neymark the «smart power» is strictly pragmatic and its geopolitical essence lies in a rational balance. It is focused primarily on the promotion and the protection of national – state interests taking into account new developments on the world stage.

In our view «soft power» implies the formation of a given, regenerated mentality, which is necessary for perception, first of all, of the cultural values of another civilization or people and then its political, economic, religious and other foundations. Fair the judgment of M.A. Neymark that the meaning of “soft power” is “in the projection by the state of its influence on the world around us, relying on economic, informational, communicationary, social, humanitarian and other flexible levers.”

For example, political scientist V.S. Yemets considers soft power information technologies to be a tool of a person manipulating. He emphasizes that the informational impact in its manipulative form, which is being exercised to cater to the interests of a person or a group of people’s interests towards other people, is a specific form of control. Such a form of control could be dangerous in case if it is being implemented secretly and if it brings unilateral benefits to its organizers. As a result of “mind impact” and appealing to their own culture affection, soft power becomes a tool for a smooth translation into receiving dividends in kind. Thus, the final goal of soft power is to shape a mentality that is identical with the interested actors and ultimately implies the submission of the object of influence.

Soft power on the part of the subject implies the weakness of the object, diffusion, permeability of its physical, ideological and moral shell.   Analyst, author and host of the program «Odnako» on Channel One M. Leontiev believes that soft power – real, effective – is a projection of hard power. There can be no soft power in the absence of hard power in the same subject.

The success of the intellectual impact of soft power on the formation of individuals’ mentality depends on many factors. First of all, it is necessary to consider the society’s social stage of development where a personality is formed. It is complicated to change the mentality and to guide it in another way in the society with a well-developed civilization and high GDP as an individual will have high requirements for the offered food for thought.

In this case forming different approaches of soft power will require a considerable intellectual and material potential. There is a different scale of human values in the less developed society. For example, humanitarian aid, access to safe water, and provision of vaccination for children are essential for the majority of African states, where the level of child and adult mortality remains high and the subsistence wage is less than one dollar per day.

Taking into account the military-political climate in the country along with the moral and psychological condition of people in many respects affects the degree of soft power impact as a foreign policy factor. For example, the population of the Congo has been driven to an extreme point of despair by severe military actions that has been going on for decades. The exodus of the population, refugee camps issues, panic in combat zones – all these factors can become a handicap to the promotion of soft power.

In the state of peace, soft power also may face undesirable factors such as other concerned states` counteraction in the sphere of information, dissemination of knowingly false information and so on. At present the influence of psycho-information processes on the formation of the mentality of the new generation has accelerated. In these circumstances soft power became the most powerful factor that/which influences the perception of actuality, psychic reality and behavior of the population of entire states and regions.

Other factor to be considered when using the soft power is the spiritual component of society. If in some country nationalist sentiments prevail, any instruments of soft power may be considered as a foreign body.

In this case it is important to generate real approaches to the «soft power». Analyzing the anti-Western, anti-liberal alternative to world development, the authors of the monograph “State information policy in the context of information and psychological warfare” maintain one of the milestones of this policy is Russian civilization, which was revived in post-Soviet area.  Andrei Maneulo and other authors maintain that “the act of “mental identity”, coupled with the logic of paradoxes, suggests: rejecting the Western model of development (once again) after the catastrophe of blind copying “reforms” of the Western liberal model, Russia will inevitably return to the anti-Western position, what is identical to Russian historical role and spiritual and moral foundations (Eastern Christianity). This does not imply a return to barbarism, but rather the only possible recipe for salvation from the true barbarism in which the regions of the former USSR are immersed: inter-ethnic, religious conflicts and spiritual collapse. In these conditions the Russian state information policy inevitably will become necessary to be identical to this process.”

“Sort power” is occasionally associated with cultural diplomacy. Although, the difference undoubtedly exists. Cooperation in the cultural sphere implies mutual enrichment of cultures and civilizations, in contrast with “soft power” which is a unilateral “soft pressure” on a certain object. By the early 2000s, the weight and influence of cultural diplomacy had grown so much that a new concept of “foreign cultural policy” had been introduced. Russia is actively taking several comprehensive measures which aimed at spreading Russian culture abroad.

However, the Russian diplomats have to face a range of issues in African states, in particular, where strong positions are occupied by the USA and China. Under the conditions of the multipolar world’s formation, different regional leaders use the arsenal of opportunities of «their own» «soft power» taking into account processes of a geopolitical standoff. It is rather difficult to find one’s niche for «soft power» on the African continent, because this country has lost the authority it used to have and it has become «cramp» to cooperate in most African states. And if the older generation treats Russia as a sustainable political and economic partner, the younger generation is guided by the USA and China, which do their best from the perspective of «soft power», in order to gain a foothold in this region. As the result, Africans learn American and Chinese willingly use free education programs and quotas in educational institutions of these countries. Americans promote their lifestyle through numerous cultural centers, where they also, as well as their Chinese partners, open courses of English. French and Belgians do not fall behind. «Soft power» demands significant investment, which is required for facilities, for instance, «Russian language classes», a replenishment of university libraries with relevant literature, computer rooms, Russian cultural centers, exhibitions and other cultural events. Without financing «soft power» remains just a theory. According to V.V. Rugeinikov, such an important element of the influence on the world, as the Russian language, loses its creativity. Fewer demanded goods are produced now. The researcher points rightfully, that «if the foreign reader still keeps interest to L. Tolstoy, A. Chekhov and F. Dostoevsky, their works are perceived the historically depressive background».

Experience shows, that where there are still Russian centers of science and culture (Morocco, the Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and others) cultural ties develop much more fruitfully and faster. The formation of a new mentality in the local population is possible only under the condition of a constant, but not a fragmentary cooperation with college students, social agencies, and state officials. At the same time, it is important to work out new forms of cooperation with structures of public diplomacy, nongovernmental organizations, international institutions that use political, economic and information levers of influence.

Doctor of Political Sciences, professor of the Department of theory and history of international relations, as well as of Diplomatic Academy of Russian Foreign Ministry and of the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

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Chinese soft power winning hearts and minds

Dost Muhammad Barrech

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Soft power cheaper than hard power, winning hearts and minds of the people, is prerequisite for the state in international politics.  Joseph Nye, the pioneer of soft power argues “It is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”. Solely relying on hard power in digital era proves to be counterproductive for the state, tarnishing its soft image, causing destruction, squandering a colossal amount of money being spent on military. Seduction, likewise, appears to be more effective and more instrumental than coercion in interstate relations.

Rise of China is imminent, for rising power in 21st, soft power is as crucial as hard power. China’s preoccupation with its soft power has resultantly been accelerating by leaps and bounds, giving positive image to the world that it would be a benign power in the foreseeable future, crafting consent rather than coercion in its foreign policy. China in the last couple of centuries remained isolated from the world, intimidated by the external powers, has currently been emerging as a dominant player on account of its robust economy, initiating Belt and Road Initiative(BRI), making a headway in technological development, settling territorial disputes with its neibouring states,  contributing in UN peacekeeping mission, supporting countries in ongoing pandemic disease that invariably  promote its soft power spectacularly.

China possesses components of soft power, having 5,000 years of civilization, 1.3 billion people and 960 million square kilometers of territory. China, remained a great power, the Tang dynasty from the seventh century to the tenth century conceives to be a golden era of Chinese history. Glorifying Chinese civilization and history by Chinese statecrafts as their soft power is on the card. China till December 1, 2015 had built 500 Confucius institutes and 1,000 Confucius classrooms in 134 countries with enrolment of nearly 1.9 million students, promoting Chinese language, culture, and facilitating cultural exchanges.

China, presently remains the hub of foreign students. In 1978 there were merely 2,000 foreign students studying in mainland China, in 2007 the number outstripped to 200,000. Under current juncture, nearly 28,000 Pakistani students are studying in China. China by granting foreign scholarships wishes to exploit foreign talent, ensuing strengthening of its economy, resulting in its soft power projection.

The classic book titled “Research Outline for China’s Cultural Soft Power” authored by Guozuo Zhang. Zhang in the book sheds lights on Chinese culture and its civilization arguing that soft power is deeply entrenched in Chinese history giving reference of Chinese sixth century BC strategist Sun Tzu’s book “Art of War”. The writer quotes Sun Tzu” The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without a war.” “The best tactics is to take by strategy,” “Those who win people’s heart can win the world.”Sun Tzu’s adages unambiguously illustrate functions of soft power in Chinese history.

Another insightful book titled “Charm Offensive How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World” authored by Joshua Kurlantzick. Kurlantzick in the book states that China’s charm offensive as soft power triggered in 2000s,attributed to desired stability and harmony with all its fourteen neighboring states. Chinese charm offensive maintains that “Safeguarding peace, promoting development and enhancing cooperation, which is the common desire of all peoples, represents the irresistible historical trend,”. The term hepingjueqi, or Peaceful Rise coined by Zheng Bijian a renowned and senior adviser to the Chinese leadership, was soon inculcated into Chinese leaders’ speeches and in foreign policy.

The term Peaceful Rise is being used tactfully in Chinese foreign policy reflects its soft power; realizing its fourteen neibouring states that China unlike the US believes in peaceful co-existence and shuns warmongering strategies. If China eschews Peaceful Rise in its foreign policy, its neibouring states by all means would become sceptical about Chinese belligerent intentions.

China is increasingly using public diplomacy as a soft power. In 2010, the Beijing Foreign Studies University, launched China’s first ever Public Diplomacy Research Centre, aimed at orchestrating positive image of China, invalidating distorted overseas reports regarding China, improving surroundings of Chinese peripheral states and influencing policy decisions of foreign countries. China through public diplomacy has successfully been trying to reinforce its narratives as the saying of Nye goes “narratives become the new currency of soft power”.

Under current circumstances, Covid-19 a highly contagious virus has tightened its grip on the entire world, states are in dire need of help instead of looking towards the US title towards China. Realistically, speaking, Covid-19 oriented in China should have tarnished its image instead China seems to be a torch bearer of the world, supporting states, providing medial aids. Nouriel Roubini, an American economist at NYU, maintains that during the pandemic “China is building its soft power,” he further reiterates that China assures to the world that ‘‘Our political system is better, our technological model is better, our economic model is better.”

To sum up, China has bad reputation in the US; The US and Western states including India will inevitably strive to malign Chinese soft image, demonizing it’s an authoritarian regime, human rights violation in China, its debt trap policy under BRI and labor exploitation in African states. China, thus, needs to engaged into introspection and should ponder over these areas in order to further bolster its soft power.

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Covid19: Upgrading Diplomacy and Statecraft to prepare the new normal

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image: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

The world is abruptly changing and this requires adaptation. The transformations are targeting not only individuals and specific countries, but the entire international ecosystem. The pandemic will only accelerate the trends we have seen for years in global politics, so the window of opportunity is closing for those who want to play an increased role in the post-Covid world, but do not fully understand or master the tools necessary to succeed in such a complicated context. I will sketch some of the elements that diplomats and decision-makers involved in international politics have to consider as they seek to navigate the new contours of power politics. Beyond talk of wolf warriors or video summits – and fatigue – diplomacy deserves a strategic comeback during and after corona: international affairs professionals needs to be conversant in both the old and new paradigms; in Western, Eastern, non-aligned and Global South vernaculars; and in both technological and old school human terrain navigation. To well serve their countries and organizations, diplomats (and also, as intellectual framework providers, Diplomatic Academies and Institutes) will have to be more adaptable than ever and willing to quickly learn and deploy new tools and techniques. 

In this quest, one first has to acknowledge the challenges on the substance (beyond communications issues, such as disinformation in the latest form of the infodemic) and understand that they pose problems we never had to face before. Climate change will bring about coastal entropic systems collapse, desertification and food insecurity, with potential consequences related to increased refugee influx, civil wars and inter-country tensions. Pandemics are also here to stay: Covid19 is only the first major outbreak of this decade and, with the right technology, almost any country with minimal biotech capabilities can turn sneezing into anti-personnel weapons. Catalyzed by great power competition, deglobalization, protectionism, and the restructuring of global value chains, non-market and imperial economics revival will become a staple of the new era. Tech dominance and informational supremacy will be a highly sought after prize and the competition will only increase. Strategically, with the rise of China and a relative decline of Europe and the US, we should be ready for a world order that values a different type of multilateralism and is polycentric and non-Western based. The Gulf, as an ambitious global hotspot abundant in global and regional medium powers, is watching power shifts closely and adapting its strategies and actions accordingly. It also has, via Saudi Arabia and its chairmanship of the G20, a key role to play in “annus horibilis” 2020 global solutions. 

Institutional transition and reform is complicated not so much because of inertia, but because since World War Two we were asked to focus and solve one problem at a time, by keeping all other variables constant. Given the above mentioned changes, to cater to institutional transition needs, we have to develop our capabilities to include the most unusual and un-practiced skills and knowledge that now has become, in our estimate, a must have in order to navigate from an age of certainty to a state of continuous flux. By being programmed to combine technological foresight, cultural intelligence, transversal inter-generational multicultural and integrated disciplinary approaches to statecraft and grand strategy, diplomats 2.0 (during and after corona) will be ready to engage comprehensively with a wide range of situations, geographies, and objectives. Research and innovation in international relations, grand strategy, statecraft and identity development strategies should be combined with communication efforts that integrate tools related to cognitive patterns discovery, subversive frameworks neutralisation, and multi-stage communication strategy development.

Organizations need to function more like networked capabilities and teams of teams, rather than relying on traditional multi-tiered track diplomacy and traditional engagement practices. In my experience, the more non-central and non-mainstream actors are, the more they will engage asymmetrically. Furthermore, their engagement tends to be more reputational and personalised than the traditional Western expectations of structure, objectivity, and calculated gains would have us believe. For a long time, with the exception of the actions of great powers, the policy and academic discussion has focused on how the international environment overwhelmingly shapes domestic politics. The international will continue to matter, but we will see a strong pushback from national politics to shape the conversation in global affairs. Diplomats, as the platform between the state and the rest of the world, are on the forefront of meeting the challenge. The context of economic crisis and uncertainty generated by the pandemic will mean additional pressure on mainstream parties and a threat to political stability, so populism and protectionism will also affect diplomatic action, and nationalism diminish diplomatic efforts. 

Based on the experience of South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the Nordics and the Baltics, one can encourage International Relations and Diplomatic institutes and academies to develop general public content and training to increase societal resilience, governance and democratic literacy, and citizen esprit de corps. From an elements of power perspective, these vectors need to be developed within every national strategic studies institution to complement the traditional areas of preparedness for which nation states prepare. Five topics are particularly important, in my opinion: T-profile development of people: transversal, interconnected, broad knowledge, with one vertical in depth (versus the current extremes of either breadth or ultra-specialisation); Bellingcat type of skills for information acquisition from OSINT, use of digital means, and understanding of online behaviours (social media aggregation and analysis would also play an important role); increased attention to global Architectures and competition between “Old” and “New” global and regional organisations; IP Diplomacy that focuses on networks of innovation, capital, technology and entrepreneurship – today, intellectual property diplomacy is practices by a handful of countries currently (Singapore, Switzerland, China, Israel), but will become the cornerstone of future exchanges, the same way Silicon Valley is for tech, and NY for global capital. Last but not least, each MFA Academy and IR institute should create its own simulation of the world based on AI, behavioural and statecraft modeling capabilities, and its own „handbook of world views and strategic interests”. Interestingly, in context, wargaming and redteaming of policies and strategic decisions are currently under development in a handful of institutions and will start rolling out to national security establishments towards the end of 2020.

All these points are relevant especially for countries that want to punch above their weight, both regionally and globally, especially current middle powers and aspiring middle or great powers. But they also carry lessons for other states, in case they want to deal with the pressures and risks attached to great and middle power competition in a diplomatic-efficient manner. 

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Beyond Twiplomacy: Diplomacy and the Digital Fast Forward

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The practice of diplomacy in the virtual space is geared towards amplifying foreign policy drives and messages and forms a vital and dynamic branch of strategic communication. Now, more than ever before, we are faced with the inexorable certainty of a digital future – a future that has already begun. As COVID-19 thrusts the world’s population into their homes and compels multiple operations and processes to move online, diplomatic engagements too must be primed to fit the order and arrangement of altered circumstances. The use of the internet offers real time dissemination and exchanges in a relatively informal setting, at low financial costs and aims at shrinking the space between foreign publics and stakeholders on the one hand and foreign policy practices and practitioners on the other.

Digital diplomacy falls under the broader spectrum of public diplomacy, the roots of which can be traced to the extensive use of radio communications by both the Axis and the Allied powers during WWII. Interestingly, the digitization of diplomacy however is believed to have happened earlier when foreign ministries first began the use of telegraph services in the 19th century. In the contemporary context, digital diplomacy has been practiced primarily through social media since the innovation of an online world, the arrival of new information communication technologies and the rapid popularity of the internet.

Today, diplomats and government representatives routinely engage in both pleasantries as well as repartee on Twitter in what is now popularly known as Twiplomacy or Twitter Diplomacy. Twiplomacy is direct, often unencumbered and enables wider reach of foreign policies than traditional channels. Such online engagement can also be converted to a substantial support for foreign policies and/or agendas. It is at times assumed that Twiplomacy has shaken traditional preferences for confidentiality, hierarchy, instrumentality and top-down decision making of foreign affairs departments favouring instead the use of crisp language, visual storytelling, emotional framing, algorithmic navigation, and so on. This is an incorrect conjecture as the traditional modus operandi of foreign interaction remains equally pertinent today. What Twiplomacy has done is added a supplementary avenue of diplomatic exchange which is in keeping with contemporary circumstances.

As diplomatic exchanges thrive on Twitter and other social media platforms, the question is whether it is merely the diplomatic conversation which has moved online or whether there is more to the scope of diplomatic engagement employing digital tools in the virtual space. While the latter has been deliberated by technology stakeholders and to an extent by policy makers, its practice is yet to see the kind of flurry that is observed on Twitter almost on a daily basis. This is where the use of 5G systems, artificial intelligence, wearable technology and the applications of big data come in. Aggregation of big data can assist in the identification of disinformation campaigns while collating geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering which in turn would aid the core component of diplomacy – negotiation. While the use of some of these technologies is mired in controversy, all of these will eventually find application across sectors and diplomacy too will not be an outlier.

Greater use of digital tools can assist diplomacy in broad ways. First, it ensures a quick response time. Digital tools facilitate diplomatic engagement to happen in real time and in so doing helps ease communication as well as make way for effective action in times of urgency or crisis. Second, it assists in resource mobilization in terms negotiations and building of alliances, primarily by eliminating constraints of distance and time. Third, it helps pave the way for gaining a wider understanding of public emotions and perceptions which can at times facilitate more updated policy approaches and methods of implementation.

This brings us to the dividing line between policy outreach which is designed to inform, assist, facilitate and where applicable, ameliorate global relations and the utilization of sharp power which is aimed at exerting disproportionate levels of influence to censor, manipulate and falsify information for hostile purposes. The virtual space, like many other forms of technology, faces the dual-use challenge i.e., it can serve both constructive purposes and also disruptive ones. For foreign policy this poses a considerable challenge as governments often find themselves in the middle of misinformation and disinformation campaigns which are difficult to debunk and deflate given the pace and volume of the reach that virtual networks offer. Nonetheless, this is a challenge that governments across the world must learn to tackle because the medium and the technology will not go away but rather diversify and proliferate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already and will probably continue to suspend or reorganize most activities for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously however, engagements and functioning across the world must persist and diplomatic outreach forms a vital component of pooling in efforts to mitigate the health crisis. This involves the dissemination of information, transfers of key supplies, provisioning for the inevitable uncertainties of challenges post the pandemic and reorganizing institutions to better apprehend future exigencies. Bound by limitations on travel, world leaders are responding by convening on virtual platforms for multilateral summits like the G20 and SAARC. India’s first ever virtual bilateral summit is being planned with Australia. COVID-19 demands a fast forward from deliberations to action and foreign ministries around the world need to harness the advantages of cost and geographical inconsequence to effectively respond to the global crisis at hand and also in the process enable digitisation of diplomatic processes which can continue to be in practice in the post-Covid world.  

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