Did Digital Technology Change the Nature of Diplomacy? – A New Means to Communication

Looking into the new scenario of diplomacy

On 2nd of December, 2016, the US President Donald Trump had a phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. The conversation was only 10 minutes but quickly roused a drastic discussion on the triangle strategic relations among the US, China and Taiwan. While most reviews were looking at China’s reaction and Taiwan’s response, this 10 minutes call between two presidents made us wonder if digital technology has changed the nature of diplomacy? The development of telecommunication facilitate the speed and convenience of people’s communication. Sending a message or having a conversation is a lot easier and seems to have reshaped a different scenario of diplomacy. The US President Trump’s activeness on Twitter drew people’s attention on the use of digital technology. It once again brought us into thinking the nature of diplomacy.

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    Diplomacy is conceived as the service of processing information and communicating with foreign agents, but with the development of digital technology especially the internet, information and communication technology (ICT), the context of diplomacy is challenged in three domains: the environment of diplomacy, sovereignty, and interdependence. First, in the environment of diplomacy, the control of information and knowledge has been shifting from diplomats and government officials to a variety of actors such as the individuals and international non-governmental organisations. Second, the sovereignty of a country is in danger in the face of international or regional integration. Third, with the development of ICT bringing in more actors and new diplomatic methods, the extent of interdependence among diplomats, technology providers and technology users increases, which suggests that diplomats are now supposed to engage in all kinds of actors and audiences in the face of a globalised world. To sum up, the impacts of ICT on diplomacy mainly manifest that it involves an increasing number and varieties of actors in diplomacy. However, ICT has not fundamentally changed the nature of diplomacy but merely served as the new tool in diplomacy in pursuit of the same end. Although ICT may have built up a new structure of diplomacy, in which the actors are no longer mainly the diplomats but the internet users, and that the territory is not the physical land but the cyberspace, diplomacy as communication has not changed but broadened into varieties such as celebrity diplomacy, public diplomacy, E-diplomacy and so on. ICT raises the importance of diplomacy nowadays and that it is no longer something only the diplomats, government officials and elites are concerned with but also a variety of actors such as the individuals and the international organisations should take into consideration.


The Environment of Diplomacy

In the environment of diplomacy, it is a society of knowledge where the information concerning foreign affairs used to be controlled by the diplomats and government officials. It is the duty of a diplomat to manage international relations due to the privilege of knowing the information. When ICT opens up the access to information and creates the platform for anyone who can link to the network for not only receiving but also providing information, the control of information has been shifting from the officials to the public. Increasing information is generated by multiple diversified sources published online via the media. For example, people can find information about the other countries not only on the official foreign affairs ministry website but also on the social media platforms where people share the experiences of travelling there. ICT enlarges the society of knowledge from where it used to be the diplomats and government officials to where it is now anyone who can access to the internet.



The sovereignty of a state is endangered because ICT accelerates the international and regional integration. It is the diplomats’ duty to protect the state sovereignty but ICT impels the diplomats to promote the state involving in the international system where the citizens can benefit from the abundance of information of the world. Brexit is a consequence of sovereignty being challenged by European regional integration. Moreover, ICT also generates new area for sovereign territory, which is the cyberspace. China’s golden shield protection is the case of protecting local data from external use of its netizens’ information. ICT raises the importance of sovereignty on the internet society where nowadays there are colossal volume of information and large number of users.



ICT enhances the speed, intensity and density of communication, which at the same time increases the interdependence between varieties of actors. The diplomats nowadays need to collaborate with different actors in the cyber society. Social media platform has become a press release area for delivering or receiving messages. ICT brings diplomacy into a new level where the most important change is that an increasing number and variety of actors engage in diplomacy.


Diplomacy as in terms of communication

If diplomacy is managing the relations between states and other actors and the managing technique is communication, ICT does not fundamentally change the nature of diplomacy but is just the tool in diplomacy. ICT’s impact on diplomacy is engaging more people in diplomacy; hence, diplomacy becomes more and more important especially the function of communicating. As the state security is at risk in the cyber society, diplomacy raises its role for the internet users. As ICT makes the interdependence between actors grow stronger, diplomacy is indispensable for the actors from the diplomats to the public. ICT opens the new era of diplomacy and it suggests that diplomacy means openness and collaboration with different actors. It challenges diplomacy but does not change the nature of diplomacy.


The US – Cultural Diplomacy

The diplomatic strategy of the US in the cold war period is projecting its national identities, ideas and values to the other countries as the dominant role is the United States Information Agency (USIA). During cold war period, the US exerted well the radio to deliver the freedom lifestyle to Europe in order to impede the spread of Socialism and Communism. Diplomacy in this case is building the national brand in order to attract the foreign public to familiarize with the US. In this diplomatic case, technology simply plays the role of a tool and diplomacy as communication is still there. This diplomatic method is considered cultural diplomacy, which the artists, writers and musicians in the US interacted with those from Soviet Union. USIA was incorporated in the States government after the cold war, which signals that the use of ICT raises its importance to be incorporated in the state foreign policy. Moreover, diplomacy has evolved to a more dynamic structure, under which varieties of actors engage in with the development of digital technology. For example, during the US former President Obama’s administration, the videotaped message of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, was repeatedly posted to more than sixty thousand blogs and nearly one-third of Iran people watched. In such case, diplomacy is conducted between the actors not just the government officials but also the foreign public. Diplomacy as in terms of communication becomes more intense and the involving actors range from the individual to international organisations with the development of ICT.


China – Public Diplomacy

The rise of China is usually referred to the economic and political power but, with the development of ICT, the internet power should be taken into consideration. With such big population in China and its participation in international affair, China has started investing in the internet infrastructure. As China is sensitive to its image to foreign countries, it emphasizes on public diplomacy notably building the institute of Confucius, spreading the ideas of the traditional acupuncture and Chinese cuisine in order to build up the China image. The instrument of conducting such diplomacy is particularly the media and the internet. While the domestic media used to be importing information from outside of the country to domestic society, nowadays China will export its image via the international media; for example, Chinese diplomats will present themselves through the foreign press in order to project the China image. Moreover, many Chinese websites are rising dramatically to absorb international audiences as they serve the purpose of Chinese public diplomacy. The notable example of China conducting public diplomacy is the 2008 Olympic Game in Beijing. China built up its image and presented it to the world through the media. It is considered a great display of its rising power. In this case, diplomacy as representation and communication shows its indispensable significance in the era of digital technology.


New Era Diplomacy

The development of digital technology brings us to think upon the nature of diplomacy as it is mainly communicating with different actors with the received information. Although the world is becoming more and more globalised by the invention and ubiquity of the internet, it only increases the speed, intensity and density of information and communication but diplomacy as communication has not faded. The internet only makes an event visible but does not make an event happen. Namely, the internet is not a factor that makes communication happen but only makes communication faster and more intense. As seen in the case of the US and China, diplomacy as communication did not disappear but enhance its importance because the development of digital technology enlarges the importance of communication to more and more people. Since the impact of ICT on diplomacy is mainly engaging more actors, diplomacy is arguably more and more important nowadays to every actor. Diplomacy will not fade away but loom larger the importance in this era because it is the duty of an actor either an individual or an international organisation nowadays to use the credible information on the internet and communicate with the others in order to manage the relationship under this more and more globalised international system.


Author: Yung Lin, Researcher at ICRD

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