Covid-19 has triggered a new era of digital diplomacy the world over. It has emerged as one of the tools in the furtherance of foreign policy, and is also referred to as e-diplomacy, cyber diplomacy, diplomacy 2.0 and twiplomacy.
On receiving the first telegraph message in the 1880s, then British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston said, “My God, this is the end of diplomacy”. Harold Nicolson, in his writings, laments that telephone was initially perceived as a ‘dangerous little instrument’ to convey information.
Digital diplomacy does not signify the end of diplomacy, rather it is re-discovery of diplomacy. Perhaps for the first time since the 17th century, because of the coronavirus, diplomats can engage/negotiate without necessarily meeting face-to-face.
Digital diplomacy is now perceived as a medium of public diplomacy and involves use of a variety of digital platforms and tools of communication for negotiations. Diplomacy is now emerging as a social institution. The use of digital media in the world of diplomacy is a fact of life as it provides spaces for more intense interaction and engagement.
We have seen how in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, social media aided the Arab Spring movement. The US State Department today has an office of e-diplomacy with 150 full-time social media employees.
The pandemic has disrupted all diplomatic calendars. Even multilateral negotiations are now happening virtually. The next UN General Assembly session is likely to take place virtually for the first time. Many summit meetings like the extraordinary G-20 meeting, took place through various digital platforms.
For many, twitter has now become the channel of choice for digital diplomacy. Twitter as a crisis response mechanism has become a useful helpline for many distressed Indians stranded abroad. Late foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had launched Twitter Seva Service in 2016. Twitter can also be used for image enhancement as President Trump has so often done.
World leaders have even resorted to a war of words on twitter. Trump once tweeted about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”
The role of the digital media in the world of diplomacy is critical. Before the Covid spread, digital media almost inevitably meant social media. Covid-19 however has created a scenario for countries around the world to seize the moment to pursue foreign policy through websites, blogs and a variety of social media platforms and beyond. Yet, there is much to learn about how digital diplomacy actually works. In fact, many universities are even introducing digital diplomacy courses.
Indian diplomacy went digital especially since 2010. Ambassador Navdeep Puri’s initiative in digitising the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is well-recognised. He headed the newly created Public Diplomacy Division within the MEA. During the civil war in Libya, this Division effectively used twitter to reach out to the large number of Indians who were evacuated at that point of time.
Indian diplomacy is clearly seeing a shift from physical conferencing to virtual conferencing. The advantage of digital platforms is that one can reach out in real time. Its effectiveness tends to be largely contextual.
Foreign Minister Jaishankar has had 65 virtual diplomatic engagements with his counterparts in other countries since the pandemic spread. Even MEA officials assert that virtual diplomacy will be the new norm. Present High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Bagley became the first diplomat to present his credentials virtually. Also, in a first for Rashtrapathi Bhavan, seven foreign diplomats presented their credentials to President Kovind via video-conferencing, signifying a significant leap in digital diplomacy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called upon diplomats to shed old mindsets and embrace the new digital platforms. India needs to seize the moment. In the age of pandemics, India’s digital diplomacy has largely revolved around the following issues: offering consular assistance to Indians stranded abroad, fostering joint collaboration among scientists working on the vaccine to counter the virus and engaging other countries for medical equipment, ventilators and doctors’ protective gear.
Virtual meetings have become the dominant mode of diplomatic engagement now, according to Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla. For the first time, even a bilateral summit was held virtually between prime ministers of India and Australia. Countries have to work with each other rather than against one another, especially because of the link between digital diplomacy and the digital economy.
Digital diplomacy is not without risks like the possibility of information leak, hacking and maintaining the anonymity of internet users. Diplomats have to find new ways of collaborative engagement.
Covid-19 has disrupted almost all aspects of life. Diplomacy is no exception. Today, digital diplomacy has become the standard practice. It has not replaced traditional diplomacy but complements it and thereby rings in huge dividends. We see the integration of offline and online platforms and environments. Digital diplomacy is characterised by hybridity and breaks through the limitations of traditional diplomacy.
Indian diplomats have to effectively leverage the advantages of digital diplomacy. Today this has become the new normal in global diplomacy and India would have to fast adopt and adapt to these irreversible changes. Given the multiple challenges the coronavirus poses, high-level diplomacy will largely be conducted through virtual means. Digital diplomacy is fast emerging as the new normal and an arrow in the quiver. However, only time will tell whether it will become the norm in the long-term.
(The writer is Professor (retd) of Political Science and former Dean (Arts), Bangalore University, Bangalore)