Network Diplomacy: Is Sri Lanka Ready?

Technological changes have caused international relations to happen at a much faster pace

Career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam, currently Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States, recalls an interesting exchange during his first meeting with the late Arthur C. Clarke back in 1981.

“Your jobs will soon be obsolete,” the science fiction writer and futurist had told a group of new foreign service recruits who visited him. “The coming information revolution will change how we do everything from business and politics to warfare and diplomacy.”

Clarke was being provocative and prescient – plus slightly ahead of his time. Kariyawasam has now served for 35 years and held highly demanding postings in New Delhi, Geneva and New York. Much has changed in foreign affairs in that time, although he is not yet facing the prospect of obsolescence.

Nevertheless, diplomacy today has become much more complex and challenging, he told me in a recent conversation. Today’s diplomats have to cope with a much faster pace of international relations. They must also deal with more than other governments and multilateral bodies like the United Nations.

This is largely due to economic and information globalisation. The Internet’s all-encompassing spread has created a new reality where there are many more non-state voices and players affecting international relations. There is also far more media and public scrutiny of governments, diplomats and their actions.

Welcome to the world of networked diplomacy.

Networked diplomacy
Anne-Marie Slaughter, an international lawyer, foreign policy analyst and political scientist in the US, was an early spotter of this new trend in diplomacy. She argued in an article in the Foreign Affairs journal in 2009 that the key to successful foreign policy in today’s world is ‘networked diplomacy’ – where the US enjoys a competitive edge.

She wrote: “We live in a networked world. War is networked: The power of terrorists and the militaries that would defeat them depend on small, mobile groups of warriors connected to one another and to intelligence, communication, and support networks. Diplomacy is networked: Managing international crises – from SARS to climate change – requires mobilising international networks of public and private actors. Business is networked: Every CEO advice manual published in the past decade has focused on the shift from the vertical world of hierarchy to the horizontal world of networks…”

The exact nature of networked diplomacy is still being studied and understood. Some governments are not even convinced of its value; others are encouraging it, perhaps as a way of ‘exploiting the inevitable’.

Networked diplomacy goes well beyond public diplomacy, where embassies engage foreign publics to inform and influence. While the latter has been pursued through cultural centres at a soft level, the former opens up hard political and economic issues for individuals and entities holding diverse and divergent views

Prof Slaughter herself spent two years (2009-2010) in the US State Department, helping the American foreign policy body to reposition itself for this new reality. As she told the Washington Post in August 2009: “We envision getting not just a new group of states around a table, but also building networks, coalitions and partnerships of state and non-state actors to tackle specific problems…to do that,  ourdiplomats are going to need to have skills that are closer to community organising than traditional reporting and analysis. New connecting technologies will be vital tools in this kind of diplomacy.”

Clearly, it is not diplomacy as usual. For much of history, diplomacy has been conducted among a small number of mostly or exclusively governmental players in a highly hierarchical (and male-dominated) structure. Most communications were written and secretive, with low levels of public transparency. This is now described as ‘club diplomacy’.

In contrast, networked diplomacy involves a larger number of players (particularly of civil society), has a flatter structure, and happens more in open and public spaces with a greater level of transparency. It has not totally replaced club diplomacy, but is increasingly the preferred mode for tackling complex global and regional problems. Networked diplomacy goes well beyond public diplomacy, where embassies engage foreign publics to inform and influence. While the latter has been pursued through cultural centres at a soft level, the former opens up hard political and economic issues for individuals and entities holding diverse and divergent views.

Writing in the Oxford Handbook on Modern Diplomacy (2013), its authors Andrew Cooper, Jorge Heine and Ramesh Thakur note: “Diplomacy today takes place among multiple sites of authority, power and influence: mainly states, but also including religious organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), multinational corporations and even individuals, whether they be celebrities, philanthropists or terrorists.”

There are many examples for this, especially from the realms of social justice, environment and human rights. Global campaigns for climate action and debt relief for the poorest countries have impacted inter-governmental agendas. Campaigns against corruption, anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs have led to new international treaties. Other causes – such as eliminating nuclear weapons or global tax havens – are proving harder, but advocacy is being sustained.

Real-time diplomacy
Some governments may not like this trend, but they cannot just wish it away. In fact, this wave was amplified first by the spread of global TV networks in the 1990s (the ‘CNN Effect’), and then by the rise of social media during the last decade.

There is broad agreement today that the spread of broadcast media and the web has reduced the time available for policymakers to decide and act. In democracies and open societies, at least, foreign relations can no longer be conducted in the club diplomacy mode alone.

The advent of social media has only accelerated the pace. Philip Seib, Professor of Journalism and Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, tried to make sense of this in his 2012 book Real-Time Diplomacy: Politics and Power in the Social Media Era.

He noted: “The 2011 uprisings in the Middle East proved that democracy retains its appeal, even to people who have long lived without it. They also illustrated how, in a highspeed, media-centric world, conventional diplomacy has become an anachronism. Not only do events move quickly, but so too does public reaction to those events. The cushion of time that enabled policymakers to judiciously gather  Information and weigh alternatives is gone.”

Real-Time Diplomacy analyses the essential, but often unhappy, marriage between diplomacy and new media. It evaluates media’s reach and influence, and determines how policymakers might take advantage of media’s real-time capabilities, rather than be driven by them.

In an age when a single video documenting a brutal state crackdown of a public demonstration can spread around the world within hours, he argued, foreign ministries are required to expedite working routines “to affect the coverage and framing of international affairs”.

Imperatives for Sri Lanka
Experienced diplomats know the value of a measured response. Hasty diplomacy can – and does – lead to occasional faux pas. Yet, avoiding social media spaces is not a wise option either. Can a healthy middle ground be found?

I posed this question during a talk to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) staff in Colombo earlier this year. The question is worth more study and some operational guidelines, I suggested.

The government of Sri Lanka as a whole is yet to fully grasp and adapt to the networked realities of the world today. As its official interface with the world, the MFA can lead the transformation. But will they? Arthur C. Clarke was right after all: the old-fashioned diplomat is being driven to extinction

For now, individuals are left to their own discretion and judgement. Ambassador Kariyawasam is one of very few Lankan diplomats who tweet (from @KariyawasamP), and that too, sparingly. MFA’s spokesperson, Mahishini Colonne, is the more visible and consistent voice in
social media – she tweets from @MFASriLanka. (Twitter, though not the most popular social media platform in Sri Lanka, is the choice medium of foreign services and international organisations.)

Foreign offices worldwide are grappling with this challenge – having a social media presence is only one of its many facets. A recent report from Germany’s Mercator Capacity Building Centre for Leadership and Advocacy offers valuable insight. The report, titled Networked Foreign Policy for the 21st Century: How leaders can drive change in the digital age, says: “Adapting a foreign policy organisation to the realities of the digital age is, first and foremost, a leadership question: Only with the right personnel in leadership positions within the organisation can a resilient internal culture based on trust and individual agency flourish. Robust institutions are those that internalise change and empower their employees and stakeholders while creating a space for risk-taking and failure – two things that are critical to building a learning organisation.” (Full report: j36VcD)

Having our Foreign Minister (@MangalaLK) and his deputy (@HarshadeSilvaMP) on Twitter is a good start, but woefully inadequate. More institutional changes are needed, and fast.

Reflecting on the German study, researcher and cyber activist Sanjana Hattotuwa recently wrote: “For a line ministry, like the MFA here, institutional change will require the Foreign Minister to set an example around how he empowers staff to leverage non-state actors, transnational diaspora, bilateral relations and soft-powerbranding to further Sri Lanka’s interests, and indeed, use our international standing as currency to encourage other parts of and individuals in government to live up to expectations.”

The government of Sri Lanka as a whole is yet to fully grasp and adapt to the networked realities of the world today. As its official interface with the world, the MFA can lead the transformation. But will they?

Arthur C. Clarke was right after all: The old-fashioned diplomat is being driven to extinction. How well and how fast Sri Lanka’s foreign service can adapt to these rapid changes will determine its effectiveness and relevance.