C4i Branch's Cyber Control Center.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
Winston Churchill famously remarked that diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that he asks for directions. While Churchill’s observation may still hold true in offline diplomatic settings, such as UN forums, bilateral negotiations and even dinner receptions, it hardly characterizes the evolving field of digital diplomacy.
For it is within the digital sphere that foreign ministries and diplomats promote their country’s foreign policy by engaging in conversations with connected publics, rather than giving them the boot. Brought about by the American desire to communicate with online Muslim publics and granted notoriety by the rise of digital platforms, digital diplomacy has seen the mass migration of foreign ministries to social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Chief among these is the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which is often regarded as a digital leader given its sizable online presence and sophisticated use of digital technologies.
As part of its strategy of communicating with foreign populations, the Foreign Ministry uses social media sites to craft and disseminate a specific digital narrative. A narrative may be viewed as strategic when it offers social media users a prism through which they can read and interpret global events and, by extension, can understand and hopefully support a country’s role in the world. For instance, the UK Foreign Office currently promotes the narrative of Global Britain as an attempt to redefine British role in the world in the post-Brexit period.
According to the Foreign Ministry, its digital narrative rests on dual economic and political pillars. The economic pillar links the diversity and openness of the Israeli society to its technological creativity. In other words, the start-up nation could have only evolved out of an open nation. Furthermore, these technological innovations are Israel’s gateway to the world. It is through its high-tech capabilities that Israel can forge relationships with other nations, reinforcing this way its technological prowess.
The second pillar of the Israeli digital narrative offers a political interpretation of global events.
According to this pillar, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and a bastion of Western values in a region populated by despots. Next, Israel is at the forefront of a global war between Western values and radical Islam. Like France, the UK and Sweden, terrorist attacks against Israel are the result of a value clash rather than a territorial and national dispute. Finally, Israel draws an analogy between Palestinian terrorists and Islamic State (ISIS).
While the political pillar offers a prism through which foreign publics can understand Israeli politics, it may nevertheless prevent Israel from creating a receptive environment for its foreign policy.
Online publics are unlikely to accept Israel’s analogy between Palestinian actions and ISIS. While the former may be viewed as part of a national independence struggle, the latter is associated with religious extremism. Moreover, Israel’s policies in the occupied territories may be seen as a moral blemish that distinguishes Israel from other liberal democracies. Finally, there are those who assert that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict further heightens global tensions.
There is therefore a potentially substantial gap between the economic and political pillars of Israel’s strategic narrative, a gap that risks diluting the message that Israel would like to communicate to the world. Any nation looking to forge an online strategic narrative, and to shape its global image, must mind such gaps.
One way to bridge this gap is by focusing on Israeli stability. The world is currently characterized by uncertainty and unrest. The future of the European Union remains uncertain, the meaning of Brexit remains enigmatic and the Trump presidency is mired in conflict. Russia’s plans in the Middle East are unknown at best and destabilizing at worst, while terrorist attacks are perhaps still to be expected on the streets of Berlin and Brussels. Crisis is the new norm.
It is within this global environment of insecurity that Israel may reposition itself as an island of stability.
Its financial durability, technological edge and commitment to democracy all enable Israel to be a constant factor in a region prone to unpredictability.
Thus, nations looking to influence the region can view Israel as a dependable and stable partner. Moreover, nations looking for prolonged trade opportunities, especially in the high-tech sector, can depend on Israel’s resilience. This is arguably the reason why the current UK government has taken a more positive stance toward Israel.
Indeed, at times of global change governments often look to stabilizing factors. Israel can be that factor. What emerges is the narrative of economic and political consistency. Digital platforms can enable Israel to engage with global publics and create a more receptive climate for its foreign policies.
Yet to do so, Israel must re-craft its digital narrative in a way that combines well the economic and political roles that Israel seeks to play in the world.
To paraphrase Churchill, digital diplomacy is not a game. It is an important business.
Prof. Corneliu Bjola and Ilan Manor are members of the Digital Diplomacy Research Group at the University of Oxford.