Savir's Corner: Diplomacy in the digital age

Diplomacy in this new era needs to be the art of making peace, connecting regionally and globally on trade, tourism, economic development and culture.

Netanyahu and Putin 390 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Netanyahu and Putin 390
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
In the old days, diplomacy was defined as the art of the possible. Possible coalitions, possible alliances, possible meetings of interests.
Between leaders through their intermediaries, the ambassadors, diplomacy became the way by which governments and countries interacted peacefully. It was governed by very strict and formal rules – defined as diplomatic protocol – how to shake hands, how to bow to a king, how to introduce yourself to a lady, etc.
To be diplomatic generally meant not being straightforward, but being extremely polite, gallant and convincing. The saying was that a good diplomat is a person who can tell another person to go to hell in a way that that person will look forward to the trip.
Diplomacy was mainly perceived as the interval between wars, be it by brilliant coalition builders like Otto von Bismarck, or builders of new alliances such as Harry Truman or Jean Monnet after World War II. This diplomacy has passed from the world and more often than not has failed. It was elitist in nature, serving the interests and the vanity of leaders, from popes to emperors to heads of governments or tribes.
Three processes brought an end to traditional diplomacy – globalization and the technology and information revolutions. In many ways all three created a borderless world through trade, tourism, movement of labor and people, and the ability to instantly and globally communicate. In the new world, governments became less relevant and effective, dictatorships virtually impossible, and people, individuals and communities more influential in creating new communities driven by common values and interests.
New empires were born, such as Facebook, with a “population” (user base) of 900 million people. We are still undergoing this groundbreaking revolution, barely comprehending its full ramifications for the world at large and for the individual.
The information and technology revolutions have brought about a fundamentally new way of communication that is deeply affecting the nature of diplomacy through several important parameters:
• Comprehensiveness and speed: Anyone around the world can communicate instantly with others in every corner of the globe – be it through electronic mail or social networks, including the use of video. This has made individuals better heard, more relevant and empowered by society. Petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures are organized within days in order to affect policy.
• Directness: People can address political leaders and communicate with them directly; most leaders today have Facebook pages – Barack Obama is running much of his reelection campaign on Facebook and Shimon Peres is making new friends in the Arab world through his Facebook page.
• Know-how: People are more knowledgeable due to the Internet and their ability to consume information and news – Wikipedia is a source of knowledge in 285 languages with about 400 million readers worldwide.
• Inclusiveness: Groups of people all over the world are organizing on the Internet and social networks – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. – and creating communities of common values and interests in order to affect the political decision- making process.
These cataclysmic changes can transform the notions of democratic global and domestic governance and therefore of international relations.
Societies don’t just elect leaders every few years, they can now legitimize or delegitimize political decisions or politicians on an almost daily basis.
The social networks have even become more influential than mighty armies: see Tahrir.
In this transformed world, diplomacy must not only adapt to the new technological and informational tools, but also help to navigate countries and communities toward a more peaceful and prosperous world, at the same time when extremist fundamentalist perpetrators of evil are engaged in using the same vehicles for their violent and dangerous goals.
Diplomacy in the digital age must therefore go through several fundamental reforms:
• Heads of state and their ministers and diplomats have to make the best use of the technological communication tools at their disposal.
The famous 3 a.m. phone call can now be a satellite video, a SMS or an email. Digital diplomacy is faster, more direct in approaching the interlocutor and more succinct. “Hope this email finds you well” and then you come directly to the point, ending with “awaiting your response in return.”
Through the directness, a certain kinship can be developed, a common digital language. Positions can be posted on Facebook and on Twitter (in just 140 characters). More information, less words. Diplomatic processes can happen faster, with fewer misunderstandings as there are fewer intermediaries to carry information.
• The leaders of modern government and diplomacy have to understand that their decisions need constant legitimization by a more informed and reactive constituency. No matter what the current ruler of Egypt decides, he knows that he continually needs the approval of the city squares and the social networks. When it comes to peace negotiations – or for that matter waging war – leaders will face almost daily referendums on the social networks.
Diplomacy has become much more dependent on public opinion legitimizing the process and the decisions.
• Therefore, leaders have to address their constituencies and other relevant sectors of public opinion. The international community is no longer merely a community of governments but a community of people as well. They do and will have to engage people, not any more through fireside chats, but by engaging in Facebook chats and sending video messages on YouTube using the language of the young constituents.
• This should and must provide a much more inclusive process. In parallel to more traditional diplomacy there must be a critical process by which the informed constituency is brought not just into account, but into the process itself.
People almost all over the world, while proud of their heritage, culture and often their religion, want to be part of this modern interconnected world and understand that the key gateways to globalization are through peaceful coexistence and economic development.
Diplomacy in this new era needs to be the art of making peace, connecting regionally and globally on trade, tourism, economic development and culture.
Modern peace diplomacy is therefore the use of modern communication tools to achieve agreement, define common interests and most important involve the people in these processes.
The information and technology revolutions have created a great opening for a new diplomatic process, a more democratic and inclusive one. This is very true for peacemaking as without the legitimacy of the people, no peace will be sustainable.
We witnessed this in Berlin last week at a Middle East regional peace conference of the Facebook- based YaLa-Young Leaders movement (with 165,000 members) – 20 young leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Kuwait met and agreed on the first regional young generation peace initiative. It was the culmination of months of dialogue and online meetings, which they have naturally posted on Facebook and emailed to US President Barack Obama and to the regional leadership.
Any peace diplomacy in the future will have to listen to these and other young leaders. Some politicians will find it hard to be constantly more attentive and inclusive of their constituencies.
Others are already adapting to these profound global changes. The latter group will engage in modern digital diplomacy, the former may very well soon be out of office.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.