December 2, 2020

Digital Diplomacy in the times of pandemic

E-diplomacy has brought about a driving change in traditional diplomacy
Keywords: E-Diplomacy | Digital | ICT | Internet | Virtual Summit | Techplomacy | Pandemic | Covid-19 | Artificial Intelligence | Cyber Security | Health
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Digital Diplomacy or e-Diplomacy is not a new term. Its history dates twenty years back to 1992, when the e-platform was used for the first time for several negotiations during the Earth Summit in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro. Today, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook impact big electoral decisions throughout the world. Diplomats use these channels not only to maintain international relations, but also to declare important national decisions. Social media right now has a wide audience and offers nearly immediate outreach; where the message comes straight from the horse’s mouth. There is no scope for the message to be lost in translation.

Why now?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed every existing norm and custom in the world. The so-called globalised world has now turned its gaze inward. The race among different countries for developing masks, medicines, sanitisers, PPE kits and most importantly, the vaccine for the disease, has proven to be the new nation-first approach. Since the control of the disease demands physical social distancing, one way – or rather the only way – to continue socialising; even staying connected, for that matter; is through the e-channel. The Internet can connect people virtually; thus, maintaining physical distance and achieving diplomatic goals at the same time.

Some of the recent e-diplomatic engagements include the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, the SAARC Virtual Summit, the Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit, the World Health Assembly and several other bilateral meetings.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) 2020 showed an important development. This year, the Indian Prime Minister participated in the online summit of NAM to declare solidarity during COVID-19 pandemic by reflecting upon the common medical, social and humanitarian needs. The previous two summits of NAM (Venezuela 2016 and Azerbaijan 2019) were not attended by the Indian Head of Government. After two successive gaps, 2020 saw renewed engagement from India in NAM, and a new global order in the aftermath of COVID-19. By upgrading its participation, India now seeks to become an independent pole in global affairs. NAM is no longer viewed as an anti-Western caucus. Rather, it seeks to make its members independent, interdependent, and interconnected.

The 73rd World Health Assembly was convened as the first ever virtual health assembly. It called for identification of the zoonotic source of the novel coronavirus as a part of the ‘one health’ approach. It also called for removal of unjustified obstacles, in keeping with the agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement). Therefore, public safety was emphasised and the geo-economical dimensions were also discussed virtually.

The first ever Indian virtual Bilateral Summit was held between the Prime Ministers of India and Australia, which elevated the India-Australia engagement to the 2+2 level of Defence and Foreign Ministers (from the secretary level). A joint declaration on a shared vision of maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region was issued.

 Advantages of e-Diplomacy

The most important advantage offered by e-diplomacy is to keep the momentum of foreign relations going despite the pandemic. This includes constantly establishing bilateral and multilateral relations, consular services and social engagement via the internet.

Remote participation is another big advantage in times of crisis like this as it helpsreduce health and other risks and costs and ensures the physical safety of leaders without compromising on diplomatic talks.

The use of the internet route for achieving diplomatic objectives is also very time-efficient, as it reduces the travel time and therefore allows the diplomats to invest more time in policy-making and other engagements in the home country. This could be a fundamental change in the conduct of diplomacy in times to come.

The most important advantage offered by e-diplomacy is to keep the momentum of foreignrelations going despite the pandemic.

It is also economically prudent and environmentally beneficial as it eliminates expenses on lavish events, while helping reduce the carbon footprint. Virtual diplomacy is in a way, less burdensome.

With regards to the technological advantages of e-diplomacy, one unparalleled advantage is that of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tapping. In this era of AI, no field should be left out of it. AI can act as an equaliser between the developed and developing countries. For India, it can be of added advantage as it can provide the necessary tools to help our diplomats in managing foreign affairs. For instance, chatbots can be used in consular affairs to reduce the burden on diplomats abroad. 

AI can help in the processing of heavy data and managing other challenges with respect to diplomacy. It can help ministries and diplomats to achieve more precise decision-making and to overcome bureaucratic hurdles. The creation of big data which could include the details of employees in ministries, their postings, etc., can simplify administration and be shared with relevant institutions for improved national security and power amplification. Training diplomats in understanding AI would be a right step in the direction of efficient tech-plomacy.

 Challenges of digital diplomacy

Cyber security issues like hacking meetings, diplomatic secrets, classified information and sensitive matters can threaten national security. Sharing of data with all parties could also lead to breach of privacy, since segregating only important and relevant data all the time is not feasible.

Often e-diplomacy can lead to reduction in efficiency. Face-to-face meetings are more spontaneous, more practicable and more productive. The touch and feel factor also play a key role in the bonds we form. Some of the biggest casualties of this pandemic havebeen handshakes and hugs; both of which many people don’t dare to perform. Virtual diplomacy cannot replace entirely those traditional forms of human interaction and fraternization.

The broader and long-term political objectives cannot be achieved by virtual summits. There shall always remain a social disconnect and a gap in real cultural exchanges.

Virtual diplomacy cannot replace entirely those traditional forms of human interaction and fraternization.

Diplomatic engagements on issues of strategic importance and sensitive matters like national sovereignty are always better through the traditional route. For instance, the recent ongoing standoff between India and China at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh across Line of Actual Control (LAC) has raised tensions between India and China. The LAC is still not clearly demarcated throughout, and is not mutually agreed. Therefore, a proper diplomatic engagement on military and political levels is necessary to solve this kind of a crisis situation. It would be difficult for such negotiations to reach their full potential if they take place online.

However, it is a feasible solution in times of a pandemic

Despite the limitations, e-diplomacy has brought about a driving change in traditional diplomacy. In a pandemic situation, e-diplomacy is by far the best available opportunity. This should not be discarded once things get back to normal. E-diplomacy can still remain an effective tool for follow-up discussions and for enlarging the participation of multi-stakeholders, by allowing remote participation of all parties when needed. It can also bring together both public and private institutions and help them brainstorm together for a larger audience participation. The era of Internet & Information and Communications Technology (ICT) opens up an infinite set of opportunities in every sphere, and that should not be overlooked.

In times to come, e-diplomacy, along with techplomacy, should rather work hand-in-hand with traditional diplomacy to achieve maximum potential.

In times to come, e-diplomacy, along with techplomacy, should rather work hand-in-hand with traditional diplomacy to achieve maximum potential. For now, anyway, we have to choose the virtual hello over the physical handshake.

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Debopama Bhattacharya

Debopama Bhattacharya

Debopama Bhattacharya is currently pursuing Masters in Political Science. She has graduated in Electronics and instrumentation engineering from GNIT, Kolkata. She earlier worked as a content writer with a leading educational institute.

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