The ICT Revolution

Information technology and communications (ICT) has impacted strongly on diplomatic systems, bridging to some extent the distance syndrome that dominates the diplomatic networks. One consequence: the relationship between the foreign ministry and the embassy abroad is much closer, and the bilateral embassy has gained in importance for many countries.

The internet provides innovative means for outreach to wide public streams, at home and abroad; “Web 2.0” offers new possibilities that are still under exploration. The foreign ministry website, supplemented by the websites of embassies, provides a starting point. “Intranets” (also called ‘virtual private networks’) permit confi dential exchanges within the country’s diplomatic and public services. Blogs have come into their own both for privileged communication and for open exchanges. Canada has been a leader in the application of net-based communications, for diplomatic training, export promotion and even domestic public outreach; many others have adapted well to the new medium and found their own paths.

Other related changes are as follows:

  • The emergence of the “global information village” has reduced reaction time. Offi cial spokesmen of foreign ministries must react to events as they occur; embassies have to convey local reactions to issues, as they emerge. It has also increased the frequency and diversity of interstate communication.
  • Internet-based social networks are used by foreign ministries and by embassies to reach out to publics, to communicate information, images, and video clips. In the same way, citizens use these networks to exchange ideas and news, circumventing controls imposed by authoritarian regimes. But such regimes are also agile learners of the new techniques, using the same methods for propaganda and to control.
  • Inside the MFA communications are fl atter. ICT permits drafts and proposals to go direct from the desk-offi cers to the top echelons, with copies to the intermediate hierarchy. (In the British and German Foreign Offi ces, seniors do not change drafts from desk-offi cers, though they may give alternatives; embassy recommendations travel similarly to high levels in the MFA, without running the old gauntlet of modifi cation by territorial desks.) This adds to responsibility for young offi cials and for envoys abroad.
  • In a few Western countries, the cipher telegram is threatened (United States and United Kingdom; perhaps less so in Germany or France); it is replaced by the confidential “intranet -based” message sent to a single or limited cluster of recipients (unlike the cipher telegrams which are widely circulated in the government on a standard distribution template). The cipher telegram was a powerful instrument to keep abreast with diverse assessments from overseas missions. In several MFAs the classic dispatch has also withered away—this represents a loss of that comprehensive analysis of a single, usually nonurgent, but important theme. Danger: it produces a fi refi ghting mind-set, perhaps too focused on current tasks. This devalues refl ective analysis of important issues.
  • Some countries pursuing effi ciency prioritize ruthlessly, concentrating on bilateral tasks of direct importance, plus major global and regional issues. This makes embassies more “bilateral” in their activities, less attuned to sustained contact cultivation across a broad spectrum; it also reduces engagement with the diplomatic corps. Embassies that are stripped to the core in manpower sometimes lack reserve capacity for new tasks.

Developing and transitional countries face hard choices in applying ICT. First there is the element of cost, for hardware and software, and the need to replace systems, typically after three or four years.10 Doubts over the security of intranets inhibit countries such as China and India. In contrast, small countries have fewer security worries. At the same time, the opportunity cost of not using modern communications has risen, though this is often not taken into account.

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