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Monday, June 18, 2012

Effective diplomacy in the age of social media


CANBERRA — Far from being rendered irrelevant by technological progress, where governments can communicate with one another directly on a need-to basis, diplomacy has become an increasingly critical instrument in an age of interdependence and globalization.

Responding to the ever-changing world around it, diplomacy has evolved and adopted new tools and techniques to respond to the new demands and expectations.

The numbers and types of actors have multiplied, from governments to national firms, multinational corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and regional and intergovernmental organizations.

The content of diplomacy has expanded to embrace a broad array of the different sectors of public policy and government activity that extend well beyond the traditional "high issues"foreign policy.

The levels at which diplomatic discourse takes place, and does so simultaneously, range from the local to the national, bilateral, regional and global.

And the apparatus and machinery of foreign relations and diplomacy have been continually altered in response.

Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter argued some years ago that the key to successful foreign policy in today's world is networked diplomacy, and that the United States enjoys a competitive edge in this type of new diplomacy.

She said war, business, media, society, even religion are all networked. So is diplomacy: "managing international crises requires mobilizing international networks of public and private actors."

NGOs also network to multiply their effectiveness.

Jorge Heine, a professor who also has served as Chile's ambassador to South Africa and India, believes that we are witnessing a shift from "club" to "network diplomacy." The former is based on a small number of players, a highly hierarchical structure, written communications and low transparency.

"Network diplomacy" is based on a much larger number of players (particularly of civil society), a flatter structure, a more significant oral component, and greater transparency.

One of the most powerful tools of networked diplomacy in turn is the existence of strong, vibrant and successful diaspora communities spread across the influential countries of the world today.

This is especially true of overseas Chinese and Indians in their tens of millions. They provide a network platform both for China and India as countries of origin, and for host countries to use them to build and deepen relations with the two most dynamic economies of recent decades.

One of the world's big stories last year was the Arab Spring. And one of the intriguing elements, a story within the story, was the use and role of social media tools by the protestors to stay connected, organize events, and generally to evade attempts at censorship and control of the narrative, pace and trend-line of events.

This began and was most prominent in Egypt, but it also was a feature of Libya and remains a window into the unfolding events in Syria. Less well-known is how social media also was used as an effective tool of diplomacy.

This is an account of one such episode involving India and Indians, drawn together from information and raw data sent to me by Navdeep Suri, joint secretary of public diplomacy for India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), with the permission of the principals concerned.

In July 2010, MEA became India's first government department to start using Twitter as part of its communications strategy. In February 2011, its head, Foreign Secretary — Vice Minister — Nirupama Rao (now the ambassador to the U.S.), became the first senior diplomat in India to begin using Twitter for official use.

As the security situation deteriorated in Libya, India became increasingly concerned about the fate and welfare of 18,000 of its citizens living there. While the government tried to organize the evacuation of this large number of people, MEA decided to use Twitter to communicate timely information about the evacuation schedule, by air and sea, from Tripoli, Alexandria and Benghazi.

As MEA's twitterati following on the subject quickly swelled by hundreds each day, the ministry began to receive substantial information about nationals trapped in Sirte, Brega, Sabah, Misratah, and elsewhere.

As the evacuation from Tripoli and Benghazi — where 12,000 Indians were concentrated — gathered pace, MEA received tweets from a Mr. Seetapathy in Chennai complaining that the government was ignoring the plight of Indians stranded in Misratah.

MEA opened direct communications with Seetapathy by Twitter and email (to overcome Twittter's character limitations) and informed him that the port in Misratah was temporarily closed, so its inhabitants were beyond the reach of those organizing evacuations.

Seetapathy replied that he was in constant communication with his father who worked for an engineering firm based at an iron and steel facility in Misratah which had its own port with a 250,000-ton capacity. Many Europeans had already been evacuated through this port. There were around 800 Indians in Misratah.

The communication from Seetapathy was received on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2011. By March 3, New Delhi had hired RED STAR 1 from Sicily, which was able to evacuate the Indians trapped in Misratah (and some other Indians who made their way there from Sirte), as well as a few people of other nationalities.

Like many government departments in India and other countries, MEA is used to being at the receiving end of endless complaints from citizens disgruntled about the quality of service they receive on sundry matters.

On this occasion, MEA received well-deserved bouquets, such as: "great job rescuing Indians from troubled spots. Rest of the corrupt, inefficient & bloated Indian bureaucracy take note" and "Passengers landing in Bombay even have connecting flights arranged by govt! Outstanding work by Govt!"

More importantly, it is a useful case study in the utility of social media tools in connecting the government with people who are normally well outside their range, but who can be a useful channel to send out time-urgent critical information and to receive equally valuable information from sources on the ground.

Ambassadors in other conflict-afflicted countries have since been instructed to use Twitter to similar ends.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor of international Relations, Crawford School of Public Policy, at Australian National University; adjunct professor, Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, at Griffith University; and co-editor of the upcoming "The Oxford Handbook of Modern."


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