Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Can cyber diplomacy replace traditional diplomats and help us get a handle on the world's most complicated problems?

Narain D Batra, economictimes.indiatimes.com

Image from article, with caption: They do public diplomacy, of which cyber diplomacy is a newer version, to create goodwill and shape the international political and social environment.

Social media has become diplomacy's second self, "a significant other", according to a recent report by Burson-Marsteller, a global PR company. Social media, Twitter in particular, has become a diplomatic weathervane as well as a research kit to analyse global trends.

Today social media, according to the report, has become the first and foremost thought of
world leaders, governments, diplomats, and civil society groups. Savvy diplomats feel that
social media provides them with a platform for unrestricted communication with targeted

Can cyber diplomacy replace the role of traditional diplomats? What do diplomats do? They do public diplomacy, of which cyber diplomacy is a newer version, to create goodwill and shape the international political and social environment. They do network building for information gathering and create country specific knowledge to advance trade and economic interests.

Most of all they confront and try to solve what is called "wicked problems". The wicked problem concept comes from management science and was first systematically developed by C West Churchman, Horst Rittel, Melvin Webber and others in the late 70s and early 80s. Since then the concept has been applied in many fields including diplomacy.

A wicked problem is difficult to solve or unsolvable because of its complexities, because of its co-dependence on other problems, because of unknown factors impacting it, so that when you try to solve it, other problems emerge and the problem becomes more complicated. Some wicked problems are unsolvable, but what is unsolvable today might find a solution in the future.

Consider this: On the night of April 14-15, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a government secondary school in Nigeria. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign launched on Twitter and Facebook afterwards went viral. It compelled world leaders to confront the problem. But as of today it has not gotten most of the schoolgirls back.

It's a wicked problem because Boko Haram does not care for social media. It's networked with other Islamic militant organisations such as al-Qaida and ISIS that have been relentlessly carrying out terrorist attacks including San Bernadino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Bangladesh and a most sacred mosque in Saudi Arabia. And there'll be more to come.

Vietnam War was a wicked problem because so many stakeholders, the Soviet Union, Mao's China and the US, apart from bloodsoaked Vietnam itself, were involved.

Television brought the war to our living rooms and made it more complicated. Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger conducted tough diplomatic negotiations to end one of the most tragic and unwinnable wars in history.

Diplomacy is hard work. But today US-Vietnam public diplomacy is very effective. You can see its effect in trade relations, and Vietnam's proposed membership in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Iran was a most wicked problem. Behind the diplomatic faces of John Kerry and Iran's Javed Zarif, there were hosts of nuclear experts, who worked day and night to break the logjam. Has the problem been solved? Israel and Arab countries as well as many Americans are not so sure.

Cyber diplomacy might have played some role in persuading doubting Americans that the nuclear deal is worth a try and if Iran backed out, sanctions will be re-imposed. Recently it was announced that Iran would buy 100 planes from Boeing. Price tag: $25 billion or so. Perhaps this is the time for Boeing corporate diplomats to take over.

Climate change is an extremely wicked problem. The Paris Agreement, which was adopted last December and signed by 177 nations and will begin in 2020, is not a solution. It is only an intervention. Cyber diplomacy by governments and civil society organisations could
certainly keep alive awareness of the problem; but the problem is so wicked that it will require a transformative, technology based, sustainability revolution to make Beijing and New Delhi breathable again.

Cyber diplomacy can be used effectively to build up Asian public opinion to keep China from asserting exclusive control over the South China Sea in the light of the Hague International tribunal ruling rejecting China's claim. But cyber diplomacy will not be enough. Whatever US and Asian governments, civil society organisations and global corporations do, their actions must be wedded to clear strategic objectives of keeping the South China Sea free and open as is the Indian Ocean.

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