Tuesday, December 4, 2012

U.S. Public Diplomacy: Seismic shift to social media? Yes. End of face-to-face communication? No.

'Boop!' 'This is so much more fun in person.' 

“A seismic shift is under way at the U.S. Department of State as Foggy Bottom increasingly draws on Silicon Valley expertise to develop tools and strategies for remaining effective — and relevant — in a rapidly innovating world. Though all sections of the State Department are affected, public diplomacy in particular has had to adapt its perspective and overhaul its outreach to stay current in a constantly evolving technological landscape.” – Jacob Comenetz, “Innovating Public Diplomacy For a New Digital World”

Jacob Comenetz’s article highlights the growing roles social media such as Twitter and Facebook will play in the United States’ “21st Century Statecraft” and its conduct of public diplomacy. He concludes these “technologies continually reinvent the ways in which people interact” and will therefore “fundamentally redefine the practice of diplomacy. And as the juggernaut of cyber connectivity marches forward, diplomats will need to keep pace if they want to connect with the people who find themselves newly empowered in ways never before possible.”

He substantiates this argument with insight from former Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale, who advocates for constant engagement, saying “We must be out there in as many ways as possible and at every hour of every day.” Comenetz describes notes the State Department is responsible for “engag[ing] with people wherever they may congregate in the real or virtual world.”

As I mentioned in a comment on Franzi’s blog entry, Comenetz’s article hardly acknowledges that social media is just one aspect of public diplomacy and that many in the world lack access to it because of the digital divide.  I am disappointed that his article doesn’t place more emphasis on using social media as a complement to public diplomacy.

Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, herself a veteran journalist, has “made it clear that social media and new communications technology will not replace traditional, face-to-face interaction.” According to an IIP Digital post, Sonenshine says: “No matter how evolved our technology becomes, there is no substitute for a visiting student to sit across the dinner table with a family abroad. There is no substitute for the give-and-take of real encounters between people.” 

Other experienced hands seem to disagree. During a November 13 talk on “Public Diplomacy: the Next Four Years,” hosted by the IPDGC at George Washington University, former Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman alluded that embassies and consulates are dispensable in the near future.

Glassman: And the other thing that I would just throw out to you is whether in an era of social media and very, very fast communications, whether we should be spending as much money as we are in general at the State Department on things called embassies. Okay, it made a lot of sense 100 years ago, but does it make sense today to have this edifice and this very complicated kind of arrangement where people go for a few years and live there, as though they couldn’t possibly influence people in those countries if they didn’t live there?

IPDGC blogger Mary Jeffers shares my disbelief over Glassman’s idea that embassies and face-to-face diplomacy will one day be obsolete. I cannot say I agree with Glassman. 

In an interview with a foreign newspaper published on November 28, 2012, John Brown—retired diplomat and founder of the venerable blog authored under his name—discussed his path to the U.S. Foreign Service and his views on how the nature of diplomatic practice has both changed and remained the same. 
I joined the US Foreign Service, in the early 1980s, in search of gainful employment and out of a certain sense of idealism to promote peace at a time when our small planet was arguably “bipolar” (U.S. vs. USSR) and threatened by a nuclear holocaust.  
During the period — Cold War and immediate post-Cold War  the social media were not omnipresent. I felt there was a need to depict America to foreign audiences as honestly as possible in a communications-limited world, not only behind the “Iron Curtain,” but in other parts of Europe.  
Of course now times have changed, and diplomats must adapt to change. But no one — including diplomats — should live under the illusion that, in our multipolar 21st century world, the social media are omnipotent. 
Indeed, the need to understand cultures beyond “interacting” on the internet is more important than ever. Facebook-to-Facebook “communications,” while creating professionally useful cyber-networks, will never replace face-to-face discussion/negotiations — which ultimately is what diplomacy is all about. 
Indeed, we should not labor under the illusion that social media are omnipotent, as Brown says. While social media is “refreshing,” it is by no means a replacement for traditional face-to-face diplomacy. Mr. Comenetz, do you copy? No one — including diplomats — should live under the illusion that, in our multipolar 21st century world, the social media are omnipotent. 

For more: Twitter as diplomacy? http://www.voanews.com/content/twitter-diplomacy-social-media/1452891.html


  1. MJ-I appreciate this post as it brings to light an issue that we often fail to consider now-a-days. I would agree with you that relying solely on social media to carry out public diplomacy is all but a good idea. You've said it well--social media should be a component. I feel there are two main reasons why it should act as a component rather than a driver. One concern being that I worry not only for the digital divide, but also that those who are active users may get overwhelmed with constant digital diplomatic bombardment. While status updates and such are entertaining, we forget that social media enables users to be even more selective about what they see or don't see. I am also, more importantly, concerned about how relying on social media might remove a sort of humanistic aspect to public diplomacy. While I realize that a picture is worth a thousand words, body language, facial expression, tone of voice and such is worth a thousand more. And, at the end of the day, social media is simply a little bit more impersonal. Just some thoughts.
    p.s. great picture!


  2. MJ, this is a great post and very important to consider in the a world increasingly dependent on social media. It reminds me of an article the New York Times published over the summer in regards to a bombing attack in Syria. The piece noted that Russia's first reaction to the attack was expressed by Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, who tweeted, "A dangerous logic: While discussions on settling the Syrian crisis are being held in the U.N. Security Council, militants intensify terrorist attacks, frustrating all attempts."[1] It's interesting to me that anyone, let alone a state representative, would try to sum up their comments on such a complex situation in 140 characters or less through a medium like Twitter. Instances like this one illustrate your point that sometimes social media and ICTs just don't cut it. There is too much nuance and delicate negotiating required in international politics to omit in person interactions.