by Nikos Christodoulides
A resident of New York books his hotel in London for Christmas through the Internet and receives a confirmation letter via e-mail. At the same time, he books a table at his favorite restaurant in London through the Internet. An investor in Athens follows the development in Wall Street through the Internet and decides how to invest his money. A professor of international relations in London has access to all major international think tanks through the same medium, and he reads the latest articles related to world politics. A doctor in Beijing checks daily through the Internet the latest developments in medicine related to heart diseases. A university student researches in the Internet to find information about the European Parliament in order to prepare his class paper. A car dealer in Rome orders the cars he wants from Germany through the Internet.
The above examples show that the Internet is becoming an indispensable working tool for the majority of professions. Diplomacy is no exception to this rule, especially when an aspect of diplomacy’s function is revised each time we have a major technological development. Think of the impact of radios, televisions, faxes and planes. The same is true with the Internet. If the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs a resolution that has been passed by the UN Security Council, it does not have to ask the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations to find the resolution and send it to London. The resolution can be found on the UN’s web pages.
Diplomacy is a way to set and achieve foreign policy goals. In this respect, the basic tasks of diplomats have been to provide information and to negotiate. The informational aspect is necessary in order for foreign policy aims to be realistic. The negotiation aspect is necessary to fulfill those foreign policy goals. In both of these key elements of diplomacy, information technology, and more specifically the Internet, can be of great use.
It is recognized that diplomacy is among the fields which have been greatly influenced by the evolution of the Internet. Traditional methods of diplomacy are changing, almost on a daily basis, and today’s diplomat who is not familiar with the world of the Internet, finds himself at a disadvantage. In what respects specifically, however, is diplomacy influenced by the evolution of the Internet? Is there a limit to this process? Perhaps most interesting of all, is it possible in the near future to have virtual embassies and virtual representation?
A major aspect of diplomatic work is the need to be informed, at any time, not only about developments in your own country but also about international developments. Information is considered to be power, and information gathering, as is stated in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, is one of the major diplomatic functions. The Internet provides this function to diplomats quickly and at almost zero cost. Quick and easy access to local and international newspapers, news agencies, international institutions, policy centres, think tanks, associations, primary resources as documents, laws and regulations, archives, etc., through the Internet, provide diplomats with a unique opportunity to be up to date at any time. All this available information provides the diplomat with sufficient resources for better and more in depth analysis in a shorter time; he can be in a position to discuss any issue that may be raised. Therefore, the Internet can be characterized as a major information tool for diplomats.
Through the use of the Internet a diplomat can also accomplish a significant amount of diplomatic work, such as consular and administrative matters. Most consular information is today available on the web pages of the various embassies. The major work of consulates, the granting of visas, is becoming much quicker because the interested party can download the visa application form, find out about the necessary requirements, and visit the consulate just for the interview. Therefore the Internet can be characterized as a useful and necessary tool for fulfilling consular and administrative tasks.
In connection with the two previous points, diplomats can devote their time to more sensitive issues such as meetings with colleagues and policy makers in the host country. In today’s world of globalization with so many international issues on which almost everybody is informed, the diplomat should be able not only to be informed, but also to have free time to fulfill his/her other diplomatic functions and responsibilities. Therefore, the Internet saves time from diplomatic work of minor importance in order to have time for more high-level diplomatic tasks.
The Internet can be considered by governments as a unique diplomatic instrument; through its proper use they can “advertise” not only their positions on different issues, but also promote their ideas worldwide. Such a function, if used in the right way, helps the embassy, and as a result the country that it represents, to create a positive image in the host country. This is what Joseph S. Nye, Jr. has called ‘soft power’. So, the Internet is a political instrument of public diplomacy for a government to publicize its positions and to create a favorable image in the host country .
The Internet provides the opportunity for diplomats, independently from geographic location and at almost no cost, to be in continuous contact with their colleagues in other countries and the home Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This has the advantage, through virtual meetings, of exchanging unclassified information, views, and suggestions. It promotes teamwork on reports and the preparation of positions and speeches. Therefore, the Internet improves and increases interaction, a major element of diplomatic work.
In connection with the above, the Internet helps avoid traditional bureaucratic structures. The president of the United States Institute of Peace, Dr. Richard H. Solomon, notes that “Hierarchical flattening presents a particular challenge to US diplomats abroad – especially in the conduct of diplomacy. The diminishing cost of transnational communication prior even to the Internet has increasingly marginalized the in-country traditional diplomatic role”. All diplomats (those in the ministry of foreign affairs and those in the embassies) can have direct contact even with the minister. This creates incentives and saves time. It creates incentive because senior officials can, at any time, ask questions and clarifications from any diplomat. Inquiries and questions can be answered immediately. Therefore, it promotes less hierarchical processes and more cooperation in decision making. At the same time, it promotes an informal reporting style, and what is often important in diplomacy is an immediate action or reaction. Therefore, the Internet can be used as a major tool for better functioning, organization, and management within a ministry of foreign affairs and a diplomatic service.
Information technology and the growth of the Internet, among other developments, offers the opportunity to the public to become informed about internal and foreign developments and at the same time to express its opinion on national and international developments. As Dr. Solomon holds, “The Internet has thrown open governments’ gates to new constituencies who are not limited by traditional geographic or other physical barriers from actively participating in the policy-making process. Increasingly we are seeing individuals and groups who use the Internet to form virtual communities that can mobilize easily and effectively for advocacy and action”. As a result, nations, in the formulation of their foreign policy, have an obligation to take under consideration the public’s concern in order for their policies not only to be, but also to look more democratic. The same applies to senior diplomats who as a major component of governments must justify their actions before the public and try to gain the necessary support for those policies. This creates transparency and less hierarchical process of governing. As a result, the Internet can be characterized as a tool that enhances democracy by expanding citizen participation in the decision making process.
Embassies call upon certain host country groups — members of parliament, academics, journalists, trade and professional associations, and the like — for help in relation to that country’s relevant decisions. Diplomats, instead of calling meetings to inform and exchange views with influential members of such “lobby groups,” can do so through the Internet. This function is important because diplomats frequently are tasked to inform such groups almost immediately. Only the Internet provides this opportunity. Therefore, it can be used as a tool to sound the alarm with “lobby groups.”
The Internet can also be used for negotiating purposes, especially in the field of multilateral diplomacy. From the drafting of a paper to its finalization, the Internet can be helpful in negotiating give and take. Even though face-to-face communication usually is crucial, Internet diplomacy, as it is termed by the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, is important because it tends to provide:
These points are important, especially for small countries with limited human and financial resources to fulfill their obligations in the international system. Therefore, the Internet can be used as a negotiating tool.
All the above enables the diplomat to fulfill his/her duties with speed and efficiency at a low cost, and as a result is more productive. Therefore the use of Internet is a major tool for saving time and money.
So what happens next? Can we develop virtual embassies and virtual representation? What are their limits in diplomacy? It would be difficult to develop virtual embassies and virtual representation, given that the physical presence of an ambassador in a host country and the direct human contact are necessities which cannot be fully replaced. However, virtual embassies can be a solution for smaller and poorer countries. Having in mind that a significant number of countries, especially small ones, do not have resident ambassadors in very many countries, virtual embassies could be a short-run solution. More specifically, a country which has a non resident ambassador to another country could have a website that would serve as an information instrument in the host country. The desk officer in the ministry of foreign affairs of the country that has the website should be responsible for the website, replying to the e-mails and updating information. At the same time, he/she could be in direct contact through the Internet with the desk officer for his country in the host country.A virtual embassy thus would be the website of a given country in another, host country. Such an arrangement obviously has its limitations and would not replace the oral aspect of diplomacy in negotiations. Nevertheless, it could provide a useful service, especially for smaller nations — but only if well organized to fulfill certain defined, specific purposes.
Dr. Nikos Christodoulides is the consul general of the Republic of Cyprus in London and the vice president of the East Mediterranean Institute for Scientific Research and Studies. He studied at the City University of New York and New York University and received a doctorate in European and international studies at the University of Athens.