THE BLOG
10/06/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

In the Digital Diplomacy Battle, the Upstarts Will Start to Win Out

In the digital world, the momentum is always with the upstarts. They are the gamechangers.

Once upon a time, Amazon were upstarts and the people who changed the rules of book retailing -- now, for good or (mostly) ill, they are the gatekeepers of the book industry. For TV, Netflix are the ones who are shifting the goalposts. In news media, look to Buzzfeed.

Right across the digital spectrum, it is the newbies who end up re-writing how content and services are delivered..

So could the same happen in diplomacy? Could a digitally adept nation change the rules of public engagement and become an influence far beyond their physical and financial resources? Why not?

For one thing, the digital diplomacy space needs positive presences. In some ways, it has become a slightly moribund arena, with innovation at a premium. It's a digital cliché, of course, but diplomacy needs its disruptors.

In recent years, digital diplomacy has become communications heavy, dependent on social media, but light on bright ideas, and there has been something of a minor vacuum, into which others have moved. At the extreme end, this has included the Israeli armed forces tweeting warnings/threats to those in the Gaza strip, and, of course, the grotesque propaganda of ISIS forces.

In the face of such extremes, the established players in digital diplomatic circles look a little tired, concentrating on upbeat communications, rather than invention or function, to look beyond the outputs of soft power and more towards digital as a driver of new relationships, with states and non-state actors, that can help create new policies. The time is right for new countries to step into that world and punch way above their weight, gaining influence above and beyond their more risk averse counterparts.

Take Kosovo, the drivers of a Progressive Nation Building event next week in Washington. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 but was not recognised by around half of the world's nation (including Russia). A campaign of digital diplomacy, and old-fashioned lobbying, led by the estimable deputy foreign minister Petrit Selimi persuaded Facebook to allow users to place their location in Kosovo, and not in neighbouring Serbia (with whom they've had disputes in the past, as you may remember).

Facebook claimed it wasn't a political decision, it was a user-led choice. Their users wanted Kosovo to be seen to exist -- so it did. In a small way, social media gave birth to a nation, because of the users' shared need for community. They may be waiting for recognition from some institutions -- the EU and the UN for instance -- but don't make the mistake of thinking that Facebook recognition is the runt of that litter. The EU and UN may hold the levers of economic and political influence, but Facebook hold the levers of information.

Kosovo isn't the only country to appear on radars that would be otherwise beyond their reach. Carl Bildt's tireless, and inventive use of Twitter, made him, until recently, the only Swedish foreign minister of living memory to have a policy, and personal impact, beyond that which his country has traditionally managed.

Unlikely as it may seem, Iran too has found firm digital ground, not least with its use of social media. President Rouhani has, seemingly, found time to tweet both to all and sundry and to foreign leaders and managed to humanise the world's view of his government. The Twitter account @MeetIran openly admits it is 'dedicated to providing a more nuanced idea of #Iran. One tweet at a time', which has, shamefully, prompted one blogger to coin the word "Twipoganda".

On a more granular level, and proving that people react better to other people than to organisations, the likes of British Ambassador Tom Fletcher in Beirut have shown that creating networks and improving communications ('talking to people' in old money) can reap dividends in terms of the access and influence it engenders.

But while there are exemplars of good practice amongst countries big and small, sustained excellence has not been reached for some time. The opportunity is there, and its one that's worth taking, the prize is an important one.

The big shift that digital diplomacy can give us is not that governments can communicate regularly on new platforms, it's that they can do so with new groupings. Digital platforms enable people to group together for reasons other than mere geography and created bonds determined by something other than the traditional sense of nationhood. Some might be yolked together by region, rather than nation, or by religion, by economics, by gender, or by ideas. In the digital sphere, these groupings are every bit as legitimate, and often more vocal, than groupings decided by borders and flags.

Many can still dismiss these groups as "interest groups". Or fanatics. Or extremists. Pick your dismissive group noun of choice. And then look at ISIS and stop being so dismissive.

These groups do not have the mechanics of traditional diplomacy, the ability to match ambassador to ambassador and to share the same arcane procedures. In this new world, a diplomat's clients are changing. Post-digital, post Arab Spring, and in a time of ISIS and Boko Harem, a diplomat is looking at groups which are based around a whole new set of values and loyalties that are not related to those borders drawn hundreds of years ago. Indeed, some members of those interest groups/fanatics/extremists are in your own country. In Woolwich for example.

Those who the diplomat must engage with have shape-shifted and hard diplomacy is difficult with people who don't share the same view of the rule of law; soft power is harder when faced with al Qaeda members in Arsenal shirts, and digital diplomacy is harder when groupings are fluidly forming in public and hidden areas of the web.

But a diplomat has to engage with these groups -- because they are possible challenges to the nation that he/she represents. There's a few challenges -- you have to find them first. And you have to engage with them when they have no duty to engage with you. A diplomat's job description, effectively, includes 'speak to other diplomats, foreign ones included' in amongst the list of core tasks. But a fluid group of people who have gathered round an abstract idea don't have any contract or job description, they don't wear white shirts and dark ties, and they may not want to respond, or converse in the way you want to. Where's the treaty, the protocols, the agreements, the furniture of diplomacy?

While we are in a period of change, it's only just beginning, the notion of nation still remains hugely strong. A diplomat can legitimately call on that concept as their main job. But it's altering and the speed of change is increasing. A diplomat is facing a different set of challenges and dealing with them will require a different skill-set. Some will have it, some do have it - but many do not. Digital diplomacy will no longer be about a certain elan on Twitter, it will be about identifying non-state actors and the channels of their choice, with which to monitor and engage with them to form new relationships.

And into that space, new nations can stand tall, just as new groupings can. On digital platforms, the size of your army doesn't matter (nor, really, does the size of your followers), it's the influence and use to which you put those platforms -- changing the way people think and act and using the crowd to inform policy decisions, while being, to some degree, agnostic about who you consider to be fit for connection.

Any country can begin to re-define this space, the incentive is with new, smaller nations, with less traditional power bases, to do so. The stage is set.