In The Media

John Baird's contradictory digital diplomacy 

by David Carment

Embassy
February 10, 2014

Any digital diplomacy strategy must be sensitive to the possibility that its actions may in reality hasten and escalate conflict. Those who believe it is a neutral strategy need to think long and hard about the unintended effects their efforts will produce.

For Foreign Minister John Baird, the timing of the revelations that Industry Canada tweets must follow a rigid and systematic set of protocols before being released to the public could not have been worse.

ust a few days after that story broke, the minister made it clear in a speech to California’s high tech firms that Canada was preparing to unleash its digital diplomats on the world in support of human rights and political protest. Baird’s apparent goal is to challenge oppressive governments who undermine freedom of speech by shutting down the flow of information across the Internet.

Placed side by side, the two stories lay bare the fundamental and bizarre contradiction that is Canada’s digital diplomacy strategy.

For those of us who hold a skeptical eye to Twitter diplomacy in particular, the knowledge that government messaging is mostly conducted in a controlled environment comes as no surprise. It reinforces my prior arguments that although Twitter diplomacy is ephemeral as a tool for monitoring and selling, it has great potential.

However, if I correctly understand John Baird’s comments from Silicon Valley, he wants to change some of that. He wants his diplomats to be engaged in direct diplomacy with engaged citizens abroad. But as we know, there is no domestic counterpart for engaging and supporting Canadian civil society organizations and ordinary citizens. This deficiency is especially problematic in the foreign policy domain. 

Regardless of what one may think of the power of the Internet to stimulate political change, there really is no substitute for boots on the ground. In that regard, NGOs are the ultimate soft power tool, whether they are dedicated groups in digital diplomacy, humanitarian agencies which rely on complex communication tools, or the educator providing a digital platform for distance learning.

But here at home the Harper government has gone out of its way to circumvent, alienate and undermine large segments of civil society, either by pulling their funding or by leaving them out of the discussion altogether. Consider, as a case in point, the decision to merge Canada's aid agency with the foreign affairs department last year—a process that was announced with no prior consultation, and thus far has failed to pass the basic litmus test of transparency and accountability.

Similar short-sighted attacks on international education have seen cuts to funding for Canadian studies abroad, and the loss of funding to research and outreach programs in defence, security and diplomacy.

My point isn’t simply that the government should practice at home what it preaches abroad. It is rather that the Harper government has branded itself as the best vehicle for supporting international social activism, when we know that approach will simply not work. There is a danger here that Baird’s digital diplomacy could become a variant of the “lecture and leave” problem Joe Clark spoke of, or worse, that it becomes merely just another form of advertising that currently plagues foreign policy tweets. 

As a symbolic gesture, I now block all government followers of my Twitter account, until I am convinced these foreign service officers are doing more than just selling and monitoring. It is doubtful my colleagues could be encouraged to do likewise, as their tweets are far too important to be ignored.

But there are other dangers. Consider the so-called innovative social media support to dissident Iranians that John Baird put in place at the Munk School about a year ago. Notwithstanding the fact that the effects of this Global Dialogue have been diluted by a change in Iran’s posture—a process our government was shut out of, reinforcing the point that digital diplomacy is not a substitute for effective high-level diplomacy—the project is hardly innovative or new.

Similar dialogues organized by American universities focusing on North Korea and elsewhere have been in place for almost two decades. Social media has long been used to support quiet diplomacy and Internet dialogue is an integral part of what's known as track-two initiatives for resolving complex, protracted conflict.

Indeed, if these other, more successful initiatives are indicative, there is probably far greater value in not boasting to the world about the Munk project, given the dangers still present in that country. Writing as someone who relies extensively on Internet technologies to evaluate country risk, I know that a third and crucial leg of the early warning tool kit is human intelligence.

The Internet is a great source for collecting and organizing data on country risk. In addition, event data taken from news sources, properly parsed and coded, allows us to assess the real-time dynamics of a country at risk. But those two kinds of information must be augmented and placed in context by those who are watching on the ground.

In working with, and training, specialized early-warning NGOs in Africa, Asia, the Balkans and elsewhere, I quickly learned that a key issue for them is one of individual security. To support their activities is to understand that they often engage at great personal risk. Any digital diplomacy strategy whether it focuses on Iran, the Ukraine or the Middle East must be sensitive to the possibility that its actions may in reality hasten and escalate conflict and put those who are targets of its direct support at even greater risk.

Those who believe digital diplomacy is a neutral and hazard-free strategy need to think long and hard about the unintended effects their efforts will produce.

My closing observation is for all those on the home front who think that digital diplomacy is the answer to fixing the Harper government’s recalcitrance towards civic engagement in Canada. I would say in its current form, digital diplomacy produces a false impression of success without really providing a tangible benchmark for measuring that success.

Twitter diplomacy is particularly susceptible, because it creates the illusion of intimacy, engagement, influence and control while actually encouraging passivity, attenuated self-importance, and disengagement among its users.

In contrasting the writings of George Orwell with Aldous Huxley, Neil Postman wrote: “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

It is clear that Canada must have a digital diplomacy strategy. But the question is, will it be one that stimulates positive change at home as well as abroad? It would be difficult to imagine a sustainable public diplomacy strategy where Canadians are shut out of the foreign policy conversation on the one hand, while the government espouses freedom of speech abroad, on the other. 

Such an outcome would ensure that a core component of the values projection that John Baird covets—namely a more engaged Canadian citizenry—is both absent and silenced. A bizarre and contradictory outcome by any measure.

David Carment is the editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and a professor of international affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.


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