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The book Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age by Tom Fletcher provides many interesting insights, within the context of how the author illustrates on the concept of “digitalized” diplomacy. Therefore, reading it will come as a valuable asset to just about anyone interested in learning more about what defines the qualitative dynamics in the world of international diplomacy. The book assesses the matters of diplomacy from the strongly defined Constructivist perspective, which makes Naked Diplomacy consistent with the realities of a post-industrial living. At the same time, however, this makes many of the book’s claims speculative.
What it means is that, when it comes to assessing the book’s practical implications, one must be able to do it from the critical perspective while never ceasing to take into account the fact that Naked Diplomacy is strongly Eurocentric, in the sense of how the book’s author conceptualizes the purpose of diplomacy. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this thesis at length while evaluating the book’s main ideas with respect to the geopolitical position of the United Arab Emirates in general, and the country’s diplomatic philosophy, in particular. I will also argue that it is specifically the Realist paradigm of international relations that provides a proper methodological framework for discussing the book’s suggestions in conjunction with what can be deemed the foremost qualitative aspects of the UAE’s current diplomatic stand.
The main idea, promoted throughout the book’s entirety is that the very essence of diplomatic activities is determined to undergo a drastic transformation – all due to the revolutionary breakthroughs in the field of information technologies that have taken place through the last few decades. As Fletcher pointed out: “When the way the world communicates changes, so must its diplomats… Diplomats must adapt their business and their mindset to these extraordinary and revolutionary new digital tools”. The rationale behind this suggestion is apparent – the emergence of these technologies naturally results in increasing the volume and transparency of informational transactions that take place between ordinary citizens, as well as diplomats representing sovereign countries. According to the author, this makes the diplomatic paradigm much more transparent, which in turn will result in redefining the role of diplomats to that of PR managers/educators. This suggestion is reflective of Fletcher’s assumption that the newly emerged “digital realities” provide new discursive connotations to the very notion of “nationhood”.
As the author pointed out: “So how do nation states harness their magnetic power in the Digital Age? In my experience, it comes down to three ideas: having a strong national story; knowing how to tell it; and knowing how and when to mix the tools at your disposal”. It is understood, of course, that there are strongly defined Constructivist overtones to such Fletcher’s idea – the author positions himself as someone utterly critical of the Realist model of PR, based on the assumption that the essence of the fluctuating dynamics in the field of international politics is defined by the never-ending rivalry between different nation-states for the “room under the Sun”. This explains the author’s outlook on what should be the purpose of diplomacy in the future: “Diplomacy needs to reconnect to this more idealistic sense of collective diplomatic purpose: the promotion of global co-existence”. This particular idea resurfaces over and over throughout the book’s entirety.
Now, let us assess the applicability of the author’s point of view, in this respect, to the UAE. At an initial glance, what has been mentioned earlier does relate to the country’s current diplomatic standpoint. After all, being one of the world’s richest counties, the UAE can indeed afford the luxury of taking advantage of the latest information technologies as a part of strengthening its nationhood and expanding the range of its “soft power”. To illustrate that this is indeed the case, we can refer to the fact that one of the world’s most popular TV-channels Al-Jazeera is located in the UAE. Because of the channel’s reputation of progressiveness, there can be only a few doubts that it does help to strengthen the “soft power” appeal of the UAE – in full accordance with Fletcher’s outlook on what account for the actual origins of such a “power”. Moreover, Emirati diplomats have also proven themselves thoroughly committed to advancing a number of progressive causes (such as “human rights”, “democracy” and “tolerance”) while promoting the idea that the UAE’s main priority is to act as the agent of peace and prosperity in the Gulf Region (and even the whole world). For example, according to Khan: “UAE diplomatic endeavours in the region lessened human melancholies. It instrumented to bring sings of hope, life, comfort and dignity in the perturbed parts of the world ravaged from the unending political divide, inhumaneness of ethnicity, clan conflicts and the last but not the least, natural catastrophe” (“UAE Foreign Policy Achievements” 28). Thus, it appears that the earlier specified provision of Naked Diplomacy is fully consistent with the Emirati diplomatic philosophy.
Such an impression, however, is somewhat misrepresentative – the discursive subtleties of the very same provision presuppose it to be the case, whatever ironic it may sound. The reason for this is that the rise of information technologies results in increasing people’s awareness about the de facto geopolitical agenda of a particular country, which in turn makes it much harder for its diplomatic representatives to contribute towards strengthening this country’s “soft power”. For example, as it was mentioned earlier, Fletcher believes that for a particular country’s diplomatic efforts to prove effective, it must have a “strong national story”. In its turn, this story must have a universal appeal to people living in other parts of the world, because “It makes it easier to persuade others to support our agenda, on the basis that it is theirs too. It makes it simpler to persuade others to share our values, because those values work for them too”. It is indeed the case that he UAE enjoys the reputation of a modern state that provides its citizens with the high standards of living. However, because of the availability of the Internet, most people in the world are fully aware of certain things about the country’s nationhood that do not contribute very much towards promoting the Emirati “national story”.
At the same time, the newly emerged information technologies enable diplomats to be fully aware of the most recent developments in the world as they take place, and also to have a clue as to what accounts for the people’s reactive responses to the news-in-making. As Fletcher noted: “The tools of diplomacy are constantly evolving. Diplomats now compete over who has the most Twitter followers rather than where they are placed at a diplomatic dinner” (61). This redefines the role of a diplomat to an extent. As of today, this term refers to a person endowed with a holistic (all-encompassing) understanding of the casuistic relationship between causes and effects in the realm of international politics.
In this regard, Emirati diplomats are no different from those representing other countries. The reason for this is that the “digitalization” of diplomacy naturally results in increasing the speed and effectiveness of informational transactions within the Ministry, which in turn helps diplomats rather substantially within the context of how they go about addressing their professional responsibilities. Consequently, this presupposes the availability of many previously unexplored methods for strengthening the country’s “soft power”. Thus, there is indeed a certain rationale to assume that the technology-driven reconceptualization of diplomacy has a thoroughly objective value, and as such it will continue having an ever stronger effect on the essence of many diplomatic practices. It is understood, of course, that this creates a theoretical possibility for the Emirati diplomatic efforts to prove much more effective in the future.
It is understood, of course, that in light of the above-stated, there are certain challenges in the way of constructing the Emirati “national story” – something that undermines the effectiveness of the country’s diplomatic efforts to an extent. The continual advancement of the Internet-based communication technologies appears to be contributive, in this respect, because it helps people to realize that along with the UAE’s official diplomatic agenda, the country has its own geopolitical interests in the Gulf, which do not need to be excessively advertised. After all, most people in the West as well as in other parts of the world are taught to believe that there are no viable alternatives to democracy, as the way of conducting societal affairs within a country. Therefore, it is likely that they will not find the system of political governance in the UAE thoroughly compatible with the realities of the 21st century’s living. It is understood, of course, that this will in turn have a hampering effect of the establishment of the country’s “national story”. And yet, as it can be inferred from Naked Diplomacy, it is crucially important for just about any country to have “national story” as the actual source of this country’s “soft power”.
What has been said earlier helps to expose a much deeper reason as to why Fletcher’s idea about the would-be essence of what he refers to as the “digitized diplomacy” hardly applies to the diplomacy of the UAE – despite the fact that formally speaking, this idea does correlate perfectly well with the country’s official diplomatic positioning. For example, according to Fletcher: “Without doubt, many diplomats… have rarely accepted that their only role is to advance the naked interests of their states. They see themselves as representing the idea of peace”. In perfect accord with this suggestion, in his other article Khan states: “The UAE is a friend for all. Peace is the basis of its foreign policy. It sincerely contributes its positive role in international development efforts; and helping the poor” (“A Synthesis Study of UAE’s Foreign Policy” 21).
Apparently, the discursive premise of Fletcher’s book cannot be deemed as such that represents an undisputed truth-value – contrary to the author’s point of view in this respect, the information technology does not change the quintessential nature of diplomatic affairs, which has always been and will continue to be reflective of the most basic principle of the Realpolitik theory of IR: “War is the continuation of politics (diplomacy) by other means” (Polat 330). Therefore, when diplomats talk about “peace”, they mean “war” and vice versa. This simply cannot be otherwise, because diplomats work on behalf of their countries and as history shows, there are only three major purposes to just about any country’s existence: a) political/economic expansion, b) maintenance of a political stability within, c) destabilization/destruction of rivaling of countries. Ironically enough, despite its overall Constructivist sounding, Fletcher’s book contains a number clues (although unintentional) as to the fact that it is namely the Realist paradigm of IR that provides a sound context for assessing the significance of political/diplomatic developments.
To exemplify the legitimacy of this suggestion, we can refer to the author’s implicit admission that the US secret services are in full control of the Internet: “So who runs the Internet? Every three months a number of the Internet’s fourteen keyholders meet in the US. Each has a key to a safety deposit box and a smartcard, which together contain the code that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) uses to maintain Internet security”. Then, in one of the book’s concluding chapters Fletcher comes up with the question, “They (Islamic terrorists) aim to hold digital territory, not just physical territory. If ISIL claim a digital state, will people in Luton and Lagos be able to become members of that state from their bedrooms, paying taxes and pledging allegiance?”. Therefore, despite being rhetorical, this question can be answered with perfect clarity – yes, if the secret services favor such a would-be development. This once again implies that despite the ongoing “digitalization” of diplomacy, the concept’s foremost discursive tenets remain essentially realist. Therefore, when it comes to identifying the significance of a particular country’s diplomatic agenda, it is important to remember that whatever it may appear on the outside does not necessarily define this agenda’s intrinsic subtleties. This suggestion applies to the UAE as much as it does to just about any other country.
Thus, the UAE diplomacy can indeed use some suggestions contained in Fletcher’s book. In particular, the country must continue investing in the establishment of its “national story”, because it is only by appealing to other people across the world that the UAE will be able to ensure the integrity/effectiveness of its diplomatic efforts. There are a number of ways as to how this can be achieved. First, the country’s top-officials should consider deploying the latest technology as the mean of allowing people in foreign countries to learn more about the UAE. Second, the UAE diplomats should not only act on behalf of their country, but also on behalf of the cause of making this world a better place.
The second of the mentioned provisions has already been made a part of the Emirati diplomacy – the officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do apply much effort into trying to promote a number of the humanitarian initiatives, aimed to preserve peace and stability in the Gulf. Third, the country’s diplomats may never cease being utterly respectful of the Emirati traditions of governance while promoting the idea that the UAE’s economic successes, as well as the society’s sheer stability, have been predetermined by the full compatibility of the deployed governance-paradigm with the citizens’ actual needs. As Yom and Gause noted, “The stability of monarchies (in the Gulf) during the Arab Spring is explained by the fact that Arab kings, emirs, and sultans command natural authority thanks to Islamic values, tribal mores, and hereditary principles that resonate with their societies”. It is understood, of course, that this establishes the objective precondition for the UAE to continue enjoying political stability and economic prosperity – something that contributes towards constructing the “national story” more than anything else does.
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Nevertheless, as time goes on, the country’s diplomatic stance seems to become ever more flexible. For example, while continuing to refer to the UAE as one of America’s truest allies in the region, the Emirati top-officials now emphasize the importance of staying on good terms with Russia: “UAE’s increasing bilateral relations with Russia is the “paradigm shift” in regional and global context in terms of socio-economic integration, energy cooperation, security issues, conflict resolution of so many ongoing regional conflicts” (Khan, “A Synthesis Study of UAE’s Foreign Policy” 26). This shows that the Emirati diplomatic agenda is far from being “fixed” – as time goes on, it continues to be readjusted to correlate with the fluctuating dynamics in the field of IR. On one hand, this does support the book’s claim that there are some innovative qualities to “digitized” diplomacy. At the same time, however, it also shows that the UAE’s diplomatic stance is strongly realist – something that implies the unchanging nature of diplomacy, as the tool of ensuring the country’s geopolitical competitiveness. Thus, even though there is a provisional quality to some of the book’s ideas, Fletcher did succeed in outlining what will constitute the foremost diplomatic challenges and opportunities of the future. Because of it, Naked Diplomacy directly relates to the UAE’s current diplomatic positioning.
What has been mentioned earlier appears to correlate perfectly well with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good reason to believe that Fletcher’s book does provide many valuable insights into what causes the international diplomatic paradigm to undergo a conceptual transformation. The sheer plausibility of the book’s suggestions/claims is best illustrated, regarding the fact that they do appear universally applicable. This, of course, implies the book’s relevance to the UAE diplomacy, in general, and the country’s diplomatic reputation, in particular. As it was illustrated with respect to the diplomacy of the UAE, the author’s insistence that there are many objective reasons for diplomats to be willing to adopt a conscientious stance when it comes to strengthening their countries’ soft power, because of the continual digitalization of the diplomatic domain, does not appear very sound. The validity of this statement is particularly apparent nowadays when the US and Britain (the country that Fletcher used to represent while in Lebanon) continue to apply much effort into discrediting the very concept of international law, by endorsing the idea that it is fully permissible to bomb and invade just about any resource-rich independent country, after having accused its government of being unfriendly towards democracy, regardless of the actual pretext. And, without international law, there can be no diplomacy at least in the conventional sense of this word.
Davidson, Christopher. After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. Hurst & Co., 2012.
Khan, Mehmood-Ul-Hassan. “A Synthesis Study of UAE’s Foreign Policy.” Defense Journal, vol. 19, no. 5, 2015, pp. 20-31.
Polat, Necati. “Peace as War.” Alternatives, vol. 35, no. 4, 2010, pp. 317-345.
Yom, Sean, and Gregory Gause. “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchies Hang On.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 23, no. 4, 2012, pp. 74-88.