The modern digital generation has a lot more opportunities than any of the previous ones in terms of world investigation and global coordination. Since 2000, the world has been changed more by computer programmers and hackers than by any government or terroristic group whatsoever. The most powerful weapon that we can now resort to is a computer: New technologies have already revolutionized a number of developing countries allowing them to interact with more advanced nations and learn from their experience. However, on the other hand, technology also provided plenty of dangerous opportunities, including the ability to mobilize and terrorize, which can be regulated only with the help of diplomacy. This means that the role and the power of diplomats in the digital age become unprecedented.
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Tom Fletcher, a professor of International Relations, teaching foreign policy and global citizenship, thoroughly explores the opportunities and challenges faced by diplomats in his book Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age. Fletcher used to work as a British Ambassador to Lebanon (the youngest to be appointed to this position) and also was a policy adviser to three British Prime Ministers–this experience gave him an opportunity to shape his unique and progressive vision of modern diplomacy.
In his book, Fletcher argues that contemporary diplomats must step away from unidirectional models of communication between them and citizens and pay more attention to immediate engagement through social media as new opportunities provided by the digital age should not be wasted. He investigates geopolitical impact of the innovative approaches in diplomacy and provides his understanding of a digital experience of diplomats in the nearest future as compared to their traditional professional life. Fletcher predicts that diplomacy will become more efficient and will have to operate with such huge bulks of data as never before. That creates a necessity for diplomats to understand the new requirements and conditions if they do not want to fall behind the times.
The review at hand will address the major points of Fletcher’s book and attempt to relate them to the UAE diplomacy and foreign policy in order to find out what aspects indicated by Fletcher can be useful for the country.
Naked Diplomacy and Its Connection to the UAE
As it has already been mentioned, Tom Fletcher was an ambassador to Lebanon, where he blogged and tweeted his ideas and observations about the situation in Beirut, which won him an approval of the younger generation of the Lebanese. The impact of his valedictory letter was enormous: The letter quickly went viral, which gave the author the idea to create a book on diplomacy.
The book has three major parts: The first one provides a historical overview of diplomacy from ancient times up till now (Fletcher starts as far back as the third century, telling a story of Shen Weigin, an adviser to the Chinese emperor, who was cut into pieces for his failure). Fletcher considers the Congress of Vienna, which took place in 1815, the highest point of European diplomacy since it provided peace to Europe and enabled the development of all great empires, including Britain. Moreover, it resulted in the empowerment of diplomacy as such: The diplomatic corps of Great Britain increased from three up to 100 people during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Nevertheless, this has led to World War I followed by World War II, in which diplomats failed to find compromise on a variety of issues. The idea is that the number is not always the quality as well as the importance of a compromise is the key lesson that can be learnt from the European experience by the UAE. Since the country does not want to get involved in armed conflicts, it should promote cooperation with neighbors, mutual respect, understanding, and negotiations, which are necessary for maintenance of internal peace.
Furthermore, the European experience proves that non-interference with home affairs (alongside with strategic partnership) is the key component of diplomatic success. That is why the UAE must maintain relations with all countries in economic, financial, political, cultural, scientific, and other spheres, keeping them away from the country’s internal affairs at the same time. The trickiest question is how to find where the boundary is: In some cases, efforts to help other countries resolve their inner problems and armed conflicts may be regarded as violent interference and lead to the failure of a peacekeeping mission. World War I is particularly demonstrative in this aspect. In order not to repeat this, the UAE must put efforts to preserve this delicate balance between cooperation and intrusion.
The second part of the book investigates the evolving role of diplomacy and diplomats with the appearance of new technologies, among which the Internet is the key since it fostered the formation of the global market as we know it today. Fletcher compares the traditional understanding of the profession with the modern one: In old days, all diplomats belonged to a small elite circle educated by prestigious universities; however, their qualification was reduced to writing elegant speeches addressed to other representatives of the upper-class.
Everything changed drastically with globalization and computer technologies. Of course, it must be admitted that the profession is still regarded as highly prestigious and requires profound education. Yet, the qualifications of a good diplomat now go far beyond his eloquence. Modern specialists in the field have to deal with a much larger audience than their predecessors. The digital age gives them all the necessary tools to address the global community and stay in the front line in all decisive situations.
The range of diplomatic responsibilities has become wider: Diplomats are now expected to promote their countries’ interests not only in politics but also in economics, culture, education, science, and all other aspects. They have to deal with people of all cultural and religious backgrounds. This makes their work particularly important and challenging at the same time. Fletcher stresses the idea that accelerating changes and the unceasing development of technologies result in transparency that may play a bad trick to us (as the jihadi recruiters have already proven). Still, he believes that diplomats are those who can prevent the situation, in which our progress may backfire. They now have the power to influence not only elite circles but the community as a whole. Fletcher argues that even a war could be avoided if diplomats manage to use the advantages provided by technological advances.
These ideas of the author are especially applicable to the case of the UAE since digital tools should be promoted there to foster better communication with the general public. Moreover, the role of social media is great indeed in documenting social events and reporting them internationally for other countries to be aware when assistance is needed. The UAE still rates among the states that are criticized for heavy censorship, blocking access to a variety of important web sources, and hindering the influx of information into the country.
This makes a lot of people believe that Islam is incompatible with democracy and modern diplomacy as it prevents the country from entering the digital age. Despite the fact that all citizens are guaranteed the right to receive and share information through all possible media as well as the freedom of expression, in practice, surveillance technologies are in place in order to track the country’s online activity, which abuses privacy. It especially concerns political and social activists, defenders of human rights, and other potentially hazardous figures.
Despite the fact that Internet access has seen a dramatic increase in the region and the society is now highly engaged in using social media platforms, the authorities still have to do a lot to improve e-government applications in order to craft their image online and communicate with the rest of the world. The UAE has already done much in this direction; however, the country has not yet managed to portray itself as forward-looking, progressive, and tech-savvy since not all the barriers to digital thinking have been removed.
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What the UAE failed to achieve is bringing its government closer to citizens, which is already quite common in democratic societies. Although political entities in the UAE try to enable citizen participation through liking, commenting, and sharing posts of politicians, most people are still afraid of consequences. The regime allows making political matters more transparent but at the same time the extent of digital diplomacy effort is insufficient to speak about freedom of online expression. That is why the arguments cited by Fletcher in support of this freedom are valuable for the authorities to consider.
Fletcher emphasizes that i-diplomacy should not be perceived as a self-directed power: It must be controlled in order to ensure the security and prosperity of the nation; otherwise, the harm of it can outweigh its benefits. The major challenge that the ambassador faces is how to add value to the information to the state government and to make this information credible and more popular than the sources discrediting the authorities. While the government can modulate the public opinion, it can also fall a victim of Internet technologies.
Fletcher’s warning in this aspect is particularly valuable for the UAE as the country has recently launched the Public Diplomacy and Government Communication Forum (PDGCF) under the initiative of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai with the purpose to help governmental bodies to investigate how modern communication strategies and tools can be implemented to improve national and global interaction of the government members with the public. The forum has been created with the assistance of communication consultants in such a way that it allows discussing the most important trends not only for high-level diplomats but also for a broader audience.
Government entities foster discussions in order to contribute to the development of public diplomacy and assess the effectiveness of their work and proposed programs. Although it really has a huge potential as a highly innovative platform for varied disputes, seminars, workshops, and other forms of generating and sharing ideas, it also presents a threat that the government’s messages communicated via digital channels can be received by an unintended audience and used against the nation. Thus, the UAE should be particularly careful about the protection of the forum as, according to Fletcher, in the age of globalization, computer hackers get an unlimited power and can seize control by getting access to important databases.
Fletcher not merely praises social platforms–he considers social media as a strategic framework that has a power to affect status quo by providing a way to debate global problems in a meaningful and representative fashion. Although his ideas sound trustworthy and attractive, not all of them are constructive, especially for such countries as the UAE.
For instance, the author praises his efforts to encourage the population of the countries where he served to learn English: This was meant to serve a perfect example of using Internet diplomacy. It would be wrong to say that this intention is destructive; yet, it is still a clear manifestation of cultural imperialism and contradicts his idea of two-way communication. If any strategic moves like that was implemented in the UAE, it would create a lot of public unrest and may even lead to the uprising of nationalism as people would feel that they may lose their cultural identity while trying to imitate the Western lifestyle and language.
The most revolutionary idea of the book is that policy planning will be soon determined by the impact of big data: Diplomats will be able to predict conflicts, assess trends, and even modulate policies under the influence of public opinion. Yet, in the UAE as well as in other non-democratic countries, such an approach to diplomacy is too much open and liberal: This would only aggravate state surveillance and violate citizens’ privacy. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the government would ever decide to step down to people for such an ‘intimate’ discussion of its affairs. In this case, social media would not help foster greater trust and accountability: On the contrary, one-sided diplomacy is likely to get reinforced. The government of the UAE should find a more moderate application of big data. In its extreme forms, it will result in diplomacy characterized by even higher elitism, disconnectedness, and inefficiency.
The third, concluding part of the book is devoted to three major challenges that a diplomat will have to meet in the new digital age: 1) how and when one country must interfere with the internal affairs of another (the topic that was touched upon in the first part) 2) how international institutions such as the United Nations must be organized to able to influence the development of such conflicts; 3) what measures must be taken in order to reduce global inequality that would not produce any negative impact on countries’ domestic matters.
However, for the developing world, to which the UAE still belongs, a much more pressing issue is how to ensure stability, avoiding the outcome of failed states that generate millions of refugees who flee from them to developed countries. Fletcher claims that there is no global problem today that could be resolved by building walls; on the contrary, the digital world must become more and more open. Yet, for the UAE, it would be better to keep away from some of its neighbors in order to ensure inner stability and avoid meddling into and armed conflict.
Fletcher provides his idea of the ambassador of the future in order to emphasize what qualities will be required to deal with all hazards of globalization. This professional should promote human rights, have perfect leadership qualities, possess excellent communication skills, be an entrepreneur and a social activist, and a career diplomat, and struggle against injustices, inequality, and conflicts. The weakest point in his arguments is that speaking about “us”, he refers exclusively to diplomats, which means that the general public (that he himself defines as a decisive force of the diplomacy of the future) is excluded.
Only the last sections of the book addresses everybody urging us to reconsider our place and role in the society, become brave, creative, engaged, active, and connected. This part of the book is very important for the UAE to consider: Fletcher finally states that diplomacy is such a big issue that it cannot be left to diplomats exclusively. Citizen diplomats are desperately needed in the county where the power of the state is overwhelming. More public involvement would be only beneficial both for the decision-making system and for the reinforcement of the national spirit.
Being the first i-diplomat in Lebanon and having a rich experience of living in the Lebanese society, Fletcher managed to create a very useful book that encompasses all modern strategies to appeal to the public including mass media, blogging, social networks, etc. He also insists that the personality of the author matters a lot in determining how successfully he can manage public affairs. The author promotes personal connection of governmental bodies with people, which is especially significant for such countries as the UAE, where the power distance is great indeed and the religion determines politics in many aspects.
The author singles out all the fundamental constituents of diplomacy: establishing connection both nationally and internationally and promoting a sense of authenticity of the nation. It is particularly valuable that the author spent a lot of time putting his own recommendations in practice when he was in Lebanon and successfully managed to establish the connection between the two countries. Therefore, Fletcher became the tool of public diplomacy and did more to struggle against Lebanon’s marginalization than any official in the country.
Despite the fact that he is more concentrated on outlining benefits provided to diplomacy by the digital age, he also warns the government about threats that globalization and the Internet might pose to national stability. Terrorist became much more powerful with the appearance of the global network and hypothetically and experienced hacker can acquire a lot of power due to his/her skills. Although innovation and creativity are not the key goals to pursue, we should not abandon the offline for the sake of the online since the Internet still lacks decision-making power and gives a lot of superfluous information alongside with necessary data.
The book is applicable to the UAE experience as it promotes the merger of advanced technologies with traditional diplomatic practice. Strategies to achieve this are now needed to bridge the gap with the diplomacy of the developed world. Focusing purely on domestic issues is a mistake that many developing countries commit. Preserving a balance is crucial in this case: The country should not build a wall but at the same time must take care not to be too open.