- Kristin Anabel EggelingKristin Anabel EggelingCopenhagen University
Digital diplomacy, virtual diplomacy, cyber diplomacy, and e-diplomacy are some of the most common English terms international relations (IR) scholars and practitioners use to describe diplomatic work online. The German foreign ministry, moreover, speaks of vernetzte Diplomatie (networked diplomacy), Danish diplomats call their approach “techplomacy,” and the Francophone world talks of diplomatie numérique (numbered diplomacy). Broadly, all these terms refer to the practices, procedures, and norms of doing diplomacy in digitalizing contexts. While the terms look similar, they are used to emphasize considerably different phenomena ranging from how diplomatic or foreign policy actors use digital devices to the stakes and future of diplomatic trust, constraint, or politeness in mediated communication and on social media platforms.
The main question that has been driving research on “digital diplomacy” has been, How and to what extent diplomacy is changing in the digital age? and a second, related question is whether this development is desirable or not. The debate about digital diplomacy is therefore part of broader debates about the relationship between technology and politics and a normative concern of how to manage it. In this broader frame, scholars ask questions such as What happens to diplomacy—a profession and practice that has traditionally been imagined as taking place in intimate face-to-face and closed-door meetings—when digital information and communication technologies enter the scene? How secluded and confidential is the diplomatic negotiation room in times of digital hyperconnectivity? and How autonomous are diplomatic representatives when they are permanently online? Since the 2000s, IR and diplomatic studies have seen a rise in scholarship on such and related questions. This literature is broad and diverse and includes authors who write from realist, constructivist, area-focused, practice theoretical, political communication, or big data perspectives, among others.
Given the fast pace of technological development in the 21st century, both the practice and study of “digital diplomacy” are moving fields. Any written account of them may therefore quickly become (out)dated. Over the course of writing this article (2022–2023), for example, the standing and future of the main digital platform used for international diplomatic communication, Twitter, is tumbling into uncertainty. But there are, nonetheless, real insights to report. One concerns the concept's normative career. While initially embraced as a harbinger of more transparency and inclusion, for example, in the early moments of the Arab Spring, the digitalization of diplomacy has over time attracted more critical commentary, for example, the polarizing tweets of former U.S. president Donald Trump. A second insight speaks to the stakes of digital diplomacy and the extent to which it has become impossible to speak of a diplomacy that is non-digital. This is reflected in scholarship that argues that digitalization’s impact on diplomacy reaches much deeper than public communication or e-services and has seeped into how basic diplomatic tasks, including negotiations, reporting, and information sharing, are entangled with digital tools and services. A third insight concerns the future of the diplomatic profession itself. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that if it must, diplomacy can continue in digital formats. It has also shown that digitalization is not an external challenge that diplomats can be trained to competently handle but a condition of modern life that is becoming inseparable from the conduct of human and political affairs, including diplomacy.