Interesting story in the Times magazine this weekend: Digital Diplomacy.
It got me thinking that just 10-15 years ago the State Department was at the absolute bottom of rankings in use of technology. The main State HQ in Washington and the embassies around the world still depended on WANG work stations as late as 1996 when the rest of the government was moving to PCs.
Shortly after that, State was focusing on moving some of its records to an electronic system accessed using only GOPHER while the rest of the world was uploading databases using FTP and linking to it with Mozilla (and later Navigator and Internet Explorer).
Eventually State caught on and is now using new technology to carry out its mandate. Even with the technology in place, the problem still remains with the suits who don’t get this Internet thing. (They get e-mail, but Twitter? For most, not really. And the bureaucratic mindset still doesn’t get it.)
To be sure that is changing. But the bureaucracy is tied to a paper and ink mentality. Just taking a look at many of the websites or Tweets offered by some of the embassies shows that the folks in charge of those postings see the Internet only as a means of transmitting press releases instead of actually engaging the public in the US or in the host countries.
The strength of new technology at the State Department is focused on the Public Diplomacy section and Consular Affairs. And that is how it should be. After all these are the two sections of State that have the most contact with the general public.
The U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia does get it. According to a report back in April, the embassy has 128,000 “friends” for its Facebook page. And this is out of 161,000 “friends” for ALL U.S. embassies.
Making diplomacy less “pinned-striped cookie pushers” and more relevant to the American people can only help. this means using technology to engage people in a discussion about foreign affairs instead of just pushing information out. The technology allows American diplomats to establish a dialogue with the American people and the people of host countries more easily but only if the diplomats understand how to use it. (And so we come back to Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, the focus of the NYT article.)
And let’s face it, the problem of demystifying diplomacy and international relations is not limited to the diplomatic corps. The news media also play an important role.
A role they often fail to fulfill.
Until the US media and diplomatic corps get the point that domestic and international issues are linked, there will be less understand and limited support for our international activities. And more confusion about what is going on in the world.