Has Canada Finally Discovered Digital Diplomacy?

John Baird’s speech embracing digital diplomacy signals a big step forward for Canada’s foreign ministry, says Roland Paris.

By: /
7 February, 2014
Roland Paris
By: Roland Paris
Director, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa

After years of sitting on the sidelines, Canada finally seems to be taking social media seriously as tool of diplomacy. Foreign Minister John Baird delivered a speech on Friday – appropriately in Silicon Valley, the world’s capital of technological innovation – embracing digital diplomacy in stronger terms than ever before. “The closed world of démarches, summits, and diplomatic dinners,” he said, “is no longer sufficient to project our values and interests.”

In a report last year, I documented how far Canada had fallen behind its closest allies in the use of social media tools. The United States and Britain recognized the importance of digital diplomacy years ago, encouraging their ambassadors and missions to engage directly through social media with the public and policy leaders of other countries.

Crucially, both the Americans and British understood that this meant giving individual diplomats greater freedom to communicate – and that the fluidity and informality of social media increased the risks of miscommunication and mistakes. The United States and U.K. accepted these risks as the price of getting their voices heard in new media, which are increasingly shaping and driving events.

By contrast, until recently, Canada’s foreign ministry used its relatively small number of social media channels to primarily broadcast press releases, not to engage in real-time exchanges that are the currency of new media.

Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD) now uses social media as a virtual “listening post” to analyze political patterns in foreign societies and movements. In addition, it partnered with the Munk School at the University of Toronto to create the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which uses social media technology to circumvent Iranian government censorship, thus permitting Iranians, both inside and outside Iran, to freely communicate with each other.  Although some questioned whether such an initiative belonged at a university—and wondered if the Munk School had allowed itself to become a de facto instrument of the government’s Iran-obsessed foreign policy—the initiative nevertheless represented a creative use of digital tools to promote the maintenance of an open Internet.

What was still missing in the Canadian approach, however, was the recognition that digital diplomacy involves, at its core, a willingness to engage in two-way communications between government officials and interlocutors of various types. This requires, in turn, both a social media presence (i.e., accounts with followers) and a policy framework allowing diplomats to communicate in the relatively informal and rapid style of these media.

In his speech today, John Baird suggested that Canada is belatedly getting into the digital diplomacy game. He told his audience that diplomacy may never live up to the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things,” but that in the “environment of instant communication and social media, we do have to move faster and not be afraid to try new things or to make mistakes.” Further, Baird’s office reports that in the last six months, the foreign ministry has launched 60 new accounts on Twitter and another 50 on Facebook.  Clearly, the push is on.

But whether the Harper government will really “not be afraid…to make mistakes” in digital diplomacy remains to be seen. Relations between Canada’s foreign service and the minister’s office have been strained for years. Neither side fully trusts, respects, or even understands the other. In this climate, Baird’s avowed willingness to let Canadian diplomats take chances and make mistakes will need to be demonstrated, not just stated.

Nor is it clear that the youthful apparatchiks in the Prime Minister’s Office who control the government’s communications will look kindly on such experiments, regardless of what Baird might want in his department.

Even more fundamentally, new public diplomacy strategies do nothing to address the principal deficiency of Conservative foreign policy: the fact that the Harper government has burned more bridges than it has built over the past eight years.  A country in Canada’s position – of middling size, yet open and vulnerable to global forces – must cultivate constructive relationships with a broad array of actors and deftly leverage these relationships–including in multilateral institutions – if it hopes to shape the course of events in its favour. Shouting from the sidelines does nothing but make our partners and adversaries, alike, want to shut out the noise.

In spite of all this, Baird deserves credit for finally acknowledging that a genuine embrace of digital diplomacy is necessary – and that it involves a greater acceptance of risk-taking from his own control-freak government. Of course, the meat and potatoes of diplomacy will always be private state-to-state communications. However, unless our diplomats are permitted to engage with governmental and non-governmental interlocutors in real-time, Canada will remain on the margins of the biggest technological revolution to hit the practice of public diplomacy in a generation.

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