Stairs: Are diplomats needed in the digital age?

By: /
17 October, 2011
By: Denis Stairs
Professor Emeritus, Faculty Fellow, Centre of Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University

Diplomats are not only needed in the digital age, but are needed more than ever.  The argument that they are less useful than before rests mainly on the assumption that, since digital technology has made information easily accessible almost everywhere, almost anyone can get it – and understand it, too.  This proposition has considerable appeal in a variety of quarters. Politicians who, for political, ideological  or other reasons, distrust diplomats as intermediaries like it because it supports the case for dispensing with them (or at least for putting them in their place). Rival departments of government may like it because it can buttress their argument for pushing DFAIT – often a source of complications and delays – aside. NGOs and other attentive publics may think well of it because they are persuaded that downgrading the role of diplomats will open up more room for their own representatives to exercise influence. And so on.

But the reality is that the escalation in the volume of available ‘information’, in the speed with which it flows, and in the number and variety of players who can both consume and create it has made expert interpretation, analysis, and distillation essential if those who must make foreign policy decisions are to do their job in properly considered fashion. Digital media (and other media, too) are better at distributing factoids and opinions than at providing broadly informed analysis, and their perspective is not the perspective of those who must manage affairs of state and make the trade-offs among the available policy options. The digital world distributes wheat, to be sure, but much of it is concealed in piles of chaff. In the conduct of foreign affairs, the diplomat – the experienced “Johnny on the spot” – is the one best positioned in the field to perform the task of separating the two.

Diplomats perform a variety of functions. Intelligence analysis informed by an understanding of the interests and policy agendas of those who must govern at home is among the most important. In its absence, political leaders will be prone to acting from ignorance, and with much greater risk of falling victim to an ill-founded assumption or a thoughtless prejudice. 

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