With the rapid development of technologies, coupled with contemporary tendencies to globalization, the digital age provides more political, economical, cultural, scientific, and other opportunities to people who never before could enjoy so many freedoms and access to sources of information. However, the Internet has acquired so much power and influence in all aspects of political relations, in particular, that no single government can stand against it.
It has evolved into a hazardous and influential tool that can be used both for constructive and destructive purposes. Therefore, in order to bring the situation under control, tough regulation is required, which implies that the role and importance of diplomats in the age of technological processes are becoming increasingly significant for ensuring the peaceful cooperation of nations.
This is exactly the issue Tom Fletcher, a professor of International Relations and a former Ambassador of the UK to Lebanon, investigates in his book, Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age. The author has served as a policy adviser to three British Prime Ministers and has rich experience as a modern diplomat operating under various conditions, in different countries. His book is an attempt to share his understanding of diplomacy and provide a critical estimation.
Fletcher criticizes a one-sided approach, and argues that the future of diplomatic interaction is in the close contact with large audiences that would enable the exchanging of opinions and data via direct communication, and progressive Internet means, provided by the digital age. Fletcher believes that this innovative vision of diplomacy is going to revolutionize both the domestic and international policy of all countries, regardless of their stage of development (Sandre 28-41).
Since the methods and tools that he discusses can be implemented in any country, the current paper will discuss the key points of Fletcher’s book in relation to the UAE. It will explore how the new requirements that the digital age sets can be met by the UAE government, as well as what aspects of his work are not applicable to the conditions in which the UAE is currently developing.
During his service in Beirut, Tom Fletcher thoroughly documented everything that happened to him in Twitter and blogs. His genuine interest in people and their problems quickly won him recognition from the general public, especially the youth. Rapidly gaining popularity, through his personality and ideas, he decided to write a book that would sum up his vision of modern diplomacy and the way it should be implemented to establish long-lasting relationships with other countries (Sandre 33).
The book has become popular, not only among diplomats, but also in other non-political circles. It is written in vivid, metaphorical language and provides a profound explanation of diplomacy, comprehensible even to a layman. The first part of it is devoted to the history of the art of diplomacy since ancient times through to the present day. Fletcher analyzes various diplomatic events and estimates the role and the power of the diplomat in different epochs and circumstances. The peak of diplomacy, according to him, was the Congress of Vienna (1815), at which diplomats managed to negotiate long-lasting peace for the whole continent.
As a result, countries were open to technological development, which led to an industrial revolution. On the other hand, the number of diplomats increased significantly. As a subsequent result of this, they failed to perform their duties during the two World Wars as no one was willing to concede (Fletcher 60-78). This was a good lesson for European diplomacy, having to overcome the crises to continue performing its mission. The policy of isolation turned out to be fruitless. The states’ governments had to admit that it would have been much more reasonable to invest in mutual support and cooperation with neighbors rather than embarking on armed conflict.
This lesson is directly applicable to the experience of the UAE: the country is currently promoting the so-called non-interference policy, preventing anyone to meddle in its domestic issues. However, at the same time, the UAE is striving to establish regional and international networks that would connect the country with other states, and already has connections with 189 countries. Thus, it is essential for the country’s officials to understand where and how each of the two policies must be implemented to avoid both extremes: inadequate isolation and intrusion into other states’ affairs.
According to Fletcher, it is rather hard to estimate which of a diplomat’s actions could be interpreted as a desire to render assistance and which will be considered as an attempt to interfere. If the UAE wishes to serve as an example of temperance and balance, it should pay more attention to its diplomatic strategies and relations with neighbors, as any seemingly insignificant thing has a potential to provoke a conflict.
The historical overview of diplomacy is, at times, a little overbearing and lengthy. The reader already starts to question the author’s originality of approach as there is nothing particularly new in this part of the book except the author’s style, which is rather ironic and personal. Passing on to the second part, the reader understands what the purpose of this bulky ‘introduction’ actually was. Fletcher needed a background against which he could draw a picture of contemporary diplomacy.
The contrast becomes especially striking with the emergence of information technologies. According to Fletcher, the Internet managed to revolutionize the entire diplomacy field and has led to the formation of the international arena, characterized by close interactions among the participants, as well as their interdependence. In addition, the profession itself has undergone considerable changes and a re-estimation of values.
Fletcher claims that, despite the fact that diplomats still have an elite education and typically come from the upper classes of society, the demands on their qualifications and practical skills have grown dramatically (Fletcher 182). The major reason for this is the requirements set by the digital age. The problem is that contemporary diplomats have to communicate, not only with representatives of governments, but also with a wider audience, consisting of people who are not directly involved in politics.
Computer technologies have made it an obligatory aspect of their professional activity. The idea is that diplomats of today not only have to solve problems but also must account for their actions before a global audience. They are under the unceasing scrutiny of the international community that tracks all their actions and estimates them.
Moreover, they also have to deal with a much wider range of responsibilities; a modern diplomat must be able to understand his country’s position in every aspect, not only in politics. Culture, science, education, and other spheres of activities are also now within their competence. Due to globalization, they have to establish relations with both directly neighboring countries, as well as the wider global community. This task is complicated by the fact that even strategic allies can belong to drastically different backgrounds and have differing systems of cultural and religious values and beliefs.
Therefore, the diplomat must demonstrate his competence in intercultural communication, both directly and via social platforms. This is crucial for the UAE as the country is currently criticized for being too much influenced by Islam in its domestic and foreign policy. The religion is often perceived as inflexible, aggressive, and intolerant. This complicates the task of diplomats who have to do their best to eliminate bias on the topic, and prove that the country’s policies are unprejudiced and grounded in common sense, and not blind fanaticism. The UAE must pay more attention to the increased transparency of contemporary diplomacy, to which Fletcher draws the reader’s attention, since the country’s image is now no less influential than its real actions. Advantages provided by the progress must be used to shape public opinion.
In Islamic countries, public unrest is a common phenomenon. Thus, diplomacy should be particularly flexible and responsive to any changes in attitudes. Diplomats must use all the benefits provided by the digital age in order to prevent armed conflicts. The UAE is among the countries that need to foster better communication with its wider audience as the power distance there is great. Despite having a negative reputation of the country, that has heavy censorship and blocks access to a variety of Internet sites, the UAE can still restore it by reporting political and social events internationally and promoting the image of a progressive, forward-thinking state. It is now crucial to make other countries see that Islam does not prevent the UAE from successful adoption and implementation of digital age diplomacy.
Furthermore, Fletcher promotes an unbiased approach to diplomacy and the freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the age of global communication. In the case of the UAE, the right to share information and to express your ideas freely is violated through the implementation of surveillance tools that track the online activity of citizens. Society is currently using all modern online platforms but mostly for private communication.
There are not many people who have eliminated barriers to digital thinking and can express their opinion on state policies freely, without being afraid of consequences. Like the rest of the world, the UAE citizens read, like, and share posts about their politicians. However, despite the increased transparency, the modern diplomacy effort is not sufficient to be able to conclude that the country has truly entered the age of digital diplomacy.
Although Fletcher generally supports the new ways of diplomacy, he still warns that we should prevent it from running wild. The success of a nation largely depends on its ability to suppress negative consequences of the influence of the Internet. The problem is that it provides an unlimited number of opinions, including negative ones. This means that the government has to deal with a difficult choice; whether to block users and create an image of an authoritative state or to promote its own position so that it wins more approval than criticism. The second approach to the problem would reduce the chances of falling victim to unregulated public opinion.
However, despite the fact that most of Fletcher’s ideas are applicable to the UAE, some of them do not suit non-democratic countries. The problem is that the diplomacy that he describes is too open. The communication strategies Fletcher offers are based on equality and independence, which are not the major values promoted by the government of the UAE. For the UAE government, being too open and democratic would mean to subject itself to the risk of losing authority. In addition, there is always a risk that the messages translated via online channels can be captured by an adverse party. The country is situated in a region where excessive openness to contacts may cause more harm, especially with a number of neighbors having the potential to initiate armed conflict.
One of the most controversial ideas of the book is the idea about the application of big data in diplomacy. Fletcher argues that soon diplomats will have an opportunity to prevent crises, predict future political and economic trends, and initiate policies in accordance with public opinion. Again, this vision of diplomacy is utopian for the UAE. If the authorities allowed a system of free opinion sharing on political topics, it would only aggravate the situation with censorship and surveillance. This would ruin the trust of the public and mar the government’s reputation. Unidirectional diplomacy would regain its position.
The third, final, part of Fletcher’s book is devoted to three main challenges that a diplomat will have to deal with in the new digital age (Fletcher 213-229):
- When one state should interfere with the domestic affairs of another and how it should be done;
- How international institutions need to be organized and what guidelines must be followed to influence the development of conflicts within one country or between several countries;
- The measures needed to reduce inequality that would not produce any negative impact on countries’ internal affairs.
Fletcher also shares his understanding of the ambassador of the future in order to single out some competences and skills that will be required to successfully deal with problems of globalization. According to him, the diplomat of the future must be a strong champion of human rights, a good leader, demonstrate perfect knowledge of intercultural communication, be an active member of society, and a career professional. The last chapter of the book encourages the reader to become creative, involved, active, and connected. This appeal is very much relevant to the case of the UAE. The country needs social activists to balance the dominance of the state and increase national self-confidence.
Fletcher wrote a book that covers all existing ways to appeal to the public, including mass media, blogging, social platforms, etc. The author’s preference is with personal connection between the authorities and citizens. In his opinion, the major components of diplomacy are connection to the population and other countries, and authenticity of the nation.
The author not only presents benefits of digital age diplomacy but also warns governments about its potential threats. Some of his recommendations are applicable to the experience of the UAE, as they provide the country with a strategy to unite its traditional approach to diplomacy with the modern one, which would allow it to preserve a balance.
However, due to its geopolitical location, the UAE should be particularly attentive to the excessive openness that Internet diplomacy provides; the government must be on the alert for any threats of terrorist or hacker attacks, as well as general public unrest, even if it results from a seemingly innocent political forum discussion.
Fletcher, Tom. Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age. HarperCollins UK, 2016.
Sandre, Andreas. Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.