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The Impact of Technology on Foreign Affairs: Five Challenges

Via Otrams

Via Otrams

By Artur Kluz and Mikolaj Firlej

A currently debated topic is the impact of unprecedented advancements in breakthrough technologies on various areas of public policy. Optimists praise how technology changes our lives through enhanced communication, empowering individuals, raising awareness and spreading democracy throughout the world. Pessimists stress the repercussions of technological advancements: tottering digital security, and the rise of inequality—especially in countries exposed to progressive technologies.

In the areas of foreign policy and diplomacy, technology has brought about a tremendous amount of change. As Hillary Clinton once said during her tenure as Secretary of State: “Just as the internet has changed virtually every aspect of how people worldwide live, learn, consume and communicate, connection technologies are changing the strategic context for diplomacy in the 21st century.”

This article aims at presenting the most pressing challenges that stem from the relationship between advancing technologies and foreign affairs. In our point of view, the impact of breakthrough technologies on foreign affairs can be seen through accelerating transformation in five significant areas: security, institutions, participation, dialogue and leadership.

Security: Geopolitics online

The widely proclaimed shift from state-centric politics to non-governmental identities described as “shadowy networks of individuals” was first addressed openly by U.S. President George Bush in his 2002 National Security Strategy. It is true to some extent, that traditional underlying influences of state power are no longer the dominant catalysts at play. Indeed, the evolution of technology has empowered individuals and created new commanding media capable of challenging existing national supremacy, while directing a new world order. Although powerful-by-technology individuals play an important role, international relations are still mostly dependent on geographical variables and interests.

In the Information Age it is certain that the ever-increasing amount of global data and online storage of valuable information will bring incommensurable and occasionally conflicting value systems into ever closer contact. The proximity of country and entity online systems is increasingly hazardous.

In this era of fast information transfer, along with the rapid development of new-generation technologies, international relations among states are conflicting more so than a decade ago. However, states are much weaker and less capable of mitigating arising challenges in controlling security, popular discontent and cultural fragmentation.

The recent U.S.-China Summit on cybersecurity exposed all of the aforementioned problems. Tensions between these two countries have concerned recent cyberattacks, mainly against U.S. government computers. Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping have agreed that their governments refrain from online theft of intellectual property for commercial gain, but Obama emphasized that he might still impose sanctions if the Chinese continue to sponsor cyber-intrusions.

The Summit showed, however, that technology can bring concurring values or interests into constant confrontation without clear and sufficient evidence of particular guilt and responsibility. It also presented how individuals like Edward Snowden—empowered by technology—can bring another dimension to state relations. The notorious whistleblower overshadowed evidence of the last U.S. cyber-espionage attack against China before the Summit and thus changed the negotiating position of the U.S. government.

Institutions: Redefining actions by institutions and alliances

International organizations (IOs) and alliances such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) benefit hugely from data-driven technologies enabling them to deliver better service and exchange large volumes of information in real time. One may ask though, whether current IOs and alliances are prepared to tackle complex threats such as financial, development, online security and climate change challenges?

There is a growing concern that IOs founded after WWII, such as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund, and NATO are out-of-date, stagnant and with ineffective decision-making processes to handle arising challenges. One cannot deal with today’s war-mongering neurotics with passive and verbose institutions, only “considering sanctions” as a means of mitigation.

Many IOs are increasingly losing their ability to govern and implement necessary measures to oversee the unregulated realms that technology has created. As recently as 2 October 2015, Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister of India, criticized the UN for failing effectively to address new challenges to international peace and security.

In her view, the UN needs reform, stressing the importance of new, more transparent working methods and claiming the need for permanent membership by African and Latin American countries: “How can we have a Security Council in 2015 which still reflects the geo-political architecture of 1945?” reflected Swaraj. This recent call for action is only one example of growing concern over the condition of the UN in expecting that real change will come sooner or later. 

Participation : Social media and online platforms drive profound change in foreign policies

Although many observers note how the social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter change global connectivity, the reality is that new technologies do not necessarily create democratic evolution online. Three major obstacles are identified.

First of all, new technologies empower individuals but can breed clusters of extremism, abuse, xenophobia and violence expressed on a number of online media and channels. One recent example is the enormous number of fake and distorted images of refugees with mocking memes that have circulated online as a kind of response to the widely proclaimed action of welcoming refugees (#welcomerefugees).

Secondly, authoritarians including countries and separate individualist entities benefit from technology. For instance, in Syria the internet is another weapon of war. The control of connections and website content gives the government great power during the ongoing conflict. Authoritarian governments are able to control technologies and use them to undermine social activism, thus gaining new forms of control and power.

Thirdly, the ineffective implementation of technology can be both a harmful and costly endeavor. It was the case of in the U.S., where even supporters of so-called “Obamacare” described the platform as a faulty and extremely overpriced governmental tech launch. Indeed, governments and institutions often grapple with poorly developed and protected platforms that cause more challenges than benefits.

The risks of both adapting and managing new technologies are as profound as not evolving to technological advancements. A number of countries have experienced major repercussions from either not adapting or not adequately managing technological evolution in recent times. With five billion more people set to join the digital world, these challenges shall remain on political and global agendas for years to come.

Dialogue: The art of diplomacy and international policy is not vanishing but being reinvented

Breakthrough technologies enable instant contact and thus create ease in managing diplomacy and organizing political dialogue. Referring back to traditional 18th or 19th century diplomacy, formal representatives had to wait for weeks or even months to receive relevant instructions and courses of action. As such, the points on agendas covered only the most important items needing to be addressed.

Nowadays, new technological channels have replaced outdated forms of communication. Officials have continuous access to instantaneous and live networks empowering not only organizational dialogue, but providing international communications enhancing responsiveness, action and regulation. That being said, currently most ambassadors and politicians use Twitter to interact with officials, policymakers and citizens.

So called “Twitplomacy” has been seen as a form of public diplomacy as it has been used not only by officials but also millions of citizens across the globe. “Twitter has two big positive effects on foreign policy: It fosters a beneficial exchange of ideas between policymakers and civil society and enhances diplomats’ ability to gather information and to anticipate, analyze, manage, and react to events,” writes former Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi in his preface to the book entitled Twitter for Diplomacy. Indeed, 140 characters have changed drastically the way officials communicate with each other.

Another profound example is the Virtual Embassy of the United States to Tehran in Iran. The Virtual Embassy was developed by the U.S. State Department after the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. This Embassy has the same status as other traditional U.S. Embassies apart from one significant detail: diplomacy operates on a virtual level.

These are only two examples, whereas in different parts of the world, so-called ‘digital diplomacy’ has grown enormously in popularity, and this trend is likely to continue. However, as significant and impactful new progressive communication channels may be, a need still exists for fostering and strengthening official communication between countries and international entities.

There is an absence of effective digital platforms that could be used to assist in critical decision-making processes between different governments. Authorities often struggle to cooperate on the most essential issues during regular summits, formal gatherings and multilateral forums. Critical information exchanged is rarely archived and translated into actionable communication. A prime opportunity presents itself here for creating sustainable and prominent platforms for dialogue and decision making to enhance global governance and responsiveness.

Leaders: The human factor is still important but more complex

Although technologies serve leaders across the world as new sources of both power and governance, they require an increasingly complex formulation of regulations and rules of conduct, which can be difficult to structure, and enforce. Political leaders constantly are critiqued and assessed by analysts and pundits on their responsiveness to new technologies. In particular, the prominence of public opinion in political domains is a significant point for discussion. New technologies add another dimension to the classical dilemma faced by politicians—how to propose and implement effective policies while mitigating public popularity.

Henry Kissinger was right when he pointed out that “the mindset for walking lonely political paths may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes thousands of friends on Facebook.” In this age of new breakthrough technologies, politicians and leaders do not require simply the authoritative support of policies by respective experts. Such support also very often is advocated by prominent online influencers having little or no direct linkage to political realms: celebrities, online commentators and corporations.

In today’s world, being a politician is more than just “taking a stand and being passionate” with a sense of devotion and responsibility for personal actions as Max Weber wrote long time ago. Politicians need to be pop-stars, too. New technologies bring another dimension into classical political dilemma—how to mitigate popularity and at the same time make tough decisions. In a world that is disseminating public opinion to the masses at an increasing rate and prominence, understanding the role of technology and its importance in political popularity has never been so complex.

Technology may be seen as a driver for both power and legitimacy in the areas of foreign affairs and diplomacy. What we need today are leaders who not only understand the complexities of technology, but who also use this technology to promote a global culture of human encounter that meets the legitimate needs of all peoples.

Artur Kluz, lawyer, foreign policy advisor and venture capital investor. He is a General Partner/Founder of Kluz Ventures, the investment firm focused on breakthrough technologies and global growth strategies.

Mikolaj Firlej, Master of Public Policy student at Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. Former Advisor and Assistant to the Secretary of State at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland.