International Relations in the Digital Age

The Fourth Industrial Revolution invokes images of robots, automation, and information that travels the globe in a matter of seconds. Besides newfound conveniences, efficient labor, and booming technology sector, this phenomenon also brings the challenges that come with every epoch-defining transition. Some jobs are lost to machines, new skill sets are needed, and governments must update policies to keep up with rapid human achievement. Although not usually associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the field of international relations is affected as well.

Technology is changing diplomacy by connecting countries and creating new fields for both cooperation and conflict, and governments rely heavily on big data. Streamlined communication means world leaders can pick up the phone and communicate directly, and international law must be constantly reviewed to include cyber policy. Through it all, as jobs are lost and created, workers must adapt, including the world’s diplomats. Robots will not be debating in place of representatives at the United Nations any time soon, but just as other industries fight to survive, diplomacy must also evolve to stay relevant as international relations change in the new age.

In the tradition-rich field of diplomacy, change may be hard to accept. As Ido Aharoni, Israel’s former Consul General in New York put it, “A diplomatic service that is stuck in the mind-frame of broadcasting…will be quick to lose its value.” Communication is one of the pillars of international relations, and new forms of social media are something ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) must master. Effective online activity is a great way for public servants to communicate directly with civil society, but it can also amplify problems or mistakes. Any small misstep or miscue can be transmitted through the Twittersphere in minutes. Suffice to say, American president Trump’s use of Twitter has certainly changed the way the US foreign policy machine conducts business, and the damage control required when the president publicly admonishes his own secretary of state, the country’s top diplomat, through social media.

Social media is just one of many dimensions that technology is making its mark on international relations. Digitization of information provides its own challenges as well. Dr. Javon Kurbalija, a professor and founder of the Geneva-based DiploFoundation, sees opportunities for the marriage of data and diplomacy. Kurbalija thinks that as information is collected and stored in massive amounts, “open-data and data mining could make countries’ [diplomatic] reporting more efficient and effective.” Conversely, information can also be used as a weapon. As data accumulates, managing it has become a herculean effort, and a small leak can cause an information crisis. Mega databases where governments store their information are prone to cyber-attacks, and data breaches can potentially lead to national security emergencies.

Just as physical territorial disputes were solved by negotiations in the past, the future work of diplomats will likely be in cyber territory disputes. However, cyber borders are different from physical borders, making jurisdictions less clear. The ongoing allegations of Russian interference in the American presidential election of 2016 provide a perfect example. On the surface, it appears as outright foreign intervention in the US electoral process. However, instead of using Cold War-era methods of subterfuge, it was done through social media. Facebook and Twitter served as platforms for hundreds of sabotage attempts, including fake news stories, social provocations, and political movements. Additionally, President Trump is currently facing accusations of collaborating with the world’s most visible hacking site, Wikileaks, for the timely release of damaging information on his then-rival, Hillary Clinton, during the presidential campaign. Although the collective US Intelligence Community believes that the Russian government was behind this chaos mongering, the problems are that evidence is scant and cyber warriors can easily hide their tracks while acting outside of official state boundaries.

This brings a range of questions. Who should be the target of punishments? Does this call for a diplomatically led, state targeted response? Embassies used to house foreign agents, but now agents can conduct espionage from their home country, making it nearly impossible to prosecute under international law. Countries must adjust their foreign policy to accommodate these new threats. Similar to the collective security through pacts and alliances that defined the 20th Century, the same investment must be made for cyber security. In order to protect against all dangers, diplomats who negotiate defense pacts now should form a coordination mechanism for collective cyber security. The Economist predicted that inter-state conflicts will likely spring-up over data, which is now a commodity, just like conflicts have started over natural resources. If this is the future, then the MFAs of the world must protect data just like it protects its natural resources.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has also allowed tech giants to join the ranks of other traditional non-state players, like the financial, commerce, and oil industries, that compete with MFAs for influence abroad. Eric Schmidt of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook are good examples of the new class of active tech diplomats. In January 2013, Schmidt traveled to North Korea, a place that has no formal relations with the United States, where he supposedly discussed Internet access with the leadership of the closed regime. The US State Department did not endorse the trip. Schmidt comments on international relations from home as well.

In 2017 when the Trump administration attempted to curtail immigration to the United States from predominately Muslim countries, Schmidt was one of the many voices of opposition. In order to maintain its place at the top in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), the United States needs highly skilled workers from abroad who use the H-1B visa program. Specifically, he mentioned that Iran produces some of the world’s best computer engineers. However, Iran has also been a political rival to the United States for decades and is included in President Trump’s travel ban. Across Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg has spent years lobbying the Chinese government to open its Internet to sites like Facebook. These examples can bring positive value to the world of foreign relations, and the diplomatic community must embrace this symbiotic relationship with tech giants. Governments that do not have great official relations with the United States (or other countries, for that matter) may be more inclined to listen to businessmen because they can speak freely as unofficial ambassadors. Individuals with the power and name recognition, especially the generation of very publicly visible tech leaders, can conduct diplomacy independent of their government. This is also an example of soft power because it is a way for governments to show the strength of free societies and the value of information technology. After Schmidt’s visit in 2013, North Korea appeared for the first time in detail on Google Maps.

As countries are now represented by a variety of actors, diplomacy has become decentralized, but it is still vital for international relations in the new age of automation and mass information. MFAs must become technologically adept to keep pace. Diplomats are still the official representatives of their governments abroad, and in terms of policy and the law, are still the authority. Participation in the diplomatic network is essential for successful cross-border business, especially in the new era of evolving cyber activity. Transnational companies spread ideas, and MFAs must be effective facilitators of government-to-government or business-to-government relations. International disputes are settled through official channels, and the art of statecraft is not lost, but this also means diplomacy must move at the speed of technology in the current revolution. It will still be a long time before we see the US and Russian robots are giving each other icy, metal stares at the United Nations. For now, human beings must conduct diplomacy.

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About Nate Kerkhoff 14 Articles
Nate Kerkhoff is the editor-in-chief of NOVAsia and is in his fourth semester with the publication. His hometown is Overland Park, Kansas and he studied international relations at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. During his time at GSIS, he has been associated with various organizations, including the UniKorea Foundation, the North Korea Review, and the Daily NK. He also worked at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. His articles have appeared in the Global Politics Review, East Asia Forum, NK News, The Interpreter, International Policy Digest, Real Clear Defense, Channel News Asia, The National Interest, and the Kansas City Star. Additionally, he is a Young Scholar at the Pacific Forum.

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