People around the world are connected to each other like never before. 300 million bloggers account for over a million posts every day, and ‘Twitterers’ increasingly micro-bIog important moments of their lives, which can be followed by strangers on the other side of the planet. I have written about our new-found human network many times before, but what does it mean for diplomacy?
Egypt produced the world’s first known diplomats over three thousand years ago, and Ancient Egyptian rulers were also responsible for one of the first recorded international peace treaties – their Kadesh treaty with the Hittites of 1258 BC, copies of which survive to this day, inscribed on stone tablets. The origin of modern European diplomacy can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance, with the first embassies being established in Northern Italian city-states during the thirteenth century. Until relatively recently, ambassadors were noblemen who required large residences and who held lavish parties. But as modern diplomats will testify, there is neither the budget nor the necessity for such grandeur in today’s world!
Historically, travel was the preserve of the elite – rarely did ‘ordinary’ people connect internationally. Before the invention of mass media, high-level handshakes sealed deals of which the public remained largely ignorant. But with global communication and low-cost travel, the world has got smaller and people have got closer. Perhaps governments do still need an elite service of interlocutors for those crucial contacts and collaborations; but given the rise not just in connectivity but in the power enjoyed by the ordinary citizen, are we not entering a new era of interpersonal diplomacy that could prove equally effective in addressing the challenges of international relations?
Last month I spoke with Derek Forsythe of the US Centre for Citizen Diplomacy, which is preparing for the November launch of its 10-year Initiative for Global Citizen Diplomacy. His enthusiasm for the project was clear. According to Derek, it’s not simply about being able to connect with other nations, it’s how we go about doing it: ‘The emotional and personal connection goes a long way.’
In other words, it’s all about credibility. We are a sophisticated audience these days, as likely to trust a shaky YouTube clip as a slick mainstream media report. The ‘individual’ is more credible, perhaps because of the perception that he or she has less of an agenda. A citizen of one country may make contact with the citizen of another to pursue a mutual business or economic interest, to promote peace-building or healthcare issues, or to share a passion – whether for sport, arts and culture or even food. The common ground is already there; it doesn’t need to be contrived.
And although traditional diplomacy of course retains considerable worth, especially in formalising country-to-country relations, the development of organisations and networks such as the US Centre for Citizen Diplomacy is one that nations ignore at their folly. The Centre, working in partnership with the office of US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale, makes no bones about its belief that Americans themselves comprise their country’s greatest asset.
But it’s not only in the US that we can observe people-to-people diplomacy in action. I have witnessed Palestinians and Israelis talking across battle lines, and moreover promoting peace through Combatants for Peace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian project run by former soldiers and militants. Last year a cricket team from the English village of Ditchling travelled to Afghanistan to play a match against local Afghans – the first team from outside Afghanistan to do so. Meanwhile on the border of Mexico and the USA, small enterprises have sprung up to help develop the economic relationship between the two nations – all in spite of swine-flu, drug violence and the overall economic decline.
Governments talk about ‘hearts and minds’ initiatives, but often only succeed in engaging the latter. Activities that involve the arts, communities, religion, peace-building, sports, money and business can have a huge influence on people – but are often best led and initiated by the people themselves.
The challenge is for governments and organisations to harness this new-found influence without undermining the very thing that makes it viable – its independence. I’m convinced that we are at the dawn of a new era in diplomacy, one that is less about ‘public’ diplomacy, whereby governments ally themselves with the public on key issues, and more about ‘people’ diplomacy, whereby the people are the diplomats themselves and begin to order and shape foreign policy. The role of the government, therefore, will be to provide platforms for exchanges to take place, rather than trying to dictate their outcomes. As Clay Shirky writes in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, ‘It’s not just about delivering content to members, it’s about the convening power to help members discover each other.’
Long gone are the days where peace accords were carved in stone by a single hand; these days they are more likely to be Wiki-accords, produced collaboratively by the networked masses.