Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

Diplomacy will need to be reshaped in a digital world

The need to adapt and innovate traditional diplomacy will be on the table at the World Government Summit 

Delegates on the first day of World Government Summit 2018 held at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Delegates on the first day of World Government Summit 2018 held at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

“The only thing that is constant is change.”

When it comes to international relations and foreign diplomacy, never has this quote by ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus been more accurate.

Current international news agendas indicate just how complex a time in which we, as global citizens, live. In addition to ongoing political instabilities and economic pressures, technological advances mean the diplomatic toolbox is constantly evolving. Never has there been a more palpable need for the UAE to innovate and strengthen its diplomatic capabilities to cope with the intricacies and pace of change that we are witnessing around us. Equally, never before has soft power held so much potential to resolve the key challenges facing humanity.

The World Government Summit, an event that brings together prominent leaders from the public and private sectors, is taking place in Dubai this month. The event is a thought-leadership platform with a focus on government, futurism, technology and innovation and it will showcase best practices and smart solutions to tackle the challenges these things will bring in the future.

It is vital that our missions remain one step ahead and use the latest tactics and information where possible. The global diplomatic stage is not a stagnant one – it is changing daily. Indeed, the present world of diplomacy and international relations is very different from the one that existed just a few years back.

One of today’s new buzzwords, techplomacy, was unheard of until a short while ago. However, it is likely to be central to what diplomats across the world are doing to adapt to the disruptive changes facing society, marking the emergence of "tech cities" on the global scene. In addition to working with governments across the globe, the new breed of diplomats will need to liaise with these cities, which boast multi billion-dollar technology sectors.

Indeed, the foundations for this new reality have already been laid. French President Emmanuel Macron recently appointed an “ambassador for digital affairs”, with jurisdiction over the digital issues that the foreign affairs ministry deals with. This includes digital governance, international negotiations and support for the export operations of digital companies. The new role indicates just how seriously France views its international digital strategy as a core component of its foreign policy. And it isn’t alone in doing so. Just a year ago, Denmark appointed a techplomacy ambassador to the tech industry – possibly the first-ever envoy to be dispatched to Silicon Valley with a clear mandate to build better relationships with major technology firms.

The UAE already recognises the importance of such advancements. In a speech at the Ministry of Defence last year, Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, highlighted how the UAE has already made great strides in digital diplomacy. Her speech reiterated that the country has secured active channels of communication with the international community to strengthen its national branding.

For her part, Sarah Al Amiri, the UAE Minister of State for Advanced Sciences, has emphasised how the nation considers scientific and technological advancement as a key driver for future development. She highlighted that research-driven institutions in the UAE are well on track to spurring a nationwide technological revolution.

The rise of cities as “autonomous diplomatic units” is also a noteworthy development. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the top 600 cities generate 60 per cent of global GDP and are projected to house 25 per cent of the world’s population by 2025. McKinsey also expects that 136 new cities will make it into the top 600 by 2025.

Interestingly, all these new cities belong to the developing world – 100 of them are in China alone. These global cities appear likely to dominate the 21st century. They will become magnets for economic activity and serve as engines of globalisation – a vital brush stroke in the bigger picture that foreign diplomats need to be aware of.

Of course, the tools and topics of traditional diplomacy, such as preventive diplomacy and public diplomacy, as well as arbitration and mediation, remain vital and relevant to any international relations syllabus. However, the ability to adapt and innovate is today a cornerstone of what the Emirates Diplomatic Academy (EDA) teaches its Emirati students as they prepare to serve their nation on foreign shores.

EDA has achieved significant laurels in just a short span of time. Looking ahead, we see promising new opportunities to redefine diplomacy in the context of emerging realities facing the region and the world. By combining the best of innovative academia, research and practice, we are confident our students will be among the best-prepared diplomats in the world as they embark on a career that promotes the UAE’s soft power worldwide.

Bernardino Leon is director general of Emirates Diplomatic Academy