The Digital Diplomat
The new millennium has closed its second decade upon us, and the time for introspection cannot be more pertinent. The world has been irreplaceably altered in its countenance, with fault lines animated old and new. However, the one driver which has stretched the limits of absorption is the disruptive rise of cyberspace. From protests to state-sponsored cyberattacks, the digital world has fast evolved from being a tool of convenience to one that has overtaken its users, its tentacles deeply embedded which subtly contort the real world’s fabric. The truth is, that its wild, uncontrolled disposition has succeeded in demolishing both barriers as well as safety valves. Both diplomacy, as well as the landscape it caters to, would be under severe metamorphic strain from this. The question ultimately boils down to simply one thing- can the international community keep up?
It is instructive for us to remember disruptive predecessors of the digital revolution in order to grasp the gravitas a barely controlled force can have upon times of transition. The first is the catastrophic failure of the old world, aristocratic diplomats of the great powers in preventing the First World War from materialising. The renewed tides of relentless nationalism and the onset of a zero-sum identitarian politics is arising in an explosive admixture as it had at the onset of the previous century. Diplomacy prospers where there is room for negotiated compromise, and a willingness to realise convergences. This ‘grey area’ is increasingly becoming marginalised as issues are painted in egoistic colours of emotive appeal- in a simplistically enchanting model where the world is black and white. The doyen Henry Kissinger recounts in his work World Order how diplomacy lost touch with emerging technology and its corollary warfare, allowing the military to ‘run away with diplomacy’. While the genie of military Shoguns has been bottled in our times, the larger danger of political leaders being out of sync with implications of modern technology have only grown. This came painfully to the fore when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg testified in the US Senate, where senators with the power to permanently shape our digital ecosystem came across as both incoherent and dangerously underinformed.
The second is the unintended result of when the tail starts wagging the dog. Historian Niall Ferguson in his treatise on financial history The Ascent of Money described the inexorable rise of the financial sector in both reach and complexity. Terming it ‘planet finance’ due to its leviathan size and role, Ferguson sent the alarm bells ringing after the 2008 crisis that the financial sector, once limited to its role of allocating resources, has become an end in and of itself. Rather than being a mere reflection of the real world, it surpassed it and turned the reign of control on its head, turning into a tyrant shaping the real economy through its collectivised perception. As globalisation has only intensified, economists such as Josef Stiglitz and Raghuram Rajan have jumped in as well, charting the discontents it has led to as well as delivering prognoses. The scion of inequality studies, Thomas Piketty in his work Capital in the 21st Century has a similar vein and explicitly deals with the now ubiquitous practice of regulatory shopping i.e. firms choosing their locations to minimise tax incidences while having access to the same markets. At the root of the entire conundrum is something that we are facing in the case of the digital world as well- it was once we who drove the system, now the system drives us, and we do not have any real plan on how to operate in this world whence this tectonic shift has left us behind.
The third-string which helps us contextualise all of this is the notion of a ‘flat world’. Thomas Friedman in his 2005 tour de force The World is Flat presented a model of a world where globalisation has vanquished the limitations of distance and time. The rise of internet giants and global supply chains, as well as increasingly open borders for the classic economic trio of land, labour and capital, lend fatalistic credibility to the ‘flat world’. However, one of its prognostications have failed spectacularly much to the chagrin of the neoliberal school. Instead of becoming increasingly irrelevant, history and geography (both real and imagined) have been at the forefront of the pushback against globalisation. The dream of a single, transcendental global community has much to wait for, and the realisation that man is not yet ready to be deracinated from flag, faith and family for a vast swathe of the world has jolted the pre-2008 momentum. This is the era of trade wars, of Brexit, and of sweeping nationalism. The 20th century proved to us the nonexistence of homo economicus or the all calculating, rational man, maximising his utility. The 21st might lead to the demise of the idea of homo globalis or the global man free from his tribalistic constraints. The combination of a flat world where information travels freely at the speed of light, ready to be packaged and repackaged for the consumption of a multitude of people with an increasingly polarised, shrill and belligerent politics punctuated by the revival of identity is here to stay in this era of flux as people cling to the coattails of stability in a chaotic world. This presents a new challenge to diplomatic efforts, as the spaces behind the curtain to strike mutually acceptable bargains shrink dramatically.
What do these three things together imply for us? The answer is short- spectacle and narrative. Tomorrow’s politics, and perhaps diplomacy as well, will be geared not only towards concrete gains but also towards selling them to the public at large, catered for shrinking time spans and sound bytes as well as tweaking it for appropriate audiences. Noted sociologist Dipankar Gupta in his work Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite provides us a model of how increasingly complicated and technical policy reconciles itself with the intrinsic limitations of a democracy. He suggests that there exists a citizen elite, a vanguard corresponding to John Adams’ idea of the ‘natural aristocracy’, a body of persons capable of erudite deliberation but with an impersonal ethic, driven by the zeal to see the betterment of all. It is this elite from which politics and policy are given shape by a section, and their actions are then accepted or rejected through elections. This model is reminiscent especially of the Indian experience of the 1991 liberalisation, where technocrats led by the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh were given cover and had their actions sold by the astute Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao.
However, the big change today is that the space for negotiation both with international partners as well as forces within the country is hostage to an increasingly scrutinous and omnipresent stream of information, ready to be weaponised through narratives. This does not bode well for diplomacy, as the political requirement to uphold jingoistic narratives has created for us an environment which controls us and not the other way around. Every step must be responsive to an ever-changing global media environment, where detractors will squeeze every possible word against you (if not outrightly faking it, fake news being notoriously hard to kill). This environment’s replication globally, in no small part to the ceaseless flow of digital information, has created a global order where hardline stances are harder to climb down from. This is the least desirable in a world reeling from an excruciating denouement of the vestiges of unipolarity back towards a classical Westphalian multipolarity, marked by Bismarck’s ‘nightmare of coalitions’ but far more fluid and perhaps, Machiavellian. Barely 20 or so years ago, one could still depend upon the patrician editorial class at the helm of newspapers to fulfil their roles as ‘gatekeepers of information’, and not every single person was carrying a discreet camera capable of live transmission across continents. Today, the gates have been blown apart and a considerable amount of political time is libation to appease the digital gods We live in a ‘planet digital’, powered by a ‘flat world’, where politics of show-and-tell threatens to ‘run away with diplomacy’.
The peculiarity of cyberspace lies in the fact that it’s both a platform and a resource, while acting as a force multiplier, in the words of Shyam Saran in his primer How India Sees the World. Enabling swift accumulation of data, it generates information which can be analysed to yield knowledge. Insights provided from this knowledge spur anew another cycle of more complex and value-added processes. While we see the likes of corporate digital empires at the helm of the process, its universal accessibility has given rise to everything from sophisticated troll armies, terrorist radicalisation and organisation, mass mobilisation, as well as fake news factories threatening to derail democratic processes. Malevolent forces today have unlimited and nigh unchecked, tools at their disposal. The most damaging of all is however the possibility of influencing the public sentiment, the popular narrative. One does not require any further investments in coercion if the will of the people itself becomes labile and subject to control. This could perhaps evolve into an unprecedented threat to democracy, in an Orwellian world where one is manipulated into oppressing oneself. At the same time, beginning from the Arab spring through to the 2019 Hong Kong protests, the internet has become the bane of regimes eager to hold onto power. The internet is a fickle and capricious double-edged sword.
The obsolescence of our institutions, both national as well as international, is on an embarrassing display. Even the formidable ‘Digital Great Wall of China’ has been increasingly showing chinks in its armour, and the liberal world is incapacitated by the lack of a vision as to how it should balance free speech with the necessities of exercising adequate control. India’s stance of shutting down the internet at times of unrest has seen increasingly mounting pressure from civil society as well as international players, seen as both anachronistic as well as draconian in a world where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been amended to specifically include internet access. We haven’t yet evolved a global financial consensus, and one for the internet which would inevitably entail a balancing act of values seems absent altogether. It is unimaginable to the extent to which the internet dominates our lives, with networks of shared perceptions cutting across boundaries vying for our attention. The practice of working in silos or departments has long outlived its utility and the diplomatic corps as well is under strain, as to how not just its agendas are shaped, but presented and defended in this digital age where the world is flat but people aren’t.
Perhaps it would do us better if we take a look towards history for some advice. The legendary treatise of the Arthashastra by Chanakya has a detailed elucidation regarding the sources and exercise of kingly powers. It was written at a time of great tumult and uncertainty when there was much tussle within the collapsing order of the day. It emphasised on rulers being Rajarishi i.e. sage king, a dharmic cognate of a ruler that would arise from the citizen elite or the natural aristocracy, and the usage of danda i.e. war/ coercion only as a last resort. At the same time in Kamandaki’s Nitisaara, Mantrashakti i.e intelligent deliberation is given precedence over military, financial or rhetorical force. Proactivity on the international arena must not compromise on being measured in one’s response, whereby the response must also cater to a domestic audience. The room for clarification has atrophied, and the times of transition we live in while being interconnected on an unprecedented scale means that the diplomat must never lose sight of the bigger picture. This calls for an extensive intermesh of academic, military, technological and bureaucratic rapport to serve as the tail to a diplomat’s teeth.
After all, the apocryphal Chinese curse has struck us dumbfounded. We do indeed live in interesting times.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team