Demetris Samuel shares his thoughts on the impact of rapid technological advancement on diplomacy and its future. Mr Samuel is currently the Ambassador of Cyprus to Finland. He was the Head of the Communication and Public Diplomacy Unit at the MFA since its establishment in 2018 until 2022.

Nicosia, 26 November 2021

At a time when everything used to run at a slower tempo, more than two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Herakleitos observed that the only thing that is constant, is change (“τα πάντα ρει”). I wonder what he would make of the technological advances that have come about at neck-braking pace over the past hundred years or so, culminating in the dawn of the internet era and the rapid digitalization of our lives, and all that goes with it.

This is change at a pace that has never been seen before throughout human history. Those who can adjust quickly enough will flourish, and one thing’s for sure ― if you are operating in a competitive environment, you don’t want to be left behind!

So what about diplomacy? Are diplomats capable of re-orientating themselves quickly enough to ride the technological wave or will they be rendered obsolete in the flood? What is the future of a traditional trade like diplomacy in an era of unprecedented change, and how does it need to adjust in order to stay relevant and effective?

These are all questions that have practitioners (diplomats), academics and administrators in Diplomatic Services the world over pondering.

The answers to these seemingly complex questions are, I suggest, suprisingly simple. But let’s take things from the beginning. You open any dictionary and it will offer you a different definition of diplomacy. So what is diplomacy is essence? If you ask me, on the back of 22 years of experience in the Diplomatic Service of Cyprus, I would say it is the balancing act of managing relations with multiple other actors around you ― call it external relations, if you like ― in a way that, first of all, ensures that conflict or war is averted, and, secondly, creates mutual benefit or added value for all parties involved. 

It is obvious then that diplomacy has been around and exercised since the beginning pretty much of civilization – ever since humans started living in groups that interacted with other groups.

Over the course of these tens of thousands of years humanity has witnessed constant advances ― granted, not as rapid as in our days ― yet diplomacy maintained its role throughout and if anything became even more important, as the world kept becoming increasingly interconnected and the consequences of conflict potentially more catastrophic.

In order to maintain its relevance, diplomacy has always had to adjust to change, including to advances in technology. And whilst the foundations of modern day diplomacy can be traced back to the Congress of Vienna, 200 years ago, I believe that you will not be able to find any diplomat who claims that diplomacy is the same today as it was back in 1815.

Central to its successful transformations over time, is the natural instinct or propensity of diplomats to adjust. Diplomats may be inherently conservative and traditional when it comes to the gist of their work, but you will be amazed at how adept they are at adjusting when it comes to means or methods, especially when the going gets rough. You only need to look at the speed with which diplomatic services and organisations switched to online meetings when COVID-19 swept in. The UN Office in Geneva alone, for example, held thousands of virtual and hybrid meetings within the space of a single year during the pandemic.

I am convinced that diplomacy will ride the digital transformation wave, utilising new tools at its disposal to become more direct and more effective. If you had told me back in 1999 when I first joined the world of diplomacy that diplomats, let alone Heads of State, Ministers and other officials, would be able to reach tens and hundreds of thousands of people in an instant, in reaction to an event happening in real time at the opposite end of the world, I would have trouble conceiving it. But this is a reality today. Is this still diplomacy? Of course it is. It’s even got a name: twiplomacy.

As recently as four years ago, we only had a handful of Cyprus Diplomatic Missions with presence on Twitter. Today, despite limitations in resources, we have 35 (out of 53) of our Diplomatic Missions active, admittedly to varying degrees, on Twitter and almost 70 of our diplomats (out of a total of 165), reaching altogether directly on average an estimated 3 million users per month with their activity on Twitter alone. If you consider that some of these users are journalists, fellow diplomats or other professionals carrying a strong multiplier effect, the numbers are just staggering.

Especially for small States with limited resources and relatively restricted networks of Diplomatic Missions, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities.   

Colleagues still need to demarche at Foreign Ministries all over the world in the traditional way, in person, and of course there are numerous occasions and missions for which human contact, presence and interaction can never be substituted. But with the technological tools at their disposal, diplomats are nowadays able to reach out further and wider than ever before, without even stepping out from behind their desk.     

Diplomacy will remain relevant in the future, maintaining the key role it plays in international relations. The million dollar question is, to what extent will each diplomatic service be able to reap the benefits of the digital revolution to enhance its own effectiveness? Be it through the likes of its public diplomacy or when it comes to more mundane, yet equally important operations, such as internal communications.

We only need to look at countries like Israel or Estonia to grasp the scale of potential. And in fact we do ― digital transformation in foreign policy is very much part of our discussions when we meet at various levels with counterparts from countries that are ahead in this respect, as we aspire to learn from their experience and follow their example.

With this in mind, in the summer of 2018 we set up the Communication and Public Diplomacy Unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have since overhauled the MFA website altogether to make communication more direct and user-friendly, making sure it is updated many times daily. The Unit is currently working on designing a modern platform to replace the ageing websites of our Diplomatic Missions which should be rolled out in the first half of next year, whilst, as already mentioned, we have expanded the network and footprint of our presence on social media, despite the limitations faced primarily in relation to human resources.              

With the recent establishment of the Cyprus Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it will be possible to offer online training courses for our diplomats on the use of new digital tools and technology. Last but not least, in cooperation with the Deputy Ministry for Research, Innovation and Digital Policy, we intend to launch very soon a call for tenders for the digitalization of all consular services offered by Embassies and Consulates of the Republic of Cyprus across the world.

There is no doubt that, as with most other walks of life in the 21st century, technology will play a defining role in shaping the future of diplomacy. Diplomatic Services that grasp the potential and are able to harness the power of technology will inevitably have an advantage.