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What Diplomacy Do We Need for the Digital and Green World?

As governments are changing their economies from black to green (or at least they say they intend to do so), what does the future hold for diplomacy? It may seem like an odd question. Diplomacy – the ancient art of secret negotiations and fine dining – is as old as states themselves, some say even older. Surely diplomacy will be able to adapt to any era and historical circumstance. And yet, an alternative argument can be made about a nearing redundancy of diplomacy, at least the kind of diplomacy the world is used to.

Two megatrends are contributing to this. One is digitalization and proliferation of AI. The other megatrend is climate change and the need to adapt to it on every level possible.

Diplomacy is a profession like any other. Digitalisation is changing profoundly the world of work forcing many jobs and skills out of the market. Computers can process and analyze all possible different options that states might want to pursue in their geopolitical chess game. Armed with big data and deep machine-learning technologies, computers can probably generate trade agreements and various sectoral assessments and countless legal annexes more efficiently than human diplomats. Algorithms-driven AI can understand and use any language in diplomatic and social media communications quicker and more effectively than humans. Furthermore, AI would not throw diplomatic tantrums, would not require expensive hotels and exuberant lifestyle. AI-driven diplomacy will be…well more diplomatic perhaps?

While robot ambassadors are still a thing of science fiction, climate change is a big part of our daily reality. The impact of climate change on diplomacy is manifold. On one hand, the devastating effects of climate change on national economies, biodiversity and public health, prompt many countries step up their diplomacy to spur collective agreements aiming to slow down the global climate change. On the other hand, the implementation of these agreements does not require further diplomacy. Take the Paris accord for example. In 2015 the parties to the Paris agreement decided to work out and implement national climate measures, aiming to limit the global warming in the range of 1.5 to 2 degrees above the pre-industrial levels. According to the agreement, starting in 2023 and then every five years, governments will take stock of the implementation of their climate action to assess the collective progress. Wouldn’t be a great idea to delegate this climate stocktaking to machines and let computer science, not cumbersome state-to-state diplomacy, lead us towards achieving climate sustainability on a global scale?

There is probably some grain of plausibility in this argument, not the least because climate science and AI technologies are developing as closely interlinked. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the double presence of digitalization and environmental issues in everyone’s life. Is traditional state-to-state diplomacy and its highly elitist, exclusive culture and way of operating an adequate response to these challenges?

The truth is that we actually need more diplomacy precisely because digitalisation and climate change are determining the future of this planet. How can governments talk about global climate and AI-related challenges with one another as long as they have different or opposing geopolitical interests, threat perceptions, political regimes? Can Europe, the US, China, Russia exchange sanctions against each other and at the same time calmly and screen through each others’ national climate measures, as prescribed by the Paris agreement? Furthermore, we also need more diplomacy when it comes to the proliferation of AI and safeguarding the ethical use of it.


Perhaps it is not so much that digitalization and climate change are making diplomacy redundant but diplomacy’s own conservative and exclusive state-centred and state-bound culture and way of operating is making it less adequate a response to current mega trends?

Instead of writing diplomacy off, we should strive towards reforming it. There is probably no one definite answer how to make diplomacy better equipped to deal with challenges of digitalization and climate change. I personally find the idea of democratizing diplomacy and reforming it from an institution of hierarchy to an institution of networks and ‘change hubs’ a very compelling one.

In the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the distinguished US diplomat and academic, Ann-Marie Slaughter espoused an idea of ‘opening up’ the world order. She proposed to reform diplomacy to include those actors that are already playing an active role ‘on the fringe’ of traditional diplomacy – civil society organizations, philanthropies, social platforms - and give them a more formal role. In the areas of climate and AI, non-state actors are already playing vital roles alongside governments. The roles range from watchdog to impact investor. Often these non-state actors are more agile, more accountable to their trans-border constituencies and more committed to finding solutions to global problems than traditional diplomatic service.

The idea of ‘democratizing’ diplomacy by allowing non-state actors play a role comparable to the traditional state diplomats espoused by thinkers like Slaughter is often criticized as utopian, naïve or even dangerous. Undoubtedly, such pluralist international diplomacy will be a messy, less orderly undertaking. However, digitalization of diplomacy and delegating the job of finding solutions to wicked international problems to AI seems rather dystopian.

Perhaps a third way can be found in terms of bridging the gap between traditional diplomacy and non-state actors. Slaughter recommends rethinking how traditional diplomats are trained. She advises including network design and management, partnership brokering, and lots of case studies of public-private-civic networks and coalitions into diplomatic training. Quoting the economist Mariana Mazzucato, Slaughter advises focusing on concrete problems involve partnerships between different actors.

The European Union has long praised itself of having a specific ‘European’ approach to AI – where the focus is placed on ethical safeguards and human rights – and climate change – where the ambition is to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. A decade ago, the European Union started charting a new path in diplomacy as it established its own European External Action Service . The European diplomatic service could be such place where these new approaches to inclusive network diplomacy could be tried out. One obvious trying pad could be the EU’s participation at the forthcoming climate COP 26 summit in Glasgow and the UN 2021 Biodiversity Convention. In both events the EU should act as a mission-oriented broker of public-private-civic networks.


Written by Vadim Kononenko