1. Column: The growing power of digital diplomacy

Column: The growing power of digital diplomacy

In a remarkably short period of time, digital diplomacy has become a key tool for both generating and leveraging soft power

By: and | Published: November 12, 2015 12:06 AM

While it is hardly a new insight, it remains true that global geopolitics are in the midst of a fundamental transformation, throwing up a host of new challenges for leaders, policy-makers and diplomats. Driven primarily by the diffusion of power, traditional bilateral diplomacy—and the hierarchies that have sustained it—is moving towards a more fluid and complex system of networks. The centre of global economic and political power is moving from the West to the East. At the same time, power is also shifting away from states altogether, as non-state actors—NGOs, multilateral organisations, corporations, civil society groups or even individuals—wield greater influence over world affairs.

In short, the nation-state has lost its monopoly on influencing global affairs. Savvier governments have responded to these changes by attaching greater weight to the concept of soft power. Coined in 1990 by Joseph Nye, soft power eschews the traditional foreign policy tools of carrot and stick, relying instead on attraction and persuasion to shape global outcomes. Soft power is best deployed through networks, developing and communicating compelling narratives, establishing international norms, building coalitions and drawing on the key resources that endear one country to another.

Ultimately, soft power is about making meaningful connections and translating them into collaborative action. In a remarkably short period of time, digital diplomacy has become a key tool for both generating and leveraging soft power.

Technology allows governments and citizens to communicate faster and more effectively. In the age of “digital diplomacy”, the ability to harness digital platforms effectively to engage people, exchange ideas and deliver key messages is more important than ever.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi provides a great example of digital diplomacy done well by a head of a state. His use of digital tools has been central to his success both as a politician and India’s global advocate-in-chief. The Prime Minister has made greater access to digital technology a priority. His government is using digital platforms as a means to deliver better public services and inspire citizen participation in new civic and public health initiatives.

In 2014, he launched the MyGov platform to give people in India the chance to discuss important issues such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, girl child education and job creation. A year later, he launched his Digital India initiative to address challenges such as infrastructure, affordability and awareness, to help get more Indians online.

As a global ambassador of India, Modi is currently the most engaged political leader in the world on Facebook, with his page sparking more conversation than US President Barack Obama, who has 14 million more fans—but only half the level of engagement. Modi’s recent visit to the US and Ireland attracted an average of 33,000 new daily likes on his page and the town hall Q&A he did at Facebook reached more than 40 million people.

Modi demonstrates a deft mix of light-hearted content and serious information. In fact, as many as 4 million people on Facebook saw a photo of Prime Minister Modi welcoming President Obama with a hug. During the same visit, Modi posted a photo of the two leaders talking, along with a link to information about a joint press conference in which the two discussed US-India relations and climate change. The post reached about 16.5 million people.

Earlier this year, London-based consultancy Portland, working in partnership with Facebook and polling firm ComRes, launched the results of a ground-breaking research project into soft power. The Soft Power 30 is a composite index comprised of 66 different metrics that measures the soft power resources of countries. The index is structured into six categories, capturing the key sources of soft power: Culture, Global Engagement, Government, Education, Enterprise and Digital. Although the Digital component is a relatively new addition to the metrics of soft power, it is proving to be an extremely powerful way to reach and influence a large international audience, and a key source of soft power.

While we included India in our data collection for the project, it did not—on this occasion—break into the top 30. However, it is clear that this will not remain the case for long, and we identified India as “one to watch” for the future. For India, the digital component of its soft power will be critical, going forward.

Digital platforms not only allow governments to broadcast messages to larger international audiences, but—just as important—allow them to listen to what global publics have to say.

India is unequivocally a global power with huge potential. Its vibrant culture and status as the world’s largest democracy are significant sources of soft power. Going forward, a more digitally-connected India will be even more influential. At present, 18% of India’s population have access to the web—just imagine what connecting the remaining 82% would do for India’s ability to engage with the world. The future certainly looks bright for Indian soft power, and the nation’s digital capabilities will be a major factor in determining just how bright that future is.

Ankhi Das is public policy director for Facebook in India, South and Central Asia. Jonathan McClory is a partner at Portland in London and the author of The Soft Power 30 report

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