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© 2019 Jeffrey Robertson

Diplomacy, telegraph, internet and digital diplomacy

Sunday, February 28, 2016


 There have been a few incredibly interesting studies into how earlier technological innovations changed diplomacy. Chief amongst these is the case of the telegraph. The telegraph was invented independently in several countries around the 1930s and 1940s, and rapidly spread until becoming an indispensable tool of diplomacy with the first transatlantic cable in 1866. David Paull Nickles text Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy (2003) is an excellent read and shines light on the momentous changes the telegraph brought. Amongst these changes he notes the need for states to 'control' the wires through which the codes of the telegraph passed. 

Its of interest to me that states were actually able to 'control' the telegraph. States have also tried this with the internet, and are increasingly trying to do so - but can they? Is this the first time ever that an innovation has taken away from the state the communication tool?

If we think of other innovations that reduced the dimensions of time and distance and also led to changes in diplomacy, such as the steamship and train (logistics for 'conference diplomacy'), the airplane (rapid international transport for 'shuttle diplomacy'), or rocketry (ICBMs and need for "hotline diplomacy") - each was owned and controlled by the state.

But with digital diplomacy, the state does not own, and does not have complete control. Indeed, examples of WikiLeaks, the Snowden affairs, and the recent Rose Revolution, Arab Spring, or the Euromaidan Revolution shows that despite their best attempts, states do not have full control. Is Digital Diplomacy the first time that the state does not have complete control over the technology driving change in diplomacy?

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