Diplomacy in the Age of Information - An Outdated Concept?
Opening Address of the
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs
Dr. Benita Ferrero-Waldner
on the occasion of the
Press Counsellors’ Meeting 2003
Vienna, 8 September 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am happy that I am again in a position to open the Press Counsellors’ Meeting of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs this year. Its title is particularly topical: "Diplomacy in the Age of Information - An Outdated Concept?". You, the press counsellors, are the persons called upon to be active, to build partnerships - not only with the ministries for foreign affairs and the diplomats of your host country but others as well - and to co-operate openly with the media. However, in your capacities you also have to face the critical questions of the media, especially when they enquire if our profession continues to have a raison d'être in our day and age.
So, is diplomacy indeed an outdated concept in the age of information? Is diplomacy today experiencing a crisis of meaning? Will diplomats start to play an ever more insignificant and marginalised role in today's integrated, digital and globalised world? Or - as I am convinced - is precisely the opposite the case, are they even more important than ever?
Due to the historical experiences of the twentieth century, the responsibilities of diplomacy have in fact increased. The League of Nations, the United Nations and the European Communities did not emerge from a void but were born from the realisation that the challenges and problems of modern states cannot be solved by one state alone. This was true of European reconstruction after World War II and it is equally true of the problems that haunt our day and age.
However, in comparison with "classic diplomacy", the environment of today's diplomatic work has changed completely. Multilateral diplomacy is becoming increasingly important world-wide, and the secret diplomacy of days gone by has given way to the public diplomacy of today. Non-governmental organisations and trans-national corporations in an increasingly globalised economy are but two of the many factors which have a significant impact on foreign-policy considerations these days.
The enormous speed of modern communication and the wide range of readily available information has also caused the circle of informed persons to grow. Nowadays, anyone interested is able to access information which until a few years ago was known only to the top people in a state.
Why do we still need diplomats then? This is the question raised by some. After all, the most important decisions are taken in Brussels, e-mail and fax are used for communication, video conferences have become standard currency and direct no-frills communication is what counts today.
While it is true that we are able today to cover large distances at incredible speed, that politicians meet for summits on a regular basis, also discussing political issues over the phone, the phenomenon I would call "the illusion of familiarity" should not be underestimated. Often enough, one believes oneself to be far more familiar with the positions and attitudes of an interlocutor than is actually the case. Just because a political issue has been repeatedly addressed at bilateral meetings or conferences, it does not necessarily mean that one has grasped the full scope of the problem, the political sensitivity involved in a topic.
This is precisely where the modern diplomat is needed. To be able to fully grasp what is happening in another society, underneath the surface, it is often indispensable to live in that country. This is what diplomats do, and this is precisely the reason why media corporations have their networks of foreign correspondents.
Diplomats may not hold a monopoly over the relations between their home and host countries but they are called upon to convince, to explain the background and history behind their own positions, and even to identify the aspects which could help bring about a compromise or an imaginative solution.
Diplomacy today is a much wider field than it used to be: today, there is hardly any area of state policy left where no international co-operation is required. Increasingly, co-operation among states can be explained by the fact that many problems of modern states can no longer be solved in any other way. No country can go it alone when trying to ensure a clean environment - global warming is, after all, a global problem. Organised crime, drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings and money laundering are cross-border problems, and so are the struggle against hunger in the world and the fight against international terrorism.
Many of our colleagues are thus no longer involved in "classic political diplomacy" but in environmental issues, economic topics, issues of social policy or - as all of you are - with issues of "public diplomacy".
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When the first diplomatic report sent by telegram arrived on the desk of British foreign minister Lord Palmerston in 1840, he is said to have exclaimed, "My God, this is the end of diplomacy!" As we all know, it was not the end of diplomacy. The number of tasks requiring the hand of a diplomat rises almost every day. Allow me to give you just a few examples:
- Firstly: When 30 Western Europeans disappeared in the Algerian desert in the early summer of this year, the public rightly called for the immediate response of the foreign ministry. We did react quickly, sending additional diplomats to Algiers etc. The fact that the hostages eventually returned to Austria (as well as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands) safe and sound, was a major success, and it was also the result of successful diplomatic work.
- Secondly: Large-scale fighting, the actual war in Iraq is over. What remains to be done is perhaps far more difficult - the tasks of maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq, of easing religious tensions in Iraq, of re-building the infrastructure of Iraq and many other things. Who was it that the United States entrusted with this delicate task? With good cause, it was a diplomat, Ambassador Paul Bremer, who looks back on more than 25 years of a successful career in the US foreign service.
- And thirdly: Although spiralling violence continues to ravage the Middle East, all parties concerned have always known that negotiations via diplomatic channels are the only way that will eventually lead to a chance for lasting peace. For this reason - and I am convinced of this - all the parties will always return to the negotiating table because they will not attain lasting peace any other way.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Diplomacy is one of the oldest professions in the world and - using methods adapted to the modern information society - it continues to be relevant and appropriate; by no means is it an outdated concept. Thank you very much for your attention. Let me wish you the best of success for the following two days of deliberations.