Diplomacy's evolution from horseback to Zoom

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Diplomacy's evolution from horseback to Zoom

Martin Nguru

23 Nov 2020

5min min read

iplomacy has been conducted since time immemorial: it is said to be as old as humankind, to be as old as the hills, as old as history, as predating history. One would ask how old is mankind; how old are the hills and how old is history, but it is not easy to answer such questions with precision. If one considered diplomacy to be as old as humankind, the next question would be whether one was considering humankind from a scientific perspective which implies billions of years old whereas from the biblical perspective humankind would probably be a few thousand years old. As old as the hills, on the other hand, is a phrase expressing that diplomacy is as old as can be imagined whereas diplomacy predating history would mean that diplomacy existed before the recording of history began.

In terms of diplomacy being as old as recorded history, the first records of diplomatic activities were in southern Iraq around 2,500 BC. During the medieval times, diplomacy was mainly bilateral and special envoy in nature, although there are records of multilateral type meetings such as the Congress of Sparta that took place among Greek city states in 432 BC. Resident and modern diplomacy, meanwhile, can be traced back to Europe during the Italian renaissance.

The development or evolution of diplomacy can be discerned through two main periods: diplomacy in antiquity or what is also referred to as diplomacy during the age of absolutism, and diplomacy in enlightenment or what can be referred to as diplomacy during the age of democracy. One may, however, not be able to draw a clear line between these two periods as many overlaps exist. For instance, it can be said that some form of democracy existed amongst the Greek and Italian city states well before the advent of democratic institutions in Europe in the 18th/19th centuries; and, conversely, there has existed absolutism, such as the Nazism and Fascism regimes, during the age of democracy in the 20th century.

Diplomacy as an institution has witnessed dramatic changes throughout its development. In the Middle Ages diplomats would have traversed the lands on horseback to deliver the prince’s/duke’s message to their counterparts in faraway lands and receive either verbal or written responses which they would again deliver back to their masters. Back then, diplomats were said to have been "extra ordinary" and "plenipotentiary" because they had all full powers in representing their sovereigns. An ambassador could even have declared war against another state and have his sovereign go along with the proclamation or advice. In his book Diplomacy, Harold Nicholson notes the differences on the extent of erosion of such powers on today’s diplomat. Times have changed to an extent that the "extra-ordinarity" and "plenipotentiality" of an ambassador has depreciated so much that they today are "mere direct mouthpieces" of the sending authority. They cannot carry out their duties without frequent communication with their headquarters for advice of one kind or another and for consultation.

Impact of the First Industrial Revolution on Diplomacy

It is a fact that the first industrial revolution, which had its origins in Great Britain in the 18th/19th centuries, had a monumental impact on diplomacy. The days when a diplomat had to travel on horseback came to an end. Cars, ships or airplanes transported him to his mission. Time and distance had been cut for him. The days when he had to physically deliver a message to his master face-to-face had passed. He could communicate with his sending authority by telephone or via telegram. Distance was no longer an issue. Fast forward to the 1980s when there was a tremendous advancement in information technology, which ushered in media such as the internet and subsequently other forms of social media communication, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, Zoom, Tiktok – the list is long. This has indeed transformed the conduct and practice of diplomacy. Scholars such as Nicholas Westcott, Bridget Verrekia and Yolanda Kemp Spies, among others, have written vastly on the subject.

Towards Digital Diplomacy in Africa

The first industrial revolution led to the colonisation of Africa. Newly industrialised Europe needed markets for its surplus produce, source of raw materials for its industries and space for its surplus population. In Africa and elsewhere, Europe found all those. The second and third industrial revolutions little effect on Africa’s diplomacy mainly because African countries were just emerging as newly independent states which were just crafting their diplomacy or foreign policy. The end of the Cold War and the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, which ushered in the information technology revolution or what is referred to as the information superhighway age, brought the world to a turning point, technologically. There was a need for a new internationalism which put globalisation on a fast track. The reality to foster and forge new frontiers had to be embraced. Africa could not be left behind and had to march with the rest of the world lest she remained a ‘dark’ continent.

In today’s interdependent and globalised world, diplomacy is a necessity especially because of modernisation and technological development. To enhance political and economic ties in this competitive world, Africa has to embrace electronic highway devices through the use of modern tools of cyber technology and print and electronic media to market itself, its products and services. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has contributed significantly to levelling the diplomatic playing field across the globe. This is because it enables anyone and from anywhere to access to the same information. Diplomats can connect to and conduct business directly with each other from anywhere today. It has provided diplomats with new tools that have made diplomatic activities much more efficient and effective. In the circumstances, diplomats, especially from Africa, have to be masters of ICT. Personal diplomacy has also increased in importance as a feature of modern international relations. It is conducted through visits, correspondence and telephone conversations, among others, and through the use of these methods leaders establish contacts, promote their country’s image or improve bilateral and multilateral relations.

This growth of personal diplomacy has been brought about by changes in modern communications. For instance, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State between 2009 - 2013, is said to have shaped the foreign policy strategies of the State Department in order that the department could exploit new technology. She made social media an integral part of the department, which utilised it as a tool for statecraft. William Hague, former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, used his Twitter account to launch his initiative known as ‘Meet the Foreign Secretary.’ His followers could tweet him with views on issues that they felt were priorities for the Foreign Office. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is an avid Twitter user whose tweets comprise of 81% of replies to other users on the platform. Other leaders who are active on Twitter include US President Donald Trump, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenya and his deputy, William Ruto, among others.

Digital diplomacy has no doubt come with many benefits. However, it equally is wrought with many challenges, the first of which is that diplomatic agents are still reluctant to exploit benefits of social media platforms to their full potentialities. This is because they may not be ICT savvy or they are apprehensive about the negative side of it or, yet still, they are ignorant of the benefits. Digital diplomacy also comes with cybersecurity challenges, as seen with the case of Wiki Leaks, and the risks posed by anonymous online users or online imposters. There are a myriad of challenges that one could list, including that diplomats themselves fear that their place in diplomatic practice is greatly being eroded by digitalisation of diplomacy. Social media has led to the loss of monopoly of that which was hitherto enjoyed by diplomats who today have to contend with journalists and others because they can communicate with the world instantaneously. Be that as it may, ICT should be viewed as an asset for diplomacy but it does not substitute all facets of diplomacy. Traditional forms of diplomacy shall always linger as an imperative ingredient of intercontinental relationships.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (top) gestures as she talks with European Union leaders during an EU Summit video conference at the European Council building in Brussels, on November 19, 2020. Olivier Matthys/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)