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CHAPTER IV - Conclusion: Transparency, Volatility and Adapting to Change

Roundtable participants engaged in a role-playing scenario involving Burma, China, the U.S. and other actors in an information-rich environment. Many participants noted that the exercise had, in general, highlighted the ways in which increased transparency and volatility affected the day-to-day realities of diplomatic actors engaged in delicate transactions. Time frames were accelerated, non-state actors affected processes in unpredictable ways, and negotiations and communications that might have been intended to be secret were eventually broadcast and/or manipulated. After the exercise, participants came together again to highlight observations gleaned from the scenario, and to offer recommendations for policymakers, activists and others.

Technology matters, but do not neglect the importance of people. Although technology frequently forced actors’ hands in the scenario, results depended on individual decisions by principals. “People matter in outcomes,” said Madeleine Albright. In the scenario, technology created disruptions, but its impact was mitigated and filtered by the people in the field. Ultimately, she said, diplomacy is “based on personal relationships and trust.”

Another example of the importance of personal relationships during times of crisis could be found in the case of the Arab Spring uprisings, said Marc Nathanson. Although there was an extensive diplomatic presence on the ground, the people who knew the most about what was happening were the NGOs, he said, who “had a lot of contact with the people in the street.”

Hierarchies can collapse and unpredictable actors may emerge, particularly during crisis. The interplay of actors during the scenario gave added credence to the long-held assertion that power was devolving away from traditional hierarchies and toward networks of non-state actors, or even individual empowered non-state actors. This, in turn, gave rise to several questions about the role of non-state-actors during crisis. Are suddenly emergent actors “acting on their own behalf or for an organization? It is very difficult to discern their interests,” said Peter Manikas. “There are not a lot of tools to deal with a charismatic troublemaker, although people like that emerge in times of crisis.”

At the same time, the U.S.’s own longstanding belief in the power of citizens may give it some added resilience in a situation where traditional leadership structures have eroded. “Power is diffused a lot in this country,” said Howard Berman, Senior Advisor at Covington and Burling and former Congressman. “The relative decline of leadership authority may be less in the U.S. than in other countries” simply because it has always wrapped citizen agency into its governing institutions.

Amidst information, misinformation and disinformation, trust is the most highly prized commodity. Roundtable participants repeatedly stressed the difficulty of dealing with an abundance of information, reliable or not, during the simulation. “Information is not knowledge,” said Chris Hill. Jeff Moon, Vice President of Asia-Pacific Policy and Government Affairs at Cisco Systems, drew an analogy to inflation: “One dollar doesn’t mean anything because there are a million dollars out there. There are a million pieces of information and not any one is useful,” he said. “It’s important to know for sure that the information is reliable.”

Moreover, in addition to misinformation and disinformation, there is the problem of simply too much information on too many platforms. In the past, a statement by the President or Secretary of State was “like gold; it wasn’t hard to get people to pay attention,” said Kathleen Stephens. “Now it is a more crowded platform,” and information streams have become much more personalized. Getting the attention of multiple audiences amidst the constant stream of information is both a challenge and a potential skill-set for up and coming diplomats.

Given all of these phenomena, trust has re-emerged as the most prized coin of the realm. “You have to build up the trust base, that should be a real priority” with public diplomacy and other endeavors, said Charles Morrison. Ivan Sigal noted that “norms about who to trust and who not to trust are built into Internet culture, but it takes a while to understand how these networks work.” The lesson for U.S. diplomatic actors here, then, is that trust is not something that comes with simply setting up a social media presence; diplomatic actors must slowly cultivate that trust with its networks, over time, in ways that comport with Internet culture.

Social media literacy is a new, crucial component of diplomacy. For U.S. government actors as well as all other diplomatic actors, understanding how to parse and use social media is simply a necessity in the information-rich diplomatic environment. In essence, social media literacy is now a required component of diplomacy itself, noted several participants. Assessing the validity of information is an important component, as well as understanding what may or may not be appropriate to communicate through social media, said Filip Noubel of Internews and BeijingAwareness. Game-playing may be a vehicle through which the general public as well as diplomatic actors could sharpen their social media literacy.

“Education and critical thinking will reduce misinformation coming from the Burmese media,” said Tim Aye-Hardy, pointing out that there have been real-life critical consequences, in Burma and elsewhere, of disseminating wrong or misleading information.

Diplomatic structures must adapt to stay relevant. The scenario again highlighted the need for more nimble, adaptable diplomatic and foreign policy structures, observed many of the participants. “Traditionally, embassies are layered…and the cable structure is slow and cumbersome,” said former Ambassador Chris Hill.“We need to understand this is a fast moving game. You better have all your bases covered, and don’t rely on those layers.” Most importantly, the first job of an ambassador or diplomat is to keep the door open with the government in question, he added.

Marc Nathanson pointed out that the scenario demonstrated that public diplomacy might be effective over the long term, but less useful during a time of crisis. Future study and/or reform efforts might focus “specifically on how we make more relevant American public diplomacy” and its corresponding institutions, both for the long-term and for short-term crises.

“You can’t immediately be on your back foot because all these things are happening in the blogosphere, and governments are also manipulating what’s happening in social networks,” said Alec Ross. The U.S. must increase its capabilities, “so as these powers shift we are placed as best as possible.”

But doing so requires time, resources, strategic thinking and commitment from a number of U.S. government institutional players. “Somebody has to think through all the tools available and how they’ll play out five years into the future,” said John Rendon. “Cut the past and let it go. We learn lessons from it but we can’t live in it.” Instead, focus on training, particularly for the older workforce generation for whom technology simply seems like an added burden.

Developing new information technology capabilities also requires the full participation of IT managers, added Jeff Moon of Cisco Systems. In order to understand user needs and project goals, IT managers must be included in all project development activities. This approach will ensure that projects can be implemented on time and within budgets while also fully taking into account any special security considerations.

For any kind of significant restructuring, noted Howard Berman, former U.S. Congressman, support from Congress at the outset is crucial. “If you want to reinvent the instruments of public diplomacy, get some congressional investment in that process in the beginning,” said Berman. “Otherwise it will just be the next report.”

Ultimately, the new diplomatic environment explored by roundtable participants is not simply going to vanish. As the scholar David Faris writes, “The United States can respond in two ways: either it can try to wish the old world back into existence, or it can try to seize the very real opportunities for networking, engagement and alliance-building that are built-in features of the new environment.” States that work to be more resilient, credible and adaptable have a higher likelihood of success in the information age.

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