Foreign policy in digital age
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - December 27, 2019 - 12:00am

As with seemingly every facet of human endeavor, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has now entered the realm of international relations. Beyond its impact on digitizing diplomatic and consular services, ICT — more widely referred to now as digital technology — has impacted the framing of foreign policy, its goals and the way it is conducted.

This is because despite the profound changes that technology brings, the goal of a nation’s foreign policy remains the pursuit of the national interest. In an interconnected world, strengthening a nation’s ability to harness digital technology to improve the lives of its people and promote economic growth, is certainly in the national interest. This connectedness can, however, leave a country vulnerable to threats to its national security through hacking and new forms of warfare. Preventing this from happening will be to the national interest. The challenge then for governments is to maximize the opportunities and to minimize the threats arising from this profound transformation currently taking place. Since this is all part of globalization and the pervasiveness of the internet, the conduct of our international relations will need to take all these into account.

CPR Forum

The Carlos P. Romulo Foundation will be organizing a forum on this subject as the first in the series of public conversations for 2020 to commemorate the 122nd birth anniversary of the country’s most renowned diplomat who put the Philippines on the world map. The goal is to encourage public conversation on issues that impact on our international relations that hopefully will translate into ensuring the relevancy of our foreign policy goals by our policy makers and to contribute to the preparedness of those engaged in its implementation through the practice of diplomacy. This forum will seek to answer questions arising from a closer examination of its implications of the digital age to foreign policy and the practice of diplomacy.

Access to technology: risks and benefits

Digital technology has provided the means for countries to achieve economic growth, improve governance, facilitate the provision of public services and in general to enhance the quality of life of their people. But it also risks further widening the gap within communities and between countries if they are unable to achieve their transformation to a digital economy and ensure that its benefits are accessible to all sectors of its society.

Our foreign policy, therefore, should aim at ensuring access to technology, acquire best practices from other countries and promote the flow of foreign investments into this sector. Governance — both global and domestic — will also need to be redefined to facilitate the transfer of this technology where data is the new gold.

Our foreign policy should aim at being a participant in the setting of the ground rules for the free flow of ICT-related goods and services at the regional and global levels. We should also be active in global efforts to balance the free flow of information with protection of privacy or risk those rules being imposed on us. What are the imperatives of economic diplomacy in the digital age?  How will this impact our bilateral, regional and multilateral economic relations? What needs to be considered to gain maximum benefits for the Philippines?

Security imperatives

While the digital age has brought with it the democratization of access to economic opportunities, it has also opened the door to new forms of threats to national security — disinformation and interference with democratic process, cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare and cybercrimes. Dealing with these cyberthreats would require international cooperation on critical infrastructure protection, privacy issues, cross-border legal arrangements, and security policies including sharing of intelligence to deal with these threats. What are the digital security imperatives from the Philippines perspective?  What is our state of preparedness and how can we incorporate these in our foreign policy goals?    

Redefining diplomacy: the use and misuse of social media

The increasing affordability of ICT have made them more widespread and decentralized, reaching far beyond the political and economic elites of societies. This has enabled more stakeholders to have an influence on the framing and conduct of foreign policy particularly through social media. Everyone essentially has a say on foreign policy. It has thus created an environment which both empowers citizens and puts diplomats under public scrutiny in a way that the mainstream media was unable to do previously — witness WikiLeaks’ impact.  This new media landscape and active participation by members of civil society can also influence the scope of action of our decision-makers. The immediacy of media reporting leaves them little time to react to unfolding situations without the benefit of careful consultations and deliberations. This has happened when foreign policy pronouncements are made at the highest level in a speech or via Twitter. Twitter diplomacy has its merits, but more likely potential pitfalls.

Social media has provided diplomats a powerful tool to promote their foreign policy goals particularly through public diplomacy — extending their reach far beyond traditional forms. It can be particularly effective in nation branding to promote the national identity and enhance the international image. The ability to interact directly with stakeholders — such as with the Filipino diaspora — will contribute to a more dynamic engagement. These developments have meant social media savvy is progressively becoming an essential part of a diplomat’s toolbox. Such skills will be required as well in dealing with attacks through disinformation and other methods meant to create a less positive image and interfere with domestic issues.

How can new forms of media be integrated into conventional public diplomacy? What is the state of play of our ability to employ social media to push our goals, while at the same time coping with its misuse? What can be done to enhance and improve these efforts and avoid any downside?

These questions are not exhaustive given the pervasiveness of digital technology. It is in this context, I appeal to government and private sector comments/recommendations via  Moreover, public-private sector dialogue/partnership is an imperative.

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