architecture, Diplomacy

Digital diplomacy in 2021

You can explore the impact of digital on diplomacy via three inquiry areas:

Changes in the political, social, and economic ENVIRONMENT in which diplomacy is conducted: digital and redistribution of power in international relations, new types of conflicts, digital interdependence and sovereignty, etc. 

The emergence of new policy TOPICS in diplomatic negotiations: more than 50 digital governance topics including cybersecurity, privacy, data governance, e-commerce, cybercrime, and AI governance. 

The use of digital TOOLS in the practice of diplomacy: social media, online conferencing, big data and AI analysis, etc. 



Frequently Asked Questions on Digital Diplomacy 

Specific Issue Areas: 

Digital foreign policy | Social media and public diplomacy | Online meetings and conferences | Digital geopolitics | Diplomacy in tech hubs | Literature and research | Courses and training | Data and diplomacy | AI and diplomacy | Cybermediation | History of technology and diplomacy 

Before you embark on the digital (and) diplomacy journey, make sure you clarify any terminological ambiguities……

Should it be ‘digital’, ‘cyber’, ‘tech’, ‘net’, ‘virtual’, or ‘e-‘ diplomacy?

The use of different adjectives and prefixes to describe the digitalisation of diplomacy tends to create confusion in discussions and policies in this field. This confusion could be reduced by having clearer instructions on what certain terms, such as ‘cyber’, ‘digital’, and ‘tech’ diplomacy cover.

For example, does ‘digital diplomacy’ refer to negotiations about digital policy issues or the use of Twitter and Facebook for public diplomacy
You can find more insights on how to reduce the terminological confusion around the digitalisation of diplomacy in our blog post Different prefixes, same meaning: cyber, digital, net, online, virtual, e-.

Geo-political and geo-economic ENVIRONMENT for diplomatic activities

Digital dependence makes countries highly vulnerable to any disruption of data flows. Maintaining data flows worldwide is vital to the social stability, economic well-being, and the growth of countries. For example, the disruption of e-commerce, e-banking, and platform services, such as Airbnb and Uber, could cause great economic disruption.

Global geopolitics depends heavily on access to the main internet cables carrying internet traffic between countries and continents. Presently, more than 90% of all global internet traffic flows through submarine cables which mostly follow the old geographical routes used by telegraph cables in the nineteenth century.


Follow the Internet traffic via seabed Internet cables.

Source: TeleGeography.

Internet cables are a tangible aspect of data geopolitics. Damage to cables can disconnect an entire country from the internet, which can have profound economic and political consequences. In 2008, the cutting of the main internet cables near Alexandria (Egypt) gave us the first glimpse of the consequences for users and businesses in the Gulf region and India.

Key strategic points, such as the Suez Canal and Melaka (Malaysia), remain as relevant today as they were in the past. For example, most of the data traffic between Asia and Europe goes via Egypt (Alexandria, the Suez Canal). Other critical points include Luzon island (Philippines) and Hormuz island (Irania).

The diversity of data traffic routes has increased via terrestrial cables. Submarine cables are increasingly being supplemented by terrestrial ones. The Digital Silk Road (DSR), part of China’s One Belt – One Road initiative, aims to span Eurasia with fibre-optic cables laid along newly built railroads and energy pipelines.

You can learn more about internet traffic hubs and digital geopolitics in out post ‘The impact of (big) data on geopolitics, negotiations, and the diplomatic modus operandi’.

Digital geoeconomics

Digitalisation triggers a new distribution of economic and societal power. For example, Apple’s market capitalisation at the end of 2020 (US$2.23 trillion) was similar to the total 2019 GDP of the entire African continent (US$2.33 trillion), and is close to the GDPs of the UK (US$2.81 trillion), France (US$2.79 trillion), and India (US$2.69 trillion). 

You can compare your country’s GDP with the economic might of tech companies via our Compare Countries to Tech Companies tool

Following the increasing economic and social power of tech companies, many countries have started establishing representation in tech hubs, such as Silicon Valley. For more on this shift towards tech diplomacy, you can consult Diplo’s studies on diplomatic representation in Silicon Valley and Boston.

Diplomacy in the tech hubs 

New digital policy centres have emerged around the fast-growing tech industry. In the USA, digital economic dynamism is based in the San Francisco Bay Area which hosts most leading tech companies. As the Diplo study The rise of TechPlomacy in the Bay Area shows, more than 50 countries have been developing their representation in the Bay Area either via traditional consulates in San Francisco or via new types of representation such as the Swissnex hub. While the presence in the Bay Area is important for understanding what is coming next and for attracting investment, tech companies, on the other hand, station most of their governance units in Washington DC or Boston, highlighting the growing interdependence between governments and Big Tech.

Note: For additional information, read Diplo’s research paper Science & Diplomacy: How Countries Interact with the Boston Innovation Ecosystem.

In China, most of the digital dynamism is happening in the Shenzhen area, while Beijing acts as the regulatory and policy centre for digital issues.

A new TOPICS on the diplomatic agenda & Digital foreign policy

Diplomats have to deal with a new set of digital policy issues when promoting the interests of their countries. In many countries, digital foreign policy is emerging as analysed on our dedicated Digital Foreign Policy page. Digital foreign policy has to address – according to Diplo’s taxonomy – more than 50 digital policy issues organised in 7 baskets: Technology, Security, Human rights, Economy, Development, Legal, and Sociocultural. 

Most of these issues are addressed in the context of the internet and digital governance. Anyone navigating this field should be aware of potential terminological confusion. 

In our illustration on digital governance below, you can find a mapping of digital policy issues where each basket is presented as one subway line, while the issues are displayed as stops. The map also depicts the various interplays between them.

A map of a journey through digital governance.

As visualised above, Diplo’s digital governance taxonomy has been developed through iterative processes over the last 20 years, relying on inputs from policy processes (such as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)), and research and teaching activities. Diplo’s taxonomy is a classification of internet governance adopted in the only official classification of digital policy that was prepared by the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UN CSTD) in 2014: The Mapping of International Internet Public Policy Issues

You can learn more about internet and digital governance in Diplo’s certified online course, the Introduction to Internet Governance , as well as Dr Jovan Kurbalija’s book An Introduction to Internet Governance (DiploFoundation, 7th edition).

Digital policy and the UN

The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation (June 2020) provides an entry point to digital policy at the United Nations. Specific implementation activities are listed in the summary of the Roadmap.

A cover page of the UN Secretary General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.The Roadmap builds on the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (Panel) titled ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’.Cover page of the Report of the UN Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation: 'The age of digital interdependence'

The report, published in June 2019, provides five sets of recommendations: 

  • build an inclusive digital economy and society
  • develop human and institutional capacity
  • protect human rights and human agency
  • promote digital trust, security, and stability
  • foster global digital cooperation

One of the key recommendations on digital governance outlines three proposed models for digital governance: co-governance, IGF Plus, and Digital Commons.

You can consult the summary of the Panel’s recommendations and the full report.

A new digital TOOLS for diplomacy 

Diplomats use digital tools in their daily work, from negotiations and representation, to communication and policy analysis. Although the most focused is the use of social media for public diplomacy (e.g. Twitter diplomacy, Facebook diplomacy), digital tools have a much more substantial impact on other functions of diplomacy as described below.

‘Zoom diplomacy’: Online meetings and e-participation

During the COVID-19 pandemic, diplomacy has shifted online to conferencing platforms such as Zoom. However online meetings are not as new as one might think. 

The first online participation session in multilateral diplomacy was held by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1963. Since then, the availability of the internet in conference rooms has made remote participation a reality for more inclusive and open international negotiations. 

Online meetings come with many pros and cons. As the pandemic crisis has shown, they provide business continuity. They also increase inclusion by allowing participation without being physically present, which is often conditioned by travel and other expenses. Among the major cons of online meetings is the lack of physical contact, which is important for building trust and empathy that are essential for dealing with, in particular, controversial and political issues. 

Three circles of hybrid meetings: online meetings, blended meetings, in-situ meetings.

As the illustration shows, in addition to traditional physical and remote meetings, there will be the emergence of ‘hybrid (blended)’ meetings that will combine in situ and online participation. Hybrid meetings will require new techniques for planning and running meetings, as you can see on our ConfTech page.

Read also: Remote is far, far away: Online is inclusive collaboration

Social media for public diplomacy

Twitter and Facebook are currently the most popular e-tools used by diplomatic services globally.

Twitter is used as a tool for public diplomacy in many countries. It remains to be seen if and how the current controversies around Twitter will affect diplomacy. For more information, consult our publication Twitter for Diplomats (2013). 

Other social media tools used in public diplomacy include Facebook, YouTube, FlickR, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram.

The 5 core e-competences

5 core competences of digital diplomats.


The specific value of e-tools lies in the set of core skills, i.e., the five core e-competences (5Cs) that diplomats need to harness:

  1. Curate: Listening is the first step. It is done by curating information and knowledge.
  2. Collaborate: While you curate, you gradually start collaborating both within your organisation and with outside communities. You start developing your community by sharing resources, asking questions, etc.
  3. Communicate: It is time to start communicating. This skill represents the ability and knowledge to extend your outreach and visibility.
  4. Create: After curating, collaborating, and communicating, you are much more comfortable in social media. You have a solid following. It is time to focus more on creating your online content.
  5. Critique: By now you should have gained more social visibility. This also exposes you to more critical comments and discussions. You need to engage in critical discussions and learn how to manage criticism.

In the context of digital diplomacy, these competencies represent the skills and knowledge needed by professionals to perform optimally in the digital world. Effective social media campaigns are also based on these core skills. Nevertheless, the development of competencies in digital diplomacy requires time. 

On social media, we estimate that a practitioner requires:

  • One day to get acquainted with e-tools for digital diplomacy
  • One month to become a good e-listener and to actively follow the core resources
  • One year to become an active e-diplomat, i.e., to contribute and develop a stable following. 

These timeframes are not fixed, but they do demonstrate the ratio and proportion of time needed for an e-diplomat to acquire and employ core e-competences.

Learn more about these skills by joining Diplo’s E-Diplomacy accredited online course.

Geneva Engage

Geneva Engage is an initiative of the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), supported by the Republic and State of Geneva, and DiploFoundation. Through its annual event, Geneva Engage awards the most engaging use of social media and online meetings by international organisations, non-governmental, and non-profit organisations, as well as permanent representations to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

Read also: 2020: The year of online participation

AI and big data for policy analysis

Cover page of the report on Data diplomacy

Data has a lot of potential to be used for diplomacy and evidence-based policymaking, as analysed in the report Data Diplomacy: Updating Diplomacy to the Big Data Era (2018). The report maps the main opportunities of big data and lists their practical applications. Read our executive summary and the full report.

Apply for our online courses on digital (and) diplomacy:

To view the full list of Diplo’s courses and training, visit our Course Catalogue.

20+ years of digital diplomacy

Back in 1992, there were two early digital diplomacy developments. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, civil society activists used emails and mailing lists for the first time to coordinate their position in lobbying and negotiations. At the same time, in Malta, the first Unit for Computer Applications in Diplomacy was established at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies. The unit later evolved into DiploFoundation, which, over the last 20+ years has conducted research and trained thousands of diplomats on how computers and the internet impact diplomacy.

A summary of 20+ years of e-diplomacy would include the introduction of email, the use of websites by diplomatic services and international organisations, the arrival of computers in conference rooms (with the introduction of notebooks and Wi-Fi) and, most recently, the intensive use of social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. The introduction of each new e-tool challenged the way things were done traditionally and opened up new opportunities for diplomats and diplomacy.

In 2010, Diplo launched the 2010 E-diplomacy Initiative, consisting of awareness building and the launch of events in main diplomatic centres, including the International Conference on E-diplomacy (June 2010, Malta). The E-diplomacy Initiative created momentum for courses, research, and community discussions on e-diplomacy. Many of the issues discussed during the events and the conference (social media, security, openness vs discretion in diplomacy) became quite topical during the public discussions on WikiLeaks and diplomacy.

Manuals and guidelines

The E-diplomacy series of illustrations – a concept of the Digital Diplomacy team, designed by Diplo’s CreativeLab – highlights the impact of e-diplomacy on various diplomatic functions. The Internet has affected the way we curate information, the tools we use to communicate, the speed at which we communicate, and the formality of communications – among many other aspects. View our gallery for more.

Meet also our e-diplomat, Ana Gabel, an environment diplomat. Ana represents the modern e-diplomat, and uses e-tools for an agile approach to her work at the ministry. Ana comes alive in Diplo’s A Day in the Life of an E-diplomat series, which illustrate how diplomacy can be improved through the use of modern tools and approaches.

Cover page: Comic - Quick Diplomatic ResponseQuick Diplomatic Response

Ana is sent to an urgent emergency team meeting to deal with an oil spill in the region. Fast action and efficient management are necessary to minimise environmental change. Read the story; the illustrations are also available on our gallery.


One day in life of e-diplomatKnowledge Management in Action

Ana’s work involves environmental emergencies. In another urgent task, she uses knowledge management in her work at the Ministry. View the illustration on our gallery.

FAQs on Digital Diplomacy

by Jovan Kurbalija and Artificial Intelligence

These FAQs were created using both human and artificial intelligence. Jovan represents human. He is a pioneer in digital diplomacy education & research. In 1996, he invented the three-partite methodology for digital diplomacy consisting of:  Digital Geopolitics shaping the environment for diplomacy, Digital Topics on diplomatic agenda and Digital Tools for diplomatic activities.

Following this methodology, he has published dozens of publications and led Diplo’s training on digital diplomacy and diplomacy. The training involved more than 6000 diplomats and other officials representing 202 territories and countries since 1996.

Artificial intelligence use machine learning to process thousands of pages on digital diplomacy and distil answer to your question. Jovan (expert), and AI will provide new insights and nurture enhanced intelligence as you can follow here.

They can often be interchanged. There are however some patterns emerging in their usage. Cyber diplomacy is used more to refer to diplomatic activities related to cyber security issues. There is more confusion about digital diplomacy being used to implement digital foreign policy (new topics in diplomatic agenda) and the use of new tools in diplomatic practice like social media, websites and online meeting platforms.

It is possible to avoid confusion in the current, transitory phase of terminology settling.

– The evolving geopolitical ENVIRONMENT for diplomacy: impact of digital technology on sovereignty distribution of power, and global interdependence among other issues.

– The emergence of new TOPICS in diplomatic agenda: cybersecurity. internet governance, e-commerce, online human rights, and more than 50 other policy topics.

– Use of new TOOLS in diplomatic practice: social media, AI, big data, online meetings, virtual and augmented reality.

You can read more on terminological confusion and other aspects of digital diplomacy. 

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The future of the metaverse is still not clear. 

Facebook has the network, financial and technical capabilities to make this happen. The government should be ready to address data protection, cybersecurity, digital identity, and other digital policy issues. These issues need to be addressed in a way that balances “real” reality (physical), virtual realities, and augmented realities. 

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It all comes down to semantics and context usage. These prefixes are frequently used in interchangeable ways. It is crucial to determine if a specific usage of cyber diplomacy/digital diplomacy or even e-diplomacy refers only to digital geopolitics, topics, or tools. You can learn more about different usages of prefixes in digital diplomacy.

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The Vienna convention (1961) on diplomatic relations does not specify how countries will be represented. They are typically represented in another country by an embassy or other types of diplomatic missions. However, there are many other options available such as rowing (nonresident Ambassadors). Online diplomatic representation can be considered legal. It is yet to be seen if this practice will increase in popularity over the next few years.

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Cybersecurity is a protection of the Internet and other information systems from malicious threats, misuse and malfunctioning. Cybersecurity covers wide area including protection from cyberwar, terrorist attack and cybercrime, among others. Cybersecurity is implemented through policies, procedures and technical solutions.

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Digital diplomacy refers to the impact of digital technology on diplomacy in three realms:

  • changing digital geopolitical and geoconomic ENVIRONMENT for diplomatic activities (sovereignty, power redistribution, interdependence)
  • emerging digital TOPICS on diplomatic agenda (e.g. cybersecurity, e-commerce, privacy protection, and
  • new TOOLS for diplomatic activites (e.g. social media, big data, AI).
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Digital divide refers to social inequalities created by the introduction of computers and the Internet into human society. It is manifested in differences in number of computers, access to the Internet and available applications. Digital divide is most commonly used to describe the difference between developed and developing countries in the use of digital technology and the Internet. However, divides exists on various levels, including between young and old, urban and rural, and among different professions. 

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In its broadest sense, diplomacy is the conduct of international relations by peaceful means. More restrictive is this definition: diplomacy is the peaceful conduct of international relations by official agents of states, international organisations, and other international actors. Even more restrictive is the definition of diplomacy as the conduct of relations between sovereign states by members of their respective foreign services. There are also a wide range of definitions based on functions of diplomacy:

Representation is one of the most important functions of diplomacy. Costas Constantinou blends the concepts of representation and communication in his definition: “At its basic level, diplomacy is a regulated process of communication between at least two subjects, conducted by their representative agents over a particular object.”

The next set of definitions is focused on communication and the sharing of information. In The International Law of Diplomacy, B.S. Murthy defines diplomacy as, “the process of transnational communication among the elites in the world arena.” Brian White defines diplomacy, both as “a communication process between international actors that seek through negotiation and dialogue to resolve conflicts” and as “one instrument that international actors use to implement their foreign policy”. Tran Van Dinh’s most concise explanation of the importance communication has for diplomacy is: “Communication is to diplomacy as blood is to the human body. Whenever communication ceases, the body of international politics, the process of diplomacy, is dead, and the result is violent conflict or atrophy.” Constantiou describes diplomacy as “a regulated process of communication” (Constantinou) and James Alan as “the communication system of the international society”.

The third approach focuses on the definition of diplomacy as negotiation. Quincy Wright defines diplomacy as: “the art of negotiation, in order to achieve the maximum of group objectives with a minimum of costs, within a system of politics in which war is a possibility.” Hendely Bull defines diplomacy as “the management of international relations by negotiations.”

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Unfortunately, online politeness is declining. Language is divisive and offensive.

It’s possible to regain your e-politeness with careful language usage. Sarcasm should be avoided as it can easily lead to offence.

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Internet governance is defined by the World Summit on Information Society (Tunis Agenda, 2005) as “the development and application by Governments, the private sector, and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”

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Term online diplomacy is loosing its relevance and traction.

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E-politeness is about online behaviour that reflects respect and courtesy, just as it should be in real life.

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Public diplomacy only covers one aspect of digital diplomacy related to the use of TOOLS for diplomacy including Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Other aspects of digital diplomacy include new TOPICS on diplomatic agenda and changing geopolitical or geo-economic ENVIRONMENT.

However, digital diplomacy may sometimes be seen as just public diplomacy because of high media visibility of the use of Twitter and Facebook in international politics.

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Science and technology are both considered the foundations of modern society. These terms are often used in modern parlance. The fundamental difference between science and technology is that it can be viewed as “disinterested knowledge and research” but not necessarily aimed at solving a practical problems. Technology is commonly referred to in this way as “applied science”.

But, it’s difficult to discern such clear distinctions in practice. Technology and science are often interconnected. It is not easy to tell the difference between scientific discoveries in mathematics, and the development of computers. Science and technology have been complementing one another. This distinction has become more blurred in the last ten years.

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In the complex interplay of multiple issues and actors in diplomacy, the key challenge is to place certain issues on global diplomatic agendas. Similarly to the media in general and the world of the Internet, a fight for attention takes place, in this case diplomatic attention. Kehone and Nye suggest that states “struggle to get issues raised in international organisations that will maximise their advantage by broadening or narrowing the agenda.”

Currently, there are many unresolved issues related to Internet governance. As a result, extensive manoeuvring by different actors trying to place their own issues on emerging Internet diplomatic agendas is taking place. 

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This triptych illustration describes the first diplomatic 'encounter'

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