“ICT for diplomacy in the 21st century information society” – Speech by Mr. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Executive Director LKIIRSS. 26th April 2012.
Posted on April 30th, 2012

X International Seminar on Foreign Relations ISRI 2012. Havana,Cuba.

Distinguished guests, students,ladies and gentleman.
It is with great pride I present this paper to your prestigious institute ISRI. This is the first time arepresentative from the National think tank of Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations & Strategic Studies has presented a paper to your institute.I wish to thank ISRI for inviting me to this conference and also Cuban Ambassador in Sri Lanka and our Minister Hon.Prof.G.L. Peiris for their support to make this moment a reality. I am certain this relationship between the two think tanks will be strengthen in years to come. Sri Lanka is one of the fastest growing nations in South Asia. South Asia and South America as
two fast growing regions of the world could contribute immensely to global trade. I propose an initiative to strengthen SA+SA Relationship. Before I came here I attended the World Economic Forum Latin American conference in Mexico. After listening to many leaders I think it’s time we strengthen relationship of South Asia and South America.

Sri Lanka has maintained very cordial diplomatic relations with Cuba for over half century and was one of the 1st Asian countries to recognize its government after the historic Cuban revolution in 1959 when Ernesto Guevara (then industrial minister) visited Sri Lanka to promote trade. Both countries have been loyal to the ethos of the Non Aligned Movement throughout the years lobbying against polarity in the international system. We are grateful for Cuban assistance in many occasions. From my young days I have heard about Cuba and it’s revolution from my father Ossie Abeyagoonasekera who was a leader of a pro-socialist party Sri Lanka
Mahajana(Peoples) Party.

Now let me discuss this with you my topic for today “ICT for diplomacy in the 21st century information society” The dawn of the 21st century saw a great leap in the evolution of ICT and its uses. Technological advancements have reached all aspects of life beginning from the microcosm of the family unit to the society at large spilling over to the international arena. The field of foreign affairs and diplomacy has always been reluctant to embrace novelty in aspects of communication and dissemination of information rightfully due to the sensitive nature of communications and content. In the 1840s, then British Foreign Minister Lord Palmerstone upon receiving his 1st telegram exclaimed “ƒ”¹…”By God, this is the end of diplomacy!’ This prophecy was not to be. Even though at snail pace the diplomatic corps has welcomed new tools and have undertaken to transform in an ever changing environment driven by technological advancements.

Communication tools and environments have paved way towards the compression of time and space in international relations. Lets understand the current trends in ICT in the 21st century focusing on aspects that are relevant to diplomacy both in its functional and strategic roles. I am especially interested in highlighting the positives of using information technology as a tool in achieving international relations
objectives especially by the developing world. ICT has created equal platforms to all players in the international arena notwithstanding hard power inequalities that exist between countries.

This is especially relevant to countries such as Sri Lanka and Cuba where geographically, the countries are outsized by super powers in the region. ICT is and can be utilized as a leveraging tool to overcome disproportions in size and resources. A research done by the Miniwatts Marketing Group revealed that by the end of 2011 internet has reached out to over 2.2 billion people, 44.8% of which from Asia, 10.4% from Latin America and the Caribbean and 6.2% from Africa making the virtual community more populated that any country in the world. Where nations were once connected through emissaries and traders, they are now networked through millions of citizens by tools such as fibre optics, satellites in a complex decentralized network without central control. Information flows have become multi directional with a multitude of media platforms that have mushroomed increasing direct communications, greater access to information, information sharing, and greater outreach. The digital age has empowered not only states but also other stakeholders such as corporate, lobbyists, NGOs, academics, and citizens at large allowing them to constantly evaluate, and upgrade their socio, economic and political bonds.

Taking a brief look at the challenges of the ICT invasion, diplomatic communications have been forced to explore methods beyond that have been prescribed by the Vienna Convention of 1961. ICT has changed the environment in which diplomacy operates. The three factors that have driven this transformation are: speed of application; increase in capacity; and shrinking costs. Diplomatic agencies due to their “ƒ”¹…”ill preparation’ towards the convergence of traditional diplomatic practices and the free, rapid flow of information have been in “ƒ”¹…”catch up mode’ for a long time. This is not to say that diplomacy has not been adaptive. 21st century statecraft which has invested a huge premium on internet freedom, civil society and innovation has coerced foreign missions to be adaptive or face disaster in the face of the dynamic international system. It is true that international policy has increasingly become militarized in the 21st century yet incidents such as the Wiki leaks debacle, and the Arab Springs have called for investments in “ƒ”¹…”cyber diplomacy’.

Advancements in communication technology poses fundamental challenges to conventional diplomacy such as reducing hierarchy, breaching confidentiality, promoting openness and transparency, encouraging multi directional debate and influence and mobilizing global social movements. The diplomat’s audience is no longer confined to his external counter parts and internal colleagues. He is forced to interact with individuals supplying their own news sources as web blogs to terrorists producing and web publishing graphic videos. In a Sri Lankan example, after the historic defeat of LTTE by our Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs had to come to terms and react to the propaganda that was instituted by pro Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) factions in cyberspace with their own
counteractive campaigns.

These challenges posed by ICT should not be perceived as an obstacle but should be looked as opportunities to create awareness and for reputation management. In other words these challenges could be transformed in to “ƒ”¹…”attractions’ increasing the soft power of the country. The business case for “ƒ”¹…”virtuality’ in diplomacy and diplomatic relations is compelling in that it is more effective, efficient and acts as a leveraging tool. The use of ICT in international relations is especially beneficial to emerging economies and countries that are in post conflict resurgence situations. The new brand of diplomacy promulgated by the use of ICT apart from being cost
effective and far reaching puts every country in a level playing field in the “ƒ”¹…”public domain’. The virtual world has been created not with the intention of leaving any behind. Furthermore, Countries such as Sri Lanka and Cuba can use ICT to attract and build networks with Diaspora who have immigrated to other countries due to country situations and encourage returnees and build broken bonds with them. Moreover, official stories can be presented in a more authentic, compelling and creative manner by the use of new media platforms. ICT can not only be used for its functional benefits but also strategically as a “ƒ”¹…”marketing’ tool of a country’s competencies, socio political and economic ideals and realities. Diplomacy has been democratized by the onslaught of technological advancements. This democratization needs to be viewed as a boon and not so much as a bane which has taken place to upset the status quo in diplomacy.

Democratization coupled with the decentralization of information has helped forecast events in the international arena gearing diplomats to formulate responses beforehand rather than “ƒ”¹…”fire fighting’ during and in the aftermath of an event. Considering all this it is essential that diplomacy takes note of technological advancements and gets up to speed with dynamic operational environments created by them in order to prevent
“ƒ”¹…”fossilization’ and redundancy in the digital age. ICT creations are best viewed as “ƒ”¹…”blessings in disguise’ that empower diplomats in developing countries to overcome socio-political and
economic obstacles that are thrown their way in the path to development.

Finally Sri Lanka in a post war context has many challenges to overcome, Cuba has been facing many challenges due to it’s uniqueness. With very high literacy rate of both Nations, I am certain ICT can be used positively for the beneficial of both nations. I am quite certain that this forum will be an excellent platform to exchange ideas and realities and learn from the multitude of experiences that you bring with you to the international stage. Thank you.

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