Empty meeting halls. Quiet classrooms. Deserted buildings. As people around the world have stayed home in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID, everyone has had to adapt to new norms. In public diplomacy, this has meant an unprecedented need for digital diplomacy as nearly all efforts shift online. The US should take this opportunity to broaden its diplomatic options by expanding and maximizing its use of virtual public diplomacy.
Virtual Public Diplomacy
Public diplomacy is generally best accomplished through in-person interactions such as student exchange programs, public events, outreach programs, and speaking tours. While COVID has put all these on hold, the importance of public diplomacy has not lessened. As diplomatic efforts continue to be vital for US national security, international connections and relationships built with foreign publics and cultivated through public diplomacy remain essential. The U.S. must still seek to find ways to build these relationships, even if meeting in person is difficult.
The US engages in virtual public diplomacy in a variety of ways, through tools like social media, government websites, and online events. Besides Twitter and other social media accounts, current virtual diplomacy initiatives include the Department of State’s Stevens Initiative virtual exchange program, and ShareAmerica. While long discussed as a public diplomacy tool, social media and other internet technologies have always been secondary. Now, as they have become one of the few remaining means of continuing public diplomacy, the US’ virtual capabilities and weaknesses are pushed to the forefront. The threats US image and soft power face abroad, particularly from China and Russia, raises the question of whether virtual diplomacy will be enough.
When utilized well, virtual diplomacy offers unique advantages. For example, virtual engagement with foreign publics gives the US the opportunity to hear directly from mass audiences with real-time feedback, which can then be used to inform the US’ future initiatives. However, this high influx of data means that the US must also invest more time into reviewing the feedback it receives and understanding those who give it. Proving a willingness to listen and adapt can lead to stronger relations with foreign publics. Additionally, virtual public diplomacy allows the US to reach audiences that it otherwise might not be able to, and to identify new audiences that might not have been considered before.
However, there are some aspects of in-person connections that cannot be easily replicated online. No matter how engaging or interactive a virtual initiative may be, it can’t be substituted for face-to-face personal interaction. Additionally, it is difficult to determine whether the virtual public diplomacy efforts are eliciting the desired response, especially since online responses are often more extreme. Success should not be measured by likes or retweets, but by examining whether the outreach leads to the desired action. It is also worth asking how online programs can make participants feel valued—an important aspect in helping those participants choose to continue a relationship with America.
In some countries, no amount of digital diplomacy will be able to achieve foreign policy objectives due to either a lack of technology or state censorship. When possible, the US should continue to develop both traditional and digital public diplomacy, tailoring the US’ public diplomacy approach according to the technological capabilities and online freedom of the target audience.
As the US seeks to improve its digital public diplomacy, it should approach public diplomacy creatively – looking for new ways to achieve old objectives. There is currently a demand for interactive online content as people isolated at home search for ways to engage with the world. While this has been true in a lesser degree up to this point, the present heightened interest in engaging online can be utilized for public diplomacy. The US has previously experimented with interactive websites, such as Democracy Dialogue and Opinion Space, which were aimed at increasing the dialogue between foreign audiences and the American public. Now would be a good time to introduce new or improved online options for doing so.
This period of time, if dedicated to advancing the US’ use of virtual public diplomacy techniques, can lead to increased communication and deeper relationships with target audiences. As in-person meetings and events start up again, the US should work to more thoroughly incorporate the knowledge and digital practices used during this time into its set of standard diplomatic tools. Actively combining virtual and traditional public diplomacy practices will ensure that the US is better able to achieve its foreign policy objectives. In the meantime, the U.S. should hesitate to give up what little in-person connections it still has with foreign audiences, particularly as it considers kicking international students out of the country.