15 September 2012
Diplomacy, until recently, was reserved for diplomats. As official ambassadors of governments, it has traditionally been the near-exclusive realm of diplomats to impose visa bans and financial sanctions, advise executives on how to defend national interests and ideals, persuade foreign governments to change behaviors, argue for international energy or trade deals, and negotiate treaties. Today, these activities are increasingly being undertaken by citizen diplomats who force the hands of governments on foreign policy issues, rather than follow their leads.
Empowered by the internet and motivated by new conceptions of human rights and state sovereignty, private citizens, often organized in groups around a specific cause, are affecting international events on an unprecedented scale. The Genocide Intervention Network, a citizen group based in the United States, recently implemented an early warning radio network in Burma to protect villagers from government attacks, and facilitated training for U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur; Amnesty International helped release activists and journalists from prisons in dozens of countries around the world; a coalition of citizen groups worked this year to negotiate and build votes for an international Arms Trade Treaty, while another citizen-based group worked to kill the same treaty; and today, citizens and private groups in the U.S. are seeking to hire unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to fly over the airspace of another country to capture video of human rights abuses in an attempt to affect that country’s behavior. This phenomenon is new. Although missionaries and humanitarian aid groups have acted in foreign countries for centuries, the mission and scope of many of today’s citizen diplomats are distinctly different.
Even when citizens are not interacting directly with foreign governments or populations, they are increasingly creating enough political pressure to alter the direction of their own country’s foreign policy. Citizens pressured the U.S. Congress to pass and enforce sanctions against Sudan. Almost overnight, citizens successfully secured a U.S. government commitment to hunt down Joseph Kony, a war criminal half way around the globe. Legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Congress would allow Congressional committees to add foreign human rights abusers to a list denying them visas and freezing their assets, and a similar bill in Britain would actually allow any citizen to recommend individuals for inclusion on the ban list. As The Economist reported in July 2012, actions such as international visa bans and asset freezes “used to be the business of governments only… but in future, names on the blacklists could come from lawmakers or even the public.”
The impact of citizen diplomacy has grown in part because of the unprecedented capabilities of the internet, which has grown from 360 million users in 2000 to 2.3 billion users in 2011. Citizens can organize, communicate, and share information in real-time without geographical boundaries and with minimal costs. The internet gives citizens an audience to hear their views, and policymakers listen to those who have audiences.
When members of the U.S. Congress or Executive Branch attempt to change foreign policy in any substantial way, they hear the opinions of their constituents in almost real-time. As an aide on Capitol Hill, I saw firsthand that if a pending trade deal or economic sanctions package was altered, we received emails from constituents about it the next day. The growing influence of citizens via the internet is particularly true in democracies around the world, but as the Arab Spring showed, it is not exclusive to democracies.
Nonetheless, there are limitations to citizen diplomacy via the internet. Nothing will ever be as effective in diplomacy as a face-to-face meeting. And citizens using the internet can “protest” but they still cannot actually protest unless they are physically present. The Mubarak regime in Egypt fell in part because of the organizing power of the internet, but it would not have happened if the outraged did not leave their computers and get to Tahrir Square.
Moreover, diplomacy is a skilled profession, and some citizen diplomats are not...diplomatic. A horribly misguided small-time pastor in Florida can cause anti-American protests and violence around the world by threatening to burn a Qur'an, as international relations expert Joseph Nye wrote about in 2010. It is also worth noting that citizen diplomats tend to advocate for a single issue, rather than a larger strategic position. This can place official diplomats and citizen diplomats at odds, or can be mutually reinforcing when official diplomats are able to point to citizen diplomacy to justify expansions of parallel government efforts.
Official diplomats, and countries in general, will continue to be the most powerful actors in international relations. Moreover, traditional avenues of citizen diplomacy (scientist engagement, student exchanges, etc.) will continue to be significant and worthy of support. But the advent of direct citizen diplomacy with foreign countries, and the growing effectiveness of domestic advocacy on foreign policy issues, have already changed the framework of international relations and will continue to do so.
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg once said, “I’m against picketing, but I don’t know how to show it.” Citizen diplomats today are increasingly representing the converse: they are for international change, and they know how to create it.
Daniel Kadishson is a Master’s candidate at National Defense University and has previously worked as a Legislative Assistant to a U.S. Congressman, an analyst for the U.S. Army, and an Advocacy Assistant at the Genocide Intervention Network. His writing represents his views and not those of the U.S. Government.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.
UN Photo/Logan Abas