Diplomatic Blogs: Truth, Power and Authenticity

The FCO hosted a digital diplomacy event yesterday. You can read Stephen Hale’s post here or check out their Bringing Foreign Policy Home page here. The FCO has linked to some bloggers who have offered reflections, not all positive, on their digital diplomacy efforts: Tony Curzon Price, Simon Dickson, Ian Brown, John Duncan.

I should note that the FCO probably has the largest number of ambassadors who have waded into blogging. In addition to the Foreign Secretary, there are about a dozen of them (check out this page) plus other FCO officials. By contrast, in the State Department, outside of the occasional postings you see in DipNote by US ambassadors, only a couple have official blogs (Ambassador Kinney in the Philippines and Ambassador Stephens in South Korea). There are a few other blogs run by PD sections — like the ones in London and Sri Lanka, but there is no aggregator for all of them.

I am republishing Tony Curzon Price’s piece below (with permission) entitled Blogs, truth and power at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office because his point on an agency seeking to influence in a transparent and authentic way should be food for thought for the State Department and its bloggers as it expand into digital engagement.

Tony Curzon Price
is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy. He received a PhD in economics from University College London (UCL), and worked as a jobbing economist for more than ten years. He founded a high-tech electronics company, Arithmatica, in 1998 and lived in Silicon Valley from 2001 to 2004.

Blogs, truth and power at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
By Tony Curzon Price

I went to a fascinating meeting at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on their “digital diplomacy” initiative. The ambassadors are blogging — you can see them aggregated here.

You might think that encouraging blogging at all levels by the foreign office would be a marketing disaster waiting to happen: surely someone was going to put a foot into a pretty well-laid trap very soon. How can “our man in Lisbon” (blogging here, in Portuguese) avoid being drawn into a debate on the state of the PIGS or the Portuguese criminal justice system that will reflect badly on the brand — UK Plc, mostly — he is promoting and representing?

Well, the question answers itself: it is not for nothing that he is “our man”. Actually, the FCO has always needed a culture of “presumption of competence” because representatives were sent many days’ travel away from any check on their power. Delegation had to be real. So there is almost no institution in the world (the Catholic Church springs to mind as a contender for that title) more suited to showing off its organisational discipline under decentralisation than the old imperial foreign ministries.

The result of all this is fascinating. Read John Duncan, for example, on Arms Treaty Negotiations. Remember that it was the failure of the chemical and biological weapons negotiations that left the door wide-open for the accusation that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. A working treaty here could have prevented the Iraq war. Will the sort of transparency that comes from this sort of blogging raise these issues to the level of importance they should have?

Ian Brown, from the Oxford Internet Institute, raised the question of how an Ambassador’s blog could be authentic. Surely they’re just shilling for her Majesty’s government, even the blog from news-poor Zimbabwe?

This is obviously the big question for government use of new media. Just as technology allowed disintermediation of finance—and so all the excesses that we are now paying for—so that disintermediation is now hitting the production of knowledge. And we don’t want to happen to knowledge what happened to money …

My own take on this is that there are two views of the business of knowledge making: you are either trying to influence outcomes, or you are trying to “speak truth to power”. In the new media, you can’t afford to pretend to be doing the one when you’re doing the other. The FCO cannot – just cannot – speak truth to power, because it is power. But it can transparently and authentically try to influence.

The bigger question of whether there is anyone left who has the legitimacy to speak truth rather than simply seek influence is a big question for our time. Like the analogy with finance, we now operate, as it were, without a gold standard. Beware, therefore, the inflation of all claims.