Canada’s Brave New World of Digital Diplomacy

Is it diplomacy, propaganda or subversion? There’s a question of naming going on these days in Canadian diplomacy, amid our government’s high-profile feud with Iran. It starts from a seemingly minor venture that opens up into something quite major: the way in which digital mass communications is effecting a tectonic shift in how governments relate to citizens – not just their own, but also those of other nations.

Last week, prior to Iran’s presidential elections (which produced a surprising first-round victory for the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani), the Canadian government launched the second of its experiments in digital outreach to the Iranian people. In partnership with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, the Department of Foreign Affairs funded a digital election-monitoring platform to keep watch over the Iranian vote. Offering live Farsi broadcasts and crowd-sourced accounts of voting activities, the digital experiment was designed to enable Iranians – both inside their country and expatriates – to report on and learn about the election.

If and when such outreach is ever conducted by a hostile foreign government against Canadians, it won’t be labelled diplomacy but something much less high-toned, such as propaganda or subversion.

That venture was part of the two-year Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran that Ottawa is sponsoring through the Munk School in order to increase digital communications with and among dissident Iranians. By raising awareness and increasing connections among Iranian democratic activists and ordinary citizens, the Canadian government hopes to increase the capacity of Iranians to pressure their own political system toward change. Ousting the current hard-line nuclear-threatening regime – with which Canada suspended diplomatic relations last year – is the unspoken end-game of this digital outreach manoeuvre.

Given the novelty of this digital outreach over the head of a hostile government directly to its people, it’s not surprising that there’s uncertainty over what to call it. The official position from Ottawa is that while bilateral relations between the Canadian and Iranian governments are suspended, relations between Canada and the Iranian people continue unabated.

For that reason, our government is at pains to emphasize that this digital outreach to Iranian citizens is part of the high and honourable practice of diplomacy. “Direct diplomacy,” “digital diplomacy” or “public diplomacy” have all been labels used for it. One Foreign Affairs diplomat tweeted proudly of the “new model of diplomacy” shown in the venture, while another insisted it was just another tool in the 21st-centurey diplomatic tool box. However, a Globe and Mail article last week called the experiment “anti-diplomacy,” and quoted Munk School director Janice Stein drawing a distinction between this project and the “diplomatic relationship” with Iran being pursued by other nations.

Why do these nuances of naming matter? Because the venture opens the door to a world of potential campaigns by governments to forge digital contacts with citizens of other countries for political ends. No one can predict what directions those will take in years ahead. If and when such outreach is ever conducted by a hostile foreign government against Canadians, it won’t be labelled diplomacy but something much less high-toned, such as propaganda or subversion.

In the wake of recent revelations of online spying by security agencies, Canadians are freshly aware that our privacy online isn’t what we may have thought it was. Still, it’s hard to imagine that other governments could purport to expand our freedoms through online outreach. Someday, though, that may change. Imagine a rising Asian superpower eager to show Westerners that their governments’ economic system and freedoms are fallible. Imagine it pulling off a massive manipulation of our online shopping or banking or government service accounts, with the aim of letting Canadians ‘assert their freedoms’ against companies, banks or government. And imagine that country doing so under the label of ‘public diplomacy’ or ‘digital diplomacy’—as a way of reaching out to us in Canada, over the protests of our government, in order to sway our sympathies and political energies in a direction favorable to its own interests.

The scenario may sound far-fetched, but it’s likely to happen some day in some form. And when it does, there will be the norm-establishing precedent of Canada’s experiment in digital outreach to Iranians to point to as legitimation for new tactics in diplomacy.

None of this is to say that what Canada is doing in facilitating dissident Iranian political conversation is wrong. It’s still debatable whether suspending diplomatic relations with the Iranian government was a wise move for achieving Ottawa’s policy aims of advancing the global effort to defuse the Iranian nuclear danger. That said, the digital outreach project is legitimate in principle, and may well do some good in practice.

We must recognize, though, that Canada’s venture is opening up a brave new world of diplomacy that will lead in unforeseeable directions – potentially, one day, to our own government’s danger and dismay. As Foreign Minister John Baird said in a recent interview, “the political space in the cloud can be incredibly powerful.” There’s no turning back now from the cloud and its political potentials. As other countries explore those potentials and powers, it remains to be seen what names those explorations will take on in the vocabularies of citizens and governments in Canada and around the world.

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