[WebDebate #26 summary] AI on the international agenda – where do we go from here?


Andrijana Gavrilović

In our December WebDebate, we looked at artificial intelligence (AI). AI is of geostrategic importance and countries are already investing heavily in AI and developing AI strategies. As AI potentially impacts nearly all aspects of society and the economy, it will become a prominent topic in many global debates. These new topics and the geo-strategic shifts related to AI were discussed by two experts from the technology sector and academia: Mr Mike Nelson (cloudflare, USA) and Mr Claudio Lucena (Paraiba State University in Brazil, Foundation for Science and Technology, Portugal). The WebDebate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne (DiploFoundation).

Emerging key topics related to AI on the international agenda

Nelson divided the key topics related to AI into economic and military or intelligence-related. He predicted that there will be fierce competition in the private sector to develop new tools for AI, such as in the field of e-commerce and healthcare. He thinks that what will be particularly interesting is that companies will start combining different parts of their operations to understand how the whole system works – e.g. a factory or a telecommunications network, where the profit margins for the company could potentially be much larger. In Nelson’s opinion, privacy laws in different countries and data localisation requirements which make providing services globally difficult, will be one of the biggest challenges. Military-wise, something akin to a space race might appear in the AI sphere. As defense departments and ministries tend to have big budgets, they have been pushing the envelope in these developments.

Lucena asked how traditional issues are being faced differently in the wake of new technology. He pointed out that there is growing interest about the future of work on the international agenda and an increasing need for the inclusion of the youth in the debate about the future of jobs. From an economic perspective, the future of jobs causes concern because in terms of producing wealth, greater automation poses many challenges. A particular concern is the lack of proper education about AI tools and access to these tools in the Global South.

The impact AI will have on the relation between states

Nelson stated that the biggest impact that governments could have, and the greatest role they could play in AI involves the culture of innovation and optimism that could come from using AI in a smart way. Years could be lost in the development and application of the technology because there is confusion and fear, Nelson cautioned. Governments have an opportunity to step-up and paint a picture of what the world could look like in 2025 if these technologies are used effectively and creatively, if the opportunities they bring are not constricted, and if everyone understands how these technologies work. The highest priority is for governments and businesses to work together to paint a positive picture of the future, Nelson underlined.

Lucena pointed out that there are various ways to approach the governance of AI:

  • self-regulation in the Global South: the after-effects of innovation are managed;

  • content regulation: the state is in control of innovation; and

  • the still undefined European way referenced in Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the 13th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) – marked by multilateral and multistakeholder approaches.

Lucena also stated that the first two models are already inspiring some alignment and realignment in the world, which does not affect the geopolitical balance yet, but might do so in the near future. If Europe were to better define its approach to the governance of AI, other countries with similar characteristics or wanting to have a similar environment would align to it.

Considering that algorithms can run on any computer anywhere, or in the cloud, Nelson found it hard to predict how governments envision controlling and shaping the development of AI or machine learning. He stressed that the government’s role lies in conducting research and educating people, e.g. on the difference between killer robots, decision support systems, machine learning, and artificial vision; which could help clarify the debate.

Transparency and AI

Transparency is needed above all else, Nelson underlined, and researchers should be required to be transparent about their research.

Lucena also stressed the importance of transparency. He stated that it is very important to know which initiatives went wrong and how to avoid such mistakes; and national systems try to protect and control too much when it comes to innovation, and they could prevent important developments.

Human control over AI decisions

Another challenge identified by Nelson is the justification of decisions made by AI – policy makers assume that a decision made by AI is always replicable, but AI decisions adapt as the situation changes. AI also means augmented intelligence. Very few companies and governments are going to entrust the making of fundamental decisions to ‘a piece of software’ which they do not understand. In Nelson’s opinion, critical choices will be made by humans, taking into account really useful insights provided by technology.

Lucena pointed out that institutions are still looking for meaningful human control over lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), and that meaningful human control is a concept that will be useful outside the military realm as well. He noted that one of the main challenges of the generation that is going to going to work with AI will be learning how to decide on the amount and nature of human control that is going to be embedded in AI activities.

Ethics and AI

Höne pointed out that Diplo’s AI lab looked at various national policies and strategies on AI, which were mostly focused on economy, security, and the competition aspect of AI. Very often, questions of ethics and the ethical use of AI are absent from these strategies.

Nelson stated that there is no agreed upon ethical system which will be used in machine learning, and that different conventions on human rights should be applied to machine learning. These conventions can help create an understanding of what discrimination looks like in this context, or how AI can infringe on people’s freedom. Another important aspect is that machine learning systems must be asked the right questions in order to make the right decisions.

Lucena pointed out that human rights are not absolutely objective notions, as there are internal and cultural disagreements concerning human rights. However, he agreed with Nelson that human rights are a more consistent, stable, legally more enforceable framework than a framework of ethics. Lucena also mentioned that approaching AI from a sustainable development point of view can be an interesting third path.

Recommendations for knowledge, skills, and mindset of policy makers and diplomats

Lucena stressed the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to AI, interacting with other areas and exchanging with them. He also stated that diplomats and policy makers do not necessarily have to have coding skills, but they have to understand some of the basics such as how algorithms are built and where challenges regarding meaningful human control come in. .

Nelson agreed that an interdisciplinary approach to AI is important. He also agreed that diplomats and policy makers do not necessarily have to have coding skills, but stated that they need to understand the limits of software and what assumptions have to be made when building a model. Another recommendation he gave is creating a vision that resonates with different people, in different sectors, in different countries in order to think about the future of AI.

[WebDebate #25 summary] Blockchain for development: a critical assessment


Andrijana Gavrilović

In our November WebDebate, we looked at blockchain technology. The WebDebate included an introduction to, and overview of, blockchain technology, and a brief exploration of some emerging and popular use-cases and applications. Joining us to discuss the topic were Mr Dejan Dinčič and Mr Arvin Kamberi. The WebDebate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne.

The origins of blockchain

Kamberi explained that blockchain is a continuation of previous cryptographic efforts, therefore, its roots lie in the development of modern cryptography. However, the concept of blockchain that we discuss today actually emerged in 2008, as a solution for the previous unsolved problem of the ‘double spending’ of digital cash. It was introduced in a white paper entitled, ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System’ by an anonymous entity dubbed Satoshi Nakamoto. While this document did not mention ‘blockchain’ per se, it explained the idea of blockchain and the concept of applying cryptography on the Internet for creating a system for transactions between two parties.

Cryptographic solution

As digital data can be copied, there is a danger that it can be transacted or spent more than once – an issue called ‘double-spending’. In systems like this, a central authority is needed to verify a transaction. However, the white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto proposed a system where no trusted institution in the middle exists. This can only be achieved if everyone in the system knows everything that has happened in the system from its beginning. In that sense, blockchain is a distributed data ledger of all transactions in one system.


Blockchain has introduced a combination of two things: hashing, and time-stamping. Digital data is put in a container which has a hashed (encrypted) header, forming a block. When this container is full of transactions, it is broadcasted on the Internet. The next block of data would then refer to the previous block of data by using the cryptographic function and time stamp. Hash serves as a digital fingerprint – it helps us ascertain that one block of data has been generated from the previous block of data in that chain, in chronological order. This prevents data tempering and enables the immutability of the system. It is important to note that every participant in this system runs the exact same database on their own computer. This significantly improves the security of the system – because all participants act as a server, the system is hard to take down.

How the blockchain transports data

In order to send someone any kind of data, the sender needs to disseminate the transaction on the network. That transaction is then put in a block. That block is propagated around the network for verification. All participants on the network confirm that the transfer can happen. After a certain period of time, that block is added to a blockchain, and the transaction is completed.

The elements of a blockchain network

There are two key elements of a blockchain network, Dinčić explained. The first element is a network of computers around the world that run the same software. This software is most often open-sourced. The second element are the communities of users. There are two types of blockchain users: participants in the blockchain network, and the end users who transact on each particular blockchain.

Applications and implications of blockchain

Höne gave the example of blockchain applications as a means of achieving or better implementing the sustainable development goals (SDGs). In relation to SDGs 1 and 5, blockchain could potentially be used for managing data effectively and empowering individuals to access public services. In relation to SDG 4, blockchain could be used to store education credentials and to prevent fraud. In relation SDG 12, blockchain could be used to manage supply chains.


According to Kamberi, there are indeed important possible economic, social and environmental applications of blockchain. Economic applications of blockchain include distribution and supply chains, financial services, and aid delivery. Social application of blockchain among others include the prevention of media censorship, ensuring data in public registries by immutability, and possibly, the protection of digital identities, preventing digital identity theft, and increasing the levels of data privacy. Environmental applications of blockchain could help improve climate marketplace efficiencies.


Blockchain for development is a frequent topic in diplomatic discussions, Dinčić pointed out. He reminded the participants that in the past, several waves of international development were technology driven and technology was considered to be the key point for the next step in development. However, he cautioned that key properties of blockchain technology that are different and that have empowering potential need to be kept in mind. According to Dinčić, a balance should be found between the high expectation of the implementation of blockchain, and the rational direction of resources and effort into development efforts.

Personal data in a blockchain

As far as digital identities are concerned, the idea is that we should own our own identities on the Internet, own our personal encryption keys, Kamberi explained. Without easy to use programs and intuitive user interfaces to help us hande our personal data, inaccurate data may be created from our devices and put into a blockchain. Computers and other devices used to connect to that blockchain can be vulnerable, tampered with, or hacked. Therefore, in order to handle their data securely, users need to be very well versed in encryption.

Blockchain’s compatibility with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

The GDPR was not created with blockchain in mind, Kamberi noted. Some issues are now arising from this, such as who controls the data, who processes the data, and the geolocation of the data. In Kamberi’s opinion, a few changes both on the regulatory side and the technology side can make the GDPR and blockchain compatible. The biggest issues are whether obfuscation of personal data through additional encryption methods, means deletion of data. Kamberi stated that the multistakeholder approach could work around these legal issues and include regulation more specific to blockchain into the GDPR.  

Reasons for the slow uptake of blockchain technology

One of the key reasons for so few large scale applications of blockchain, according to Dinčić, is that a distributed system like blockchain requires a different form of governance. We have to understand the context in which we want to apply the blockchain technology and pay attention to the social and governance aspects of the domains in which we want to apply blockchain. The other issue is the technology’s tricky nature – blockchain is nominally available for everyone to create but the data and values that are transacted require that blockchain and the end-points are secure.

Is cryptocurrency a scam?

The introduction of blockchain came amidst the global economic crisis of 2009, with the goal of creating an alternative to the central banking/financial system, Kamberi stated. That is why it was first used in cryptocurrencies. One would think that there is no need for obscure Internet money and cryptocurrencies when there is transparency in financial institutions who are trusted parties, run by democratic governments. However, another perspective must be kept in mind: there are parts of the world that do not have access to financial services but would like to participate in the global Internet exchange of goods. Because of this, an universal Internet currency which people can use to engage in financial transactions is needed, and could be very useful.

Blockchain technology for e-voting

Implementing blockchain for e-voting would not present a technological challenge, according to Kamberi. He reiterated that the problem is the security of the devices which voters are voting from. If the device is not secure, the transfer of data is not secure, and the vote can be wrongly cast. There were several documented issues of ballot machines being hacked, not to mention computers or phones.


Kamberi concluded that blockchain-related solutions should not be dismissed. The important thing, he noted, is to preserve a free and open Internet on top of which we can innovate further.


Dinčić concluded that blockchain has its empowering properties and that it can be used to make a difference – to achieve the SDGs and other development goals. However, a fine balance must be struck between expectations and reality – the real possible applications of this technology.

[WebDebate #24 summary] Space diplomacy: Old geopolitics or new frontier for collaboration?


Andrijana Gavrilović

In our September WebDebate, we looked at space diplomacy. While space diplomacy is a hotly debated issue of geopolitical dimensions, it also reminds us of the need for multilateral efforts and pooling resources together in the interest of achieving a larger goal, while offering opportunities to foster better collaboration between scientists and diplomats under the various guises of science diplomacy. Joining us to discuss these issues were Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, distinguished fellow and head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation; Dr Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in international relations at the University of Leicester, UK; Dr Jean-Christophe Mauduit, Science Diplomacy Center at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, USA.

Outer space is not only a domain of peace

Rajagopalan started by identifying the changes that occurred in the space domain over the last decade. The first change is the growing number and new types of actors – there are over sixty players in space nowadays, including commercial ones. The second change is the utilisation of space in the national security context, as states are incorporating the outer space aspect into conventional military operations. Third, there is a change in the balance of power between countries in Asia and beyond that has had an influence on how space diplomacy is conducted; how priorities in the space domain are determined; and how challenges are identified and addressed.

According to Rajagopalan, given current policy trends, space cannot be seen as a completely peaceful domain anymore. She underlined that the trend of weaponisation of outer space must be avoided, and stressed that the dual use of outer space and related technology makes it difficult to differentiate between a peaceful object and a weapon.

Rajagopalan also argued that unregulated cooperation between countries in the space domain could further or spur regional or global insecurity which is why rules of engagement for cooperation and collaboration within the space domain should exist. The existing mechanisms for space governance need to be reviewed, rewritten, or replaced with new mechanisms in order to mitigate deterrence policies and arms races in the space domain. She concluded that any mechanism for space diplomacy needs to include all stakeholders, and needs to pay attention to legal, scientific, and political issues.

Space politics: a continuation of terrestrial politics

Bowen underlined that the use of space is not only characterised by scientific activities or the need for prestige and symbolism. Rather, space has been central to military capabilities and security for the most advanced states since the dawn of the space age. However, there is a maturation of battlefield applications of satellites and space systems today, and a proliferation of those technologies outside of the USA and NATO, namely in China and Russia. According to Bowen, the biggest concern for space diplomacy when it comes to military questions and warfare are the existing missile defence capabilities on Earth.

However, Bowen also stressed that space is a place and not a policy issue. There are different aspects of space that can be a subject of policy. Bowen also noted that he fundamentally disagrees with the dichotomy between old geopolitics and collaboration in the space domain, because space diplomacy is a continuation of terrestrial politics. Therefore, space is more than just an environment for competition or collaboration.

Science diplomacy and space

Mauduit pointed out that scientists understand space differently from diplomats. While diplomats are often focusing on Earth’s orbit and its security implications, scientists look further afield, to the Solar system and beyond. This understanding of the universe requires international collaboration that is best described under the umbrella term of science diplomacy, Mauduit stressed. Science diplomacy is a new name for collaboration that has been long present in the space domain. Science diplomacy can be understood as science in diplomacy, wherein scientists advise governments; diplomacy for science wherein diplomats facilitate international scientific collaboration; and science for diplomacy, wherein scientific collaboration improves international relations. Mauduit emphasised that like any other international space, outer space is a source of interactions of humans and politics. Science diplomacy, which remains an underutilised concept when it comes to space, is an important tool in grasping this complexity.

Space is crowded

When asked about possible regulation regarding the vast amounts of space debris in earth’s orbit, and so-called space situational awareness (SSA), Rajagopalan pointed out that there is not a clear understanding of the types of objects in outer space nor knowledge of their number. She noted there is a need to build upon national capabilities to clean up space debris in order to achieve a holistic understanding and appreciation of the outer space environment. Only a small set of actors even possess the debris removal technologies, but it remains unclear which debris should be removed and by whom, Rajagopalan underlined. She concluded that the biggest problem of space governance is the lack of agreement between major players. Some, for example, do not regard space debris as a challenge. Only after an agreement on challenges is achieved can a mechanism to solve them be adopted.

Bowen noted that countries are slowly developing their SSA capabilities. At the moment, Russia and China lack adequate SSA data. The USA on the other hand has shared its SSA data for others to use and keep their satellites safe. However, according to Bowen, sharing SSA data could become a security issue. SSA data would enable more countries to develop military options because more countries will know which satellite they need to avoid, jam or eliminate physically during sensitive times. This security threat, Bowen claimed, can be a big hurdle for cooperation and it is certainly the biggest hurdle of building a more global and open data source of SSA. Bowen identified the USA, China, and Russia as the biggest polluters in space. As they legally have sovereignty over their debris in space, they are the only ones that can clean it up. A governance instrument that could make them do so would be preferable to the time consuming process of creating an international treaty.

Space, small states, and sovereignty

Questions from the audience also raised issues of sovereignty in space, and unequal access and capabilities of countries, in particular developing countries. Especially for smaller and developing countries, it is difficult to be completely sovereign in space, Bowen noted. If a country cannot launch its satellite into space, it is dependent on another country with an adequate launch system.

Yet, there is a multipolar distribution of power in space, as there are more countries capable of launching objects into space. This means that today, there are more options for small countries to gain access to space at a lower cost. Small countries can go shopping for access to space within alliances and geopolitical relationships on Earth. In other words, despite legitimate questions of sovereignty, there are more options for smaller countries to acquire or launch satellites.

From individual scientists to international cooperation: science diplomacy in action

The individual level of cooperation between scientists, even on an informal level, has always existed, Mauduit emphasised. This kind of cooperation might not have an observable or direct impact on foreign policy and national security strategy. Yet, it is important to consider examples such as the Pugwash conference when assessing the contribution of scientists to diplomacy and creating a more peaceful world in particular. Using the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project as an example, Mauduit stressed the ability of scientists to create links between countries whose formal relations are impaired.

Also, major scientific organisations, such as the European Southern Observatory, and the Square Kilometre Array in South Africa, that involve many countries, have been started by civilian scientists and received help by governments later on.  At the framework level, scientific advice to governments is a recent development – there are only about 10 countries in the world that have a scientific advisor to the ministry of foreign affairs.


Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia


[WebDebate #23 summary] #Cybermediation: New skills and tools for mediation


Andrijana Gavrilović

In our July WebDebate, we looked at what new skills are needed for mediators to operate in a conflict environment impacted by the spread of new technologies, what new tools have become available in this context, and how mediators can concretely benefit from these skills and tools. Joining us were Mr Nickolay Mladenov (UN Secretary-General’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process); Prof. Jovan Kurbalija (Director of DiploFoundation and Head of the Geneva Internet Platform); and Mr Enrico Formica (Senior Mediation Officer, Policy and Mediation Division, Department of Political Affairs, United Nations Office at Geneva). The debate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne  (Research Associate in Diplomacy and Global Governance, DiploFoundation).

#CyberMediation Initiative

Formica briefly introduced the #CyberMediation Initiative, which was launched by the UN Department of Political Affairs, DiploFoundation, the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, swisspeace, and researchers from Harvard University. The idea behind the initiative is to explore the impact of digital technology on the field of mediation, as the environment in which mediators are now working in is a digital environment in which social media and other tools play a fundamental role. The initiative will try to collect information from mediators and practitioners who are already using tools, reach out to technology companies to see what new tools could be used in the field of mediation, and try to bridge the world of mediation and the world of private technology companies. The initiative is also working with graduate students in Geneva who are helping to identify tools to better reach the youth and advance the peace and security agenda.

A new context for mediation efforts

Mladenov stated that many mediators have not yet discovered the opportunities of new technologies, so their use has not been harmonised among practitioners. However, he also stressed that while the use of new technologies was a luxury five years ago, today their use is an absolute necessity. Mediators and diplomats representing the UN are aware of what is happening on social media and use social media to further the UN’s mission.

Information today is instantaneous. On the one hand, that makes mediators and diplomats much more informed, but on the other hand, it makes the negotiation environment more difficult to control and creates the expectation that diplomats react quickly to events as they develop. Mediators and representatives of the Secretary-General are present and engaged on social media, engaged with their counterparts, and focused on public outreach. Now, it is much harder for information to remain confidential.

However, sifting through the information available is very important so that mediators and diplomats avoid both fake news and misinformation affecting their work. The amount of information available today makes it extremely important for diplomats to be very clear about their narrative when engaging in negotiation. In this context, Mladenov stressed that it is extremely important that diplomats create a narrative, control it, and remain consistent about it across all platforms and in all discussions. He also underlined the importance of pictures in shaping the narrative. In Mladenov’s view, the use of social media and tools in mediation depends on the mediator’s personal style – some do it personally, while others delegate it to their teams.

The use of new tools in practice

The increased use of networking and communication tools such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram, allows mediators to communicate directly, helping them strike agreements quickly and easily while also disseminating information. However, Mladenov cautions there are two main drawbacks to this kind of communication. First, it is not formalised and hence, mediators should always work towards a more formal, written record of their agreement. Second, the teams supporting the mediators and negotiators might not be aware of all the details of the information exchanged, and therefore they might struggle to provide their expert advice. This can be mitigated by tools and collaborative platforms which enable the sharing of information in the work environment.

New tools in context

Kurbalija stated that the policy context for mediation sometimes needs to be secret, sometimes translucent, and sometimes transparent. These three approaches shape the possibilities for the use of cybermediation tools. Mediators have to keep in mind the specific political, social, cultural, technological context in which mediation takes place. In situ face-to-face mediation leaves limited possibilities for the use of cyber tools; teleconferences contain interested parties who are keen and actively engaged in the process. Mediators must engage with the general public in order to create a cultural peace, and possibilities for mediated arrangements to be accepted by society. Cybermediation can be used for communication, collaboration, information management, network management, and learning.

The tools that can be used in cybermediation range from very simple but powerful ones (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, group drafting) to more advanced, upcoming ones (Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain). Kurbalija underlined that a very delicate balance should be established between making more efficient use of the current generation’s simple digital tools, while also following the newest technological developments. He recommended the Gartner Curve for following new technologies, but cautioned that some of the tools mapped there may not be ready for general use, much less for use in the sensitive fields of cybermediation. Nevertheless, these tools may impact the future of the field. Kurbalija concluded that the toolbox of a mediator should contain the simplest of the tools and the most advanced.

The tension between social media and the need for confidentiality

In Mladenov’s view, there is a very clear line between the need for transparency and needs to preserve certain confidentiality of channels. For the foreseeable future, negotiations will still require confidentiality. However, confidentiality can hamper later the implementation of the agreement, especially if societal buy-in is important. Therefore, finding the right way to frame and communicate the outcomes of the mediation is as important as the details of the agreement itself.

Kurbalija underlined that the use of tools is determined by the purpose of diplomacy – resolving peaceful conflicts. If the tools have the potential to hurt the main purpose, they should not be used. In Kurbalija’s view, public communication tools should not be used in delicate negotiations.

Do mediators and counterparts receive dedicated training on how to deal with social media?

In Mladenov’s experience, dedicated training has become more common of late. For example, the UN has started training its press employees in the use of social media. Ultimately, that needs to expand to the principals of using new technology in the mediations themselves.

Kurbalija presented a ‘one day, one month, one year’ formula. One day is needed to grasp the basic social media tools. Current training is often based on this. However, it takes about one month before effective listening on social media takes place. Usually after one year, a mediator can become an effective social media actor.

Institutional policies on the use of social media

In Mladenov’s view, procedures and policies are important because they protect the integrity of the institution, the integrity of the message, and the integrity of the tools used.

Kurbalija gave the example of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which combines the assumption of competence and the existence of a crisis management team. This approach is effective because it does not try to codify something that is very fluid while keeping some general guidelines in place and helping people internalise the social media culture of the organisation.

Fornica concluded the debate by pointing out that social media is already impacting mediation, which is why serious reflections on mediation and training in mediation are needed.  Frontier technologies will be impacting mediation in the future, and attention should be given to those as well. Mediators operate in a very technical environment which is also context specific. Every mediator chooses his own tools and style of mediation, but every mediator should also have a good overview of the available tools, including the digital ones,  before choosing.


Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia


[WebDebate #22 summary] Algorithmic diplomacy: Better geopolitical analysis? Concerns about human rights?


Andrijana Gavrilović

Our June WebDebate tackled the topic of Algorithmic diplomacy. Three issues in this field were discussed in the debate: algorithmic diplomacy in the context of geopolitical analysis and public diplomacy, impact of algorithms on human rights and the question of filter bubbles and online echo chambers that seem to be generated by algorithms. Joining us to discuss these issues were two speakers: Mr Shaun Riordan, a Senior Visiting Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael), and Mr Lee Hibbard, administrator in the Bioethics Unit of the Council of Europe. The debate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne, research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

The definition and classification of algorithms and the new context in which they are used

Höne started by giving a simple definition of an algorithm: algorithms are a step-by-step description of how to do something. They can be formulated in computer languages, but can also be formulated in natural languages. They are aimed at solving problems, producing the same results when given the same inputs. Höne also gave a classification of five types of algorithms and examples of questions in the diplomatic area these algorithms could solve. Two-class or multi-class algortims answer questions such as “what is the sentiment of this tweet about this policy issue?” Algorithms that detect anomalies can answer questions like “is the trading pattern different form state’s past trade behavior?” Some algorithms do regression analysis and can ask questions such as “How many followers will the MFA’s account gain next week?” Unsupervised learning algorithms can solve questions like “which types of users generally agree with the messages of the MFA?” Machine learning algorithms make decisions like “should I vote for, against or abstain from this proposal, based on my country’s context and negotiation history?”

Algorithms have been used for a while, yet attention put on them has been renewed because of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – algorithms are used to make sense of big quantities of data, which in turn enable developing and improving AI. In terms of diplomacy, the applications of algorithms are quite new. Algorithms have the potential to change the tools diplomats have at their disposal, influence the topics on the diplomatic agenda and can impact the very environment in which diplomacy takes place.

The use of algorithms in Big Data analysis

Riordan started by acknowledging there are great potential applications for Big Data analysis both in content policy and foreign policy analysis. As far as content policy goes, governments could use Big Data analysis to scrape social media for information about their citizens in order to tailor future interaction with them. However, this is where privacy issues appear, as well as the concern that other governments might use this information for social control. In the area of foreign policy analysis, it is possible to base foreign policy decisions on the outputs of algorithms. Riordan identifies two kinds of algorithms that can be used for such a purpose – designed and machine learning algorithms. Designed algorithms are designed by programmers and reflect the epistemological prejudices of the programmer, making them not objective. On the other hand, machine learning algorithms aren’t objective either, as the way data is being fed into the algorithm shapes the way said algorithm  functions. As a non-objective robot inputs that data into the algorithm, there is still a bias, but the diplomats and policy makers who are the users of the analysis understand less about how that bias is created and aren’t able to question the decision the algorithm recommends. Another concern Riordan mentions is that algorithms doing Big Data analysis are online, which makes them susceptible to cyber attacks. A MFA’s algorithm can be hacked and the data and the analytical framework can be changed in order to change the government’s decision and conclusion about the next course of action.

How algorithms drive social media and search engines

Algorithms make information warfare easier and public diplomacy harder because they feed or reinforce echo chambers and filter bubbles, Riordan underlined. In information warfare, the agents want to fragment social discourse in liberal democracies, polarize societies and undermine the narratives of the government and its ability to deliver on policy decisions. This is achieved by fragmenting decisions, after which the algorithms will make sure the fragments reach the echo chamber that agrees with them. However, public diplomacy aims to influence the entire society, which is why it can’t rely on social media to do so, Riordan emphasized. In his opinion, it is necessary for diplomats to engage with internet companies that use algorithms as part of their business model to gather more information about algorithms, in order to enable the designing of policies that can broaden the debate.

Concerns about human rights

Hibbard pointed out that automatic processing of data has been a subject of discourse for the last three decades. Algorithms are a part of everyday life – profiling assessments, predictions – but the speed of technological change is still in its infancy. There is a blurring of roles of responsibility, which is challenging for all actors, state and non-state, public and private alike. Human rights are the exclusive purview of states, who sign conventions protecting human rights and are legally obliged to ensure that these rights are protected, that they are clearly understood and transmitted and that one can predict their behavior accordingly. In Hibbard’s opinion, human rights that are particularly important are political and civil rights, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, right to privacy and personal data protection, the right not to be discriminated against. The challenge here appears in the form of actors who handle information in new ways, Hibbard underlined. The way their algorithms work depends on the data that is put into them and the way that data is crunched by the algorithm itself. Algorithms have an important role in finding information and sorting it, but the issue lies in how automated that process is. When content is blocked, either voluntarily by the platform or via a court order, there are challenges regarding protecting freedom of expression, ensuring diversity and tolerance in a pluralistic information society information online. Therein lies the concern that echo chambers are created, reducing that access of information, polarizing opinions and perhaps lessening diversity. While profiling and Big Data are acceptable practices, if the data becomes personal, the question of ensuring the protection of that personal data appears.

Concerns about the level of autonomy of algorithms

Algorithms may be the most neutral way of collecting and analysing the data, but whether they are fair and balanced remains debatable in Hibbards opinion. The more autonomy the algorithms have, the less human agency is in play, which means less discretion. This could lead to reinforced bias and issues of discrimination that come from the bias which in turn comes from the data which is input into algorithms. With machine learning and AI, less human agency is in play, which makes humans feel like they are losing control over their data. We haven’t really mastered algorithms and what they can be used for; their misuse and abuse exists, but it is unclear whose responsibility is it to protect from it, Hibbard emphasized.

Can algorithms help diplomats in the era of direct Dotard-Rocket Man diplomacy?

Riordan expressed uncertainty as to how algorithms could help in the case of two hostile sides exchanging insults. What is new is the way President Trump uses Twitter, but it is anarchic in nature and undermines the conducting of American foreign policy, in Riordan’s opinion. He also opined that this is bad case study that can’t produce valuable lessons for diplomacy.

Are current diplomats prepared to make best use of opportunities provided by algorithmic diplomacy? How should future diplomats be prepared?

In Riordan’s opinion, diplomats first have to understand algorithms, how social media works and why algorithms are limiting what social media can do, and why algorithms make information warfare so much easier. Secondly, diplomats must have more technical knowledge, such as knowledge about search engine optimisation (SEO) which is essential in trying to get a message across. Riordan’s third point was that if diplomats are going to use algorithms to undertake foreign policy analysis, they need to understand that algorithms are not objective, that there are limitations to how valuable they are, and diplomats must be willing to question them. Fourth, diplomats must be more imaginative about the use of online platforms for scenario building, simulation exercises, targeting their audience, in order to successfully combat information warfare.

Hibbard opined there must be reflection about the role of the states in the online space, which is a space with no boundaries. Diplomats must understand they are dealing with a cross border phenomenon which has its own belief system. The established order of things for diplomats and the technology sector of the Internet differs, the internet governance principles regarding processes on the Internet are different to what may have been learnt by the diplomats. While multistakeholder approach to internet governance has been discussed frequently, Hibbard opined that we haven’t yet found the effectively successful working model for internet governance in which roles and responsibilities of different actors are respected. Diplomats need to understand new realities. Diplomats must develop the ability to communicate and collaborate with non-state actors and understand their belief system, as they can affect the role of diplomats in helping to ensure the protection of human rights online.


Riordan remarked that while the culture of the technology sector is difficult to understand for diplomats and governments, the technology sector finds geopolitics hard to understand and clashes against it. The internet does have boundaries, such as the China Great Firewall, and governments are trying to impose themselves on the Internet, pursuing the idea of internet sovereignty. Both sides need to learn in this, Riordan underlined.

Bringing together the programmers and diplomats for designing tools for diplomats

Riordan identifies as a problem the use of off-the-shelf products/software/programmes/apps by diplomats, which come with limitations of the built-in algorithms and are designed for other, commercial purposes. Diplomats and programmers should collaborate to tailor-design tools that diplomats will use. Riordan also stated that diplomats should influence the design of future tools and understand the implications of where the future of technologies is going.

Using algorithms in diplomacy for promoting peace

Riordan noted that diplomacy can promote peace but it can also promote warfare, depending on the national interests of the state. Riordan stated his belief that the same will apply in cyberspace, where diplomats will also pursue the national interests of their state. Some of these interests may be peaceful, but some countries are already taking advantage of algorithms to undermine Western society and its coherence. In Riordan’s opinion, diplomats should engage with that.

Dealing with the dark side of algorithms

Diplomats and internet companies should collaborate to ensure the protection of human rights, a range of which should be agreed upon, Hibbard underlined. Governments must work with companies to ensure their algorithms respect the balance of human rights – both in rights and in limitations where necessary- and that bias is removed from the algorithms. Algorithms, however autonomous, should be accompanied by humans, who will validate and certify their results.

Will algorithmic Big Data analysis replace human analysis and to what extent?

Riordan warned that should Big Data analysis replace human analysts altogether, humans will lose control of policy making processes because they won’t understand the black boxes that are generating the foreign policy analysis. At the very least, the human analysis and human diplomacy is going to have to accompany the use of algorithms in order to understand intentions and motivations correctly through face-to-face diplomacy and avoid the kind of misunderstandings that lead to conflict.


Hone reflected that the questions for the futures will be promoting the collaboration between diplomats on one hand and programmers and technologists on the other hand on various levels in MFAs; promoting public-private partnerships in the sense of how tech in designed and used; including Internet companies into this dialogue and getting transparency and cooperation into the policy realm.

Riordan concluded that a way to get diplomats and technology specialists together must be found, so diplomats could bring their skill sets, techniques and mindsets of diplomats which can be helpful in solving algorithm problems, in negotiating the problems in cyberspace. Technology companies must get engaged with governments, and they can be influenced by governments that have the market power or can leverage the market attractiveness as can impose legislation on companies, but this could possibly create a complicated situation in which companies would have to choose between regulations. The second way of influencing companies according to Riordan is – they do not want information warfare carried out on their platforms as it makes them unattractive to marketers. It is easy to question what the biases and prejudices of an algorithmic black box are, and humans know that human judgement is biased and take that into account in the process.

Hibbard concluded that more reflection is to be had regarding the autonomous use of machines which collect information and make decisions, and humans should be accompanying these processes.  The roles and responsibilities of actors need to be discussed. Actors need to grasp the technical aspects, at least to understand the main challenges which appear. The question of liability should also be discussed – if something is autonomous and works without any human manipulation, it is important to decide who has responsibility for its outputs.


Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia

[WebDebate #21 summary] Can we teach and learn negotiation skills online?


Andrijana Gavrilović

In our May WebDebate, we looked at the potential of teaching and learning negotiation skills online. Joining us to to consider this possibility were Ambassador Kishan S. Rana, professor emeritus and DiploFoundation senior fellow; Ambassador Stefano Baldi, Ambassador of Italy to Bulgaria; and Dr Katharina Höne, research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

The importance of simulations when teaching negotiation

Höne questioned what can be learned in the abstract and what can only be learned through practice ‒ whether only the ‘theory of negotiation’ can be taught online and whether online courses are limited to passive instruction. An important part of online courses on negotiation are simulations of negotiations and Höne, a lecturer on DiploFoundation’s Negotiation Skills online course, described the two-week simulation exercise her students undergo. The students simulate the pre-negotiation phase of a development project with representatives from both governments and civil society of the partner country, in the lead-up to the first face-to-face meeting. More than 90% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the negotiation exercise was an important part of the learning experience saying it consolidated the learning and called for creative application of the topics discussed in the course. However, as Höne reflected, online teaching is different in some aspects. Challenges include the absence of human connection and human touch and non-verbal clues, as well as differences in conveying emotions and differences in creating connection and applying pressure. Advantages of online teaching are increased access and availability of negotiation training, the potential for more equal participation, and the ability to slow it down and analyse the situation carefully before responding. At the end of her presentation, Höne argued that there is likely an increased need for online training in negotiation skills as more and more negotiations are taking place online and diplomats have less time to attend face-to-face training.

Following this, Baldi expressed his conviction that too little training on negotiation skills exists. Negotiation skills, he emphasised, are not only for diplomats ‒ diplomats are only a small group of people that use negotiation skills. He pointed out that negotiation skills comprise many elements. Most of these elements have theoretical points that can be taught online, but some can only be mentioned, not practised, online, as they assume human interaction. Baldi stressed that more online negotiation courses are needed and that people need to be exposed to basic online learning courses on negotiation; even if they are not diplomats posted in multilateral posts where negotiation is part of the job, and , they will have to use negotiation skills to a certain extent. In Baldi’s five years of experience as the Director of the Diplomatic Institute at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy, he experienced that the time that can be dedicated to face-to-face training is limited, and the solution is to provide some of the training online, but not all of it.

In Rana’s experience, online learning is slower and delivered over a longer period of time, unlike face-to-face lectures. Simulations are very important in negotiation training, yet Rana is uncertain whether they are effective online. Experiences of other institutions could be quite valuable in this regard, which is why he recommended horizontal co-operation between institutions that use online learning. The key point for Rana is that advocacy, trust, and credibility remain at the core of diplomacy. Despite the rise of public diplomacy and the revolution in information technology, the classic tasks of relationship building and bilateral management remain unchanged.

Are online courses on negotiation skills limited to simulating online negotiations?

Baldi highlighted that there are critical limitations to online learning for negotiation skills. In his experience, the most effective simulations can only take place live, with people in a meeting room, simulating. What can be simulated well in an online training course is online negotiation. However, negotiations rarely take place online. In order to develop this possibility, which can be quite effective for certain types of negotiation, diplomats and others should be more aware and knowledgeable of the tools that can be used  so they would feel more at ease to shift some of the negotiations, but not all of them, online.

Höne reflected that even if online teaching courses were limited to simulating only online negotiations, any negotiation simulation exercise holds valuable lessons for participants, even if they are just related to self-reflection: experiencing oneself in the face of adversity or failing to get concessions. These lessons are to a certain extent generalisable and transferable, and they still provide participants with the experience of simulating negotiation exercises.

Are negotiations moving  more and more online?

Höne pointed out that some of the participants at DiploFoundation’s courses seem to suggest that more and more aspects of negotiations are moving online, counting for example e-mail exchanges used to agree on small matters before a face-to-face meeting.

Baldi noted that if e-mail exchanges are considered part of online negotiations, then the system is already hybridised. In Baldi’s experience, what happens behind the scenes through e-mail exchanges that consider texts is very important. However, more extensive online negotiations rarely take place. He argued that more online negotiators are needed for more online negotiations to be had. For this to occur, future online negotiators must be educated ‒ they should understand when and how online negotiations would be fruitful.

Can procedures be better simulated online?

Rana admitted that the procedural elements of multilateral processes are more easily amenable to online teaching methods. However, he cautioned that countries with limited resources tend to view online processes differently than countries that are more advanced in the application of ICT. In bilateral processes, Rana was unaware of any substantial work done between negotiating countries.

Baldi pointed out that procedures can certainly be simulated and it is useful to know them. Yet, rules of procedures are very specific to each organisation and, as such, the potential for teaching generalisable lessons is limited. Therefore, online courses on negotiations should only cover basic procedures, such as the role of the chairman, the vote order, etc.

Online negotiations involving non-state actors

Rana’s understanding was that negotiations involving non-state actors would be domestic negotiations, considering that non-state actors are not actors in international negotiations. How negotiations with non-state actors unfold varies from country to country. Baldi noted that more and more important consultations with non-state actors are taking place, which can be seen as a pre-negotiation step. He reflected that online instruments will be increasingly important for consultations, enabling different voices and views to be expressed.

Is online negotiation, even at a preliminary level, taking place to a significant degree in the EU?

In high-level negotiations, this occurs extremely rarely, Baldi said, because representatives of EU member states are physically present in Brussels, where multilateral negotiations take place. On a bilateral level, online negotiations do occur, and the system might be called hybridised, but real final negotiations between the member states occur in one room, between physically present representatives of states.

Can relationships be built in an online context?

Rana stated that he is unaware of any such examples, but said that such an outcome would be wonderful. Baldi noted that building relationships is essential in some types of negotiations. For example, in Brussels, where diplomats from EU member states are posted for four-year periods, building relationships is of massive importance. He concluded that many links can be established online, even if it is more difficult to establish them. He also noted that relationships can be built during online courses on negotiation, if the courses are delivered over a long period of time and are interactive in nature.

Drawing on her experience as a lecturer at DiploFoundation, Höne further stressed that substantial relationships can be built online. Participants feel like they know each other, and they do to a certain extent, which forms a relationship that can be deepened during face-to-face meetings.

Does online negotiation build skills and practices, especially for newcomers?

Rana briefly and emphatically stated that they do. Baldi stated his belief that everybody should attend an online course before participating in a face-to-face course or simulation. It would save them valuable time while providing them with a certain level of knowledge they can build on.


Höne concluded by stressing that in her experience online training can simulate some key aspects of negotiations, including giving and receiving concessions, self-reflection, and managing one’s emotions. Rana concluded that hard data on what is happening online is needed. It would be beneficial to know, for instance, the percentage of negotiations that are occuring online. He reiterated that those who teach negotiation online need to communicate horizontally. Baldi concluded that regardless of the amount of negotiations taking place online, it is essential that professionals have negotiation skills, even if they are not diplomats. Online courses are an exceptional tool for teaching these skills, provided that they contain certain characteristics: that they are provided over a long period of time, that they build relationships, and that they simulate negotiations.  


Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia


[WebDebate #20 summary] Strategies for African States in Multilateral Diplomacy


Andrijana Gavrilović

The overarching question of the WebDebate in March was: how can African states navigate multilateral diplomacy successfully?

Addressing this formidable question were Amb. Amr Aljowaily, Egypt’s ambassador to Serbia, and Dr Yolanda Kemp Spies, a senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Chair in African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. The debate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne, research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

Multilateralism, African identity and Africa’s multilateral strategies

Spies began by stressing the deep significance of multilateralism for Africa. Africa was arbitrarily divided under the colonial rule and the political borders do not indicate ethnic or other affiliations, which made state-building a much more difficult project in Africa than elsewhere in the world, as artificial states had to be consolidated. Because of the historical divisions, Africans have developed a strong focus on unity and the integration of the continent, sometimes at a fault, because it precludes some other more rational multilateral decisions. Africa has tended to form blocks in multilateral organisations such as the UN. Individual countries have chosen to engage Africa as a whole: China, Japan, Turkey and Korea. There is an inclination to treat Africa as a unit with single unitary interests. However, it is not a unit, and has very serious divisions in terms of its unity project.

Spies said that a several ideas are driving Africa’s multilateral project forward. Africa needs to become much more critical and strategic in its multilateral projects, and more flexible about moving into multilateral formations that are more minilateral (plurilateral) within international forums, so that a critical mass of African states could be sufficient to drive an agenda without necessarily wanting to invoke continental consensus. Another multilateral strategy is to be flexible, so that states can also reach out to non-state actors in the new form of diplomacy called polylateral diplomacy. African countries must also do their homework before they enter into negotiations of multilateral treaties, and they need to read the fine print in legal deals and treaties in order to prevent them for suffering from buyer’s remorse. Often, representatives from African countries are outnumbered by the negotiating teams of other countries who come better prepared; African countries need to make the most of their own resources and team up with each other to combine their areas of expertise. Diplomats in Africa are also vastly undertrained, and organisations such as the African Union (AU) could focus more on the diplomatic training of their members.

In their multilateral strategies, African diplomats should not be naive about the world and emerging powers. The fact that other countries are also developing countries, does not necessarily mean that they have Africa’s best interests at heart. There is a new scramble for Africa as new emerging powers are moving into Africa. As a continent, Africa must be very open-minded, but also very realistic about the agendas that are now coming to the continent.

Multilateral diplomacy – a vast ocean

Aljowaily compared multilateral diplomacy to a vast ocean that has different dimensions and different geometry – plurilateral and polylateral forms of multilateral diplomacy.  There are many routes in this ocean, and some are easier to navigate. According to him, it is important to recognise that multilateral diplomacy has this variable geometry. Multilateral diplomacy has various forms of manifestation: some formats are more institutional, such as the UN, and some are less formal and less identifiable in terms of parameters and in terms of rules. The latter are very challenging for African states, yet these fora, such as the World Economic Forum or G20, are very influential.

Obstacles African states face in their multilateral diplomatic work and strategies to overcome them

Aljowaily identified some of the obstacles that African states face in their multilateral diplomatic work. Taking the UN as an example, as it is the only universal organisation with a comprehensive mandate, he noted that many of its headquarters are in the states that belong to the global North, meaning that Africa is represented to a lesser extent in terms of multilateral venue and headquarters. Another challenge for Africa, he said, is complexity, as many subjects being discussed within international relations are becoming more technical and specialised, demanding a unique blend of diplomatic experience and specialised and technical knowledge. The emergence of multistakeholder diplomacy adds to this complexity. It is challenging for African countries to open up to this form of international relations, but it is important for them to do so in order to have genuine, grassroot representation, defending their points of view and promoting their interests. Next, Aljowaily pointed out that the form of negotiations is becoming more complex – that there are more and more parallel meetings, and increasing layers and structures of negotiations, which puts additional pressure on countries that have limited financial and human resources.

In terms of strategies to overcome these obstacles, it should firstly be recognised that Africa has a unique platform. The UN has five regional groups, and the African group has the incredible advantage of not only being an electoral group like the other groups, but also, of having increasingly common positions in negotiations that take place within the seat of AU and elsewhere. Aljowaily opined that that is a dimension and strategy that is yet to be fully utilised and it has a lot of potential. The second strategy that the ambassador pointed out, would be to recognise that African states are a part of a larger whole – they are a part of developing countries, and developing countries have two very well-established negotiating groups in multilateral fora: G77 and the Non-Aligned Movement. While it may seem that the epochal era for these two platforms has gone by, Aljowaily said that he believes that there is actually more need for these platforms now, in order to defend the basic principles of multilateralism – open, transparent, democratic, decision making in particular.

The impact of conflict in Africa

Spies acknowledged that conflict is a great concern for Africa because it has a huge influence on the developmental status of African countries and their achievement of universal goals in terms of quality of human life. The UN Security Council, the forum where world peace and security is authoritatively deliberated on, lacks permanent African representation. Yet, Africa itself has placed an emphasis on the peace and security architecture through the AU. Spies underlined that at this stage, the continent is working on addressing its problems, because not addressing peace and security in Africa leaves space for foreign involvement that sometimes comes at a great cost. These issues must be addressed through multilateralism, she emphasised, as conflicts in Africa usually start as intrastate conflicts that spill over into the region and even the continent. Spies also acknowledged that the entire world has an interest in seeing peace and security in Africa, but warns that Africans must not let others dictate how this will be achieved.

Aljowaily noted that the African peace and security architecture is much more developed compared to other regions, even compared to the UN. While every component of the UN’s peace and security architecture is thought of separately, the African continent looks at peace and security holistically. It has the prevention pillar, the management pillar and the sustaining peace pillar. In 2011, the AU Summit made a decision to form an African Union Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development Framework, which is essentially the peace-building arm of the comprehensive peace and security architecture. There is still much to be done on that front, but there is much that has been achieved that can be celebrated, the ambassador concluded.

The potential for capacity building and creative ways to bridge capacity and resource gaps

Aljowaily noted that the type of environment needed at multilateral fora is one that enables multilateralism. Open participation in negotiations is not enough – the rules of the game and the dynamics of the negotiations need to enable developing countries to project their views and defend their interests. It is important to develop the intellectual capacities of African countries in terms of presenting and shaping the discourse, the talking points, and the proposals to be presented. Here, multilateral diplomats from developing countries have the advantage of having a network of research centers, think-tanks and university centers, supporting them with research, evidence-based studies and academic contributions in general. Enabling these institutions is therefore very important for raising capacities. Aljowaily believes that another way of raising capacities is to learn from past experiences. A record of the accumulated experience of leading African negotiators would immensely help the current generation of diplomats and multilateral negotiations.

UN Security Council reform and the Ezulwini Consensus

Spies stressed that Africa is the only continent that has a unified position regarding the UN Security Council reform, however, the Ezulwini Consensus is not really a consensus – this position was agreed upon by a majority in the AU and should be revisited. This consensus needs to be more flexible and it needs to be aligned with other groups that are also advocating the Security Council reform, that also want Africa represented there. However, peace and security are increasingly being discussed at other venues, Spies noted. And it is increasingly difficult for the Security Council to intervene without the support of the regional organisations.


Aljowaily offered a different perspective. He agrees that Africa is unique in being the only regional group with a common position, and adds that it is adopted at the highest level and regularly reiterated at summits and assemblies of the heads of states of the AU. As other negotiating groups have not made significant changes to their proposals for the Security Council reform, Africa should continue to promote its Ezulwini Consensus, especially since it is getting more public support from countries outside the AU.

Capacity building for the future

Asked about capacity building approaches for the future, Spies proposed significant regional diplomatic academies, situated in various regions of Africa. The AU should coordinate and ensure that sufficient funding and resources are allocated, as governments do not always allocate enough resources for diplomatic training. Foreign diplomatic training should be a secondary resource for Africa, as diplomats trained by foreign entities get inducted into another diplomatic culture rather than their own. Similarly, Aljowaily noted that African countries lack material and intellectual support for the positions they project. There needs to be a united message, even if there is a multiplicity of messages – diplomats from African countries should speak with the same voice and the same materials. Upgrading policy research that is supportive of diplomatic and foreign policy machinery would be one important form of capacity building.


Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia


[WebDebate #19 summary] What is the potential of big data for diplomacy?


Andrijana Gavrilović

We leave digital footprints everywhere. Modern society is marked by data which is continuously generated through various devices and in numerous ways – such as through social media, Internet browsing, and through satellite images, among others. This is why some call this the Big Data Era. While big data has become a topic for the private sector, promising greater efficiency and new business insights, it remains unclear what the potential of big data is for diplomacy. Our February WebDebate dealt with this question, endeavoring to examine how ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) can and should adapt. The WebDebate also gave an overview of DiploFoundation’s new report, Data Diplomacy: Updating Diplomacy to the Big Data Era, commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Joining us this month were Ms Barbara Rosen Jacobson, programme manager at DiploFoundation and the Geneva Internet Platform, and Mr Ossi Piironen, a member of the Policy Planning and Research unit at the Finish MFA. Rosen Jacobson, one of the authors of the report, shared the first insights from the report’s executive summary, while Mr Piironen added insights from the practitioner’s perspective and explained why the his ministry commissioned the report. The debate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne, research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

Reasons for commissioning the report

The Finnish MFA wanted to examine the importance of big data for diplomacy. They identified a need to gather concrete examples of MFAs and other foreign policy actors, such as international organisations, using new types of data sources or new types of data analysis. Piironen believes that this kind of discussion and analysis is in demand in Europe, as was evident in the seminars organised as part of the project. The report showed that there are indeed some occasions in which new types of data have been put into use by foreign policy actors and that there were some attempts to institutionalise the collection and analysis of new data sources within certain organisations. Piironen’s strongest impression, however, is that new data sources are not utilised as widely and effectively as the hype and strong rhetoric would suggest.

What is Big Data? A phenomenon and an evolution

Piironen underlined that, in his view, big data is a phenomenon, not a type of data or a type of data source. The concept is merely supposed to point out that there is an increasing amount of data that comes in widely varying formats and which is scattered in multiple locations. The concept may additionally imply that because of the increased connectivity and capacity to store and process this ‘raw material’, we have real possibilities to put some of it into use for our benefit. However, the data and its sources are so diverse that it rarely makes sense to generalise. Piironen argued that much of the actual data associated with big data is rather conventional. Overall, Piironen sees no revolution but rather an evolution. There are relatively new types of data and some of them have real foreign policy consequences and uses, and it is quite justified for MFAs to focus on this. On the other hand, the report makes clear that MFAs should stay realistic about the opportunities these new data sources may offer. Piironen concluded that we are not using big data, but merely various types of data, and that some of these come from relatively new sources.

Rosen Jacobson cautioned that a universal definition of big data does not exist. Many people discussing big data want to define it in a way that fits in with their work. She explained that Diplo’s report looks at two dimensions of big data: the types of data, and the types of data analysis and methodology. The authors examined the type of data, the use of data sets, and the fact that big data usually requires tools that were previously not available. The authors also examined how big data can provide trends and correlations and patterns that can be used in the analysis of foreign policy. To this end, four kinds of data were examined: sensor data (e.g. GPS data from mobile phones), web data (e.g. social media profiles or web scrapers), geospatial data and satellite data, as well as textual data (e.g. conference transcripts).  

Are diplomats ready and equipped to manage data, including big data?

Speaking from a practitioner’s perspective, Piironen stated that the use for new data sources in the Finnish MFA is quite minimal. The communications department is the most advanced in this respect, possessing the tools to monitor the social media visibility of Finnish foreign policy actors. However, the analysis of this data has been commissioned to outside actors, as the Finnish MFA does not have the expert resources for this level of analysis. Piironen’s belief is that Finnish diplomats do not have to become experts in the field in the immediate future. Rather, he believes that most of the analysis and collection of data will be done by international organisations, for profit firms, other government agencies and national statistics offices, because the foreign policy related data is usually international in its scope and one MFA in one country can hardly provide meaningful data that could be used in the day to day work of the MFA.

Rosen Jacobson highlighted the many areas of diplomacy that could benefit from big data. Thus, the report suggests that MFAs should establish big data data units, that combine data scientists and diplomats, and that can collaborate with all other units in the MFA. The key question then is how to ensure that diplomats and data scientists communicate effectively, because although the analysis itself is conducted by the data scientists, it is necessary for the diplomats to know what is possible with big data, and what is not, what types of data sources there are, and what kind of questions they should ask the data scientists.

Höne pointed out that capacity building is a big part of the report. However, awareness-building needs to happen first, and it should happen by using examples that illustrate  how big data can help in the daily work of diplomats, how big data can foster the mission of the MFA, and where its limits are. In this regard, the report recommends different levels of capacity building: beginner, intermediate and expert level. Not everyone has to have the same skills, but everyone needs to have a general awareness (beginner level) about the opportunities and limits of big data. And then, depending on what the diplomat is actually working on, a higher set of skills.

The possibilities of big data

First, big data could bring new information, challenge bias and corroborate existing information. Hence, it is particularly relevant for information gathering and policy research. Second, big data could help in better understanding people’s perceptions and behaviour and is, therefore, particularly relevant for communication, public diplomacy, and negotiation (e.g. sentiment analysis in social media). Third, big data can help meet the expectations of government service delivery, which, in the context of diplomacy, is relevant for consular work. With big data analysis, e-government services can fine-tune the service delivery, better respond to questions, but also better provide support in emergency situations. Fourth, big data can contribute in tracking programmes and progress over time and space, which is particularly relevant for trade and development. Fifth, big data can track developments over short time periods – some big data can be made available almost in real time, and this could be useful in emergency response and humanitarian affairs.

The report also looks into identifying the new forms of evidence and accountability on the basis of big data, which is very relevant for international law. This is an emerging area and there are no firm cases and insights yet, except for several instances where satellite data was used as evidence in international courts.

An example of big data analysis

The best example, which shows the entire spectrum of possibilities and constraints of big data analysis, is the monitoring of epidemics through GPS data. A good example is the cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2010, where an NGO partnered with a mobile operator to see whether the epidemic and its spread could have been predicted. The NGO was given anonymous data on GPS movements of the population throughout Haiti from the first contaminated area, to the rest of Haiti. The population movement turns out to correspond to the spread of the disease, which means that the spread could have been predictable to an extent and the response could have been more effective. This, however, is sensitive information, and issues such as privacy become very important. Moreover, the quality of data is essential, for example: if the population does not use mobile phones very much or only the wealthy do, the picture presented will not be accurate, as it will only show what a small segment of society is doing.

The dichotomy between the organisational culture of the MFAs and the use of big data

Höne raised the issue of the organisational culture of MFAs. MFAs prefer qualitative data, highlighting the importance of narrative, while big data can be perceived as quite the opposite.

Rosen Jacobson then proceeded to explain that this issue can be mitigated. Big data is complementary to expert insights. It can point out biases of expert insights, it can provide new information, and it can confirm ideas or corroborate information. However, expert knowledge is needed to contextualise the insights of big data studies and to make them usable. Therefore, the perceived dichotomy can be overcome.

How to get quality data and quality data analysis if we are not the data analysts?

Rosen Jacobson underlined that MFAs need data scientists to analyse big data and this cannot been avoided. In addition to developing in-house capacities, MFAs could collaborate with universities, hire experts, or partner with the private sector. Höne expressed a concern that a digital divide could arise between MFAs with additional resources to invest in big data analysis and MFAs without them. To that extent, partnerships between countries and ministries would help bridge capacity gaps in big data analysis.


Rosen Jacobson concluded that if we are entering the Big Data Era, defined by a massive generation of data, it will eventually lead MFAs to adapt to the new possibilities. This should be done in a responsible and sustainable way. The report provides suggestion for how this can be achieved. Beyond that, new questions are opening up (such as the interplay between big data, diplomacy and artificial intelligence). Diplomacy always adapts to its surroundings in order to pursue its objective of better foreign policy and it shall do so in the Big Data Era as well.


Download the report Data Diplomacy: Updating Diplomacy to the Big Data Era and the Executive Summary.

Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia

[WebDebate #18 summary] Digital diplomacy: new actors and technology in diplomacy


Andrijana Gavrilović

In our December WebDebate, we focused on digital diplomacy. We discussed the following questions: how have ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) adopted social media as part of their public diplomacy efforts? Is digital diplomacy more than simply being on Twitter or Facebook? Should diplomats even be on Twitter or Facebook, or is it time to abandon these as outdated fashion trends? We also explored how digital diplomacy can empower new actors and how they interact with more traditional diplomatic players. Our speakers also addressed how the very environment in which diplomacy is conducted is changing.

Joining us were two accomplished practitioners: Ms Liz Galvez, a former senior diplomat with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and presently a course lecturer with DiploFoundation, specialising in public diplomacy and negotiation skills, and Ambassador Stefano Baldi, a career diplomat in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and currently the ambassador of Italy to Bulgaria. The WebDebate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne, a research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

The changed context in which diplomatic communication is taking place

Galvez pointed out that the explosion of cross-border digital communication has taken agenda setting, out of the hands of governments and even large media corporations. Technical developments have caused the communication between individuals to grow beyond belief, with one third of the population using some form of social media. Information is traveling at a speed that organisations are struggling to keep up with, both in terms of taking it all in and applying it, especially where time-consuming approval procedures for public communication are in place. Governments and MFAs now must reach a broader range of new actors. Non-state actors are using social media to create their own networks, fake news providers have proliferated, fake profiles and cyber-bots have become part of our world. The way and the speed at which propaganda is being disseminated is relatively new. End users of information are now also providers of information, they get caught up in filter bubbles and restrict their sources of information, being more concerned with going viral than spreading accurate information. In a way, the Internet might be closing minds, rather than opening them.

Is it time for MFAs to return to a more focused approach to public diplomacy?

Galvez suggested that there is a lack of clarity in what social media can and cannot do for diplomacy. This is leading many ministries to take a scattergun approach to using social media, which has little effect on public opinion. It has taken a while for diplomats to get to grips with social media, and now diplomatic institutions have all jumped on the social media bandwagon, with 90% of all MFAs being present on social media. However, few of them have the resources to undertake the big data analysis that would give a clear picture of the public opinion in other countries. There is a risk that so much dependence on social media is making MFAs lose sight of who they are trying to influence and why, Galvez pointed out. There is also the risk that we are dumbing down foreign policy, if we are fixated on social media to the point of exclusion of other channels of communication and other tools of public diplomacy. Social media is useful for presenting positions, spreading awareness of a situation and for responding to a particular situation. However, social media does not create long-term relationships. It does not have much to contribute to public diplomacy in terms of engagement and influence, Galvez argues. Thus public diplomats and foreign ministries should go back to more tried and tested ways of public diplomacy. Social media should not be abandoned, but rather kept in its place and used as one strand, not the primary instrument, of public diplomacy. Many comments from participants mirrored Galvez’s cautious position on the use of social media in diplomacy.

Baldi believes that diplomats are not obsessed with social media. Diplomats are actually new to social media, having been using it for the past five years. Few countries have developed the use of social media in digital diplomacy or diplomacy, and many others are trying to emulate them, or trying to find their own way of using social media. Diplomats are still in the early stages of using social media; therefore, there is a lot of creativity and innovation in digital diplomacy that can still be applied. Digital diplomacy is far more than social media, Baldi underlined, but he considers the social media side of public diplomacy fascinating because it will continue evolving and diplomats still have far to go in using it.

Should diplomats engage on social media and to what extent?

Baldi pointed out that a lack of engagement does not mean the improper use of social media, because once the fact that many people can be reached through social media is accepted, so must be the fact that the audience is very diverse. It is not necessary to engage with everyone. There is no way to measure effectiveness on social media, understood as the level of engagement, as the possibility for engagement very much depends on the topic.

Galvez agreed and pointed out that very few MFAs use blogs, which is where diplomats may foster proper engagement. Rarely is engagement found on Twitter or Facebook, unless the objective is to network, like India does with its diaspora.

Is it possible for diplomats to control the content of the message while keeping up with the speed of social media?

Galvez stated that MFAs do not need to control the message because diplomats know what their message is, they know what their government policy is, what the government’s position is and how it should be presented. Other people’s messages cannot be controlled by diplomats, but can be reacted to. Diplomats can frame their own narrative and try to present it in a persuasive way, using the language their audience will relate to, and doing it honestly. In other words, MFAs should not control their diplomats through time-consuming approval procedures, but rather, should trust them.

Baldi agreed with Galvez’s position, pointing out that the speed at which social media works does not allow for a long chain of command for approving communication. In order to be effective in communicating, an MFA must have diplomats ready to communicate. These diplomats should be trained and proactive. Foreign ministries must create an environment where diplomats can act, react, and thus be effective in their communication.

Should diplomats try to consolidate the many different narratives on social media and how can they react to fake news?

Galvez recounted an effort by the EU called EU vs. Disinformation, which is a campaign created to respond to pro-Kremlin disinformation. However, she is not certain whether national administrations have the resources to fight disinformation, considering the trouble that MFAs encounter trying to find the resources to maintain social media accounts. Diplomats should hope that their message is repeated often enough and is endorsed by enough credible non-state actors, which might enable it to eventually filter through.

Baldi believes Galvez’s emphasis on the lack of resources is quite on point. However, if a country or its institution believes that fake news is creating significant damage, they have the responsibility to allocate resources for countering it, Baldi underlines. For example, if incorrect Wikipedia articles are affecting a country’s foreign policy, the country should devote resources to correct the picture. All in all, Galvez and Baldi provided some key considerations and pointed to important skills regarding the use of social media as part of public diplomacy. The picture they painted is cautious but not without optimism.

Andrijana Gavrilovic works as an junior associate at Diplofoundation and focuses her work on the diplomacy and cybersecurity issues. She is a postgraduate student of International Security at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, Serbia


[WebDebate #17 summary] Humanitarian diplomacy and the influence of new actors and new technology


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

Our November WebDebate focused on humanitarian diplomacy. As one of the ‘new diplomacies’, it does not only remind us of the importance of new actors, but also of the importance of conducting careful stakeholder analysis. The growth of technology, and especially social media, has definitely enhanced the ability of new actors to emerge and participate. What are the lessons we can draw from looking at humanitarian diplomacy and what is the impact of new actors and technology?

To answer these questions, we had two distinguished guests: Ambassador Christopher Lamb, special adviser to the Australian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and Mr Javier Ormeno, disaster response and recovery senior officer at the Red Cross, who has been part of the Red Cross Movement since 2008. The web debate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne, a research associate in diplomacy and global governance at DiploFoundation.

What is humanitarian diplomacy and which tools does it use to advance its agenda?

The definition that Lamb put forward, which was adopted in 2009 by the IFRCC (today used by many international actors, including some governments) reads as follows: ‘Humanitarian diplomacy is persuading decision makers and opinion leaders to act at all times in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles.’

What is important to note is that diplomacy in this case is about persuasion and to a lesser extent, about advocacy and negotiation. The goal of the humanitarian diplomat in this sense is to show how a specific course of action is in the best interest of those involved. Lamb emphasised that decision makers and opinion leaders should always work in the interest of vulnerable people, and that any person involved in humanitarian work should respect the fundamental humanitarian principles adopted by the United Nations,: humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.

Organisations conducting humanitarian diplomacy use tools such as new technologies, and rely on their own expertise and the expertise of their team, co-operating with appropriate external partners such as NGOs, governments and international bodies, in order to implement their mandate to help and resolve problems of those who are in need of humanitarian help.

Lamb also stressed that for humanitarian diplomacy to be successful, it is important to make a proper stakeholder analysis: to see who are you working with, who the interested parties are, who they represent, what their policies are, what they are like personally, and what is the way of influencing them to come to a common understanding. Based on this, humanitarian diplomats gain a better understanding of ‘how things are done’ locally and how to best communicate to all relevant stakeholders.

With the emergence of new technologies and electronic communications,  many key actors of diplomatic work and diplomatic praxis are familiar with such technology and use it. People on the ground use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in order to communicate certain information. The stakeholder analysis can help to understand who these people are,  for what purpose they are disseminating information, and finally, what is the information they need and how it should be communicated.

Lamb concluded by arguing that one of the things that technology has changed is that accountability is no longer only to those who appointed us, but directly back to the beneficiaries of our actions, to all stakeholders.

Ormeno took the floor, focusing in his introduction on connecting his human rights research with humanitarian diplomacy tools. He stressed the fact that humanitarian diplomacy tools can be used to shape clearer strategies and engage in creative ways of advocacy and persuasion. To underline his points, he analysed the ways two different organisations in Peru used a theater and plays performed there for advocacy means, in promoting LGBT rights. He highlighted that the two advocacy groups use a lot of social media tools, as well as television and radio stations in order to reach the public and raise LGTB issues.

Who is a humanitarian diplomat?

To answer this question, Lamb argued that it can be any representative, any person, an NGO employee, a field worker, or even a volunteer. What makes that person a humanitarian diplomat is the understanding of certain tools, such as protocol, but also the commitment to protecting the most vulnerable and to the fundamental humanitarian principles. Lamb emphasised that the people at the local level often need to act in just the same way and with the same objectives and purposes as the traditional state diplomats in capitals.

Ormeno agreed that diplomacy is not exercised only by state representatives and agents, but can also be carried out by communities at the local level, as his examples aptly illustrated.

What is the key challenge or key hope for the future of humanitarian diplomacy?

Ormeno concluded by emphasising the need of distributing humanitarian diplomacy tools, not only to trained officials, but to the local community leaders as well, in order to reach and achieve the goals of their communities. Lamb stressed the challenges for humanitarian diplomacy and the governments in the future: to listen more, work closer and engage more with the local communities and the public in general. He argued that if that happens, we would be looking at a very different world in the years ahead.


Mr Arieh Hurel is an intern with DiploFoundation