We will still have ambassadors in the 22nd century. And the rituals of diplomatic engagement in rooms adorned with national flags will continue as they have for centuries. Stripped naked, diplomacy is nothing more than a conversation between leaders. It is highly ritualistic. The relationships between the individuals matter. And people prefer to sit and talk in person when the decisions they will make are consequential. This has been true since there were nation states that dispatched diplomats to see their neighbors. It will remain the same.
But the long-standing practice of sit-downs between world leaders will not happen in a vacuum. And it is the context―the social and political forces that shape these meetings―that will change dramatically in the coming decades. These changes will be driven by information and communications technology.
A century of open doors
Already, time and space are less and less significant barriers to interaction between large numbers of people. Diplomacy is no longer limited to government officials. In the 20th century, government-to-government diplomacy was supplemented with government-to-people diplomacy through international broadcasting. In the 21st century, we see the beginning of people-to-government diplomacy as the Internet permits organized networks of citizens to talk back to governments. In the 22nd century, we will see the maturation of networked diplomacy through people-to-people engagement that bypasses government leaders altogether if they fail to respond to the needs of communities. Many states will choose to open their governing process to greater transparency and citizen participation. Others doors will be forced open through leaks and whistle-blowers.
There will be no quiet corners of the world. Connectivity will be effectively ubiquitous. Every event of international importance will be captured on video and posted instantly to global information networks. As a result, the public demand to participate in governments’ responses to these events will continue to grow. Diplomacy will move faster under the bright light of public scrutiny. This will have the virtue of accelerating problem solving but the liability of injecting parochial politics into nearly every international engagement. Well organized minorities will carry significant influence through public diplomacy.
Translation technologies will also be a game-changer for international relations. All content and services on global information networks will be instantly translated into any language. Dramatic increases in access to knowledge and cross-cultural discourse will play a major role in bridging divides between international communities. Translation technologies will permit seamless organization of transnational social movements and political advocacy. International organizations will multiply as tele-presence enables instant, cheap face-to-face discussions between people scattered around the world. Geneva, New York, and Brussels will have vibrant “virtual diplomatic” communities in addition to the traditional mix of conference rooms and cocktail bars.
The power of information networks to increase participation in politics will not be unopposed. Authoritarian countries will respond harshly to the interference of outsiders in their domestic political affairs. Censorship, surveillance, and persecution using digital networks will become increasingly common and more sophisticated as central authority seeks to reestablish control. Some countries will attempt to disconnect themselves from the networks they perceive as threatening. Issues of international norms and governance of global information networks will be high profile foreign policy issues because these networks will represent big money and political volatility.
Revolutions in transportation technologies will also profoundly change the business of diplomacy as it becomes cheaper and easier to move around the world. Global migration is already one of the most profoundly disruptive forces in international relations, and this trend will continue. Wars, climate change, water shortages, and the shifting availability of natural resources will put more people in motion in the coming decades. The institutions of diplomacy will be central to coping with these changes as states make choices about immigration, deportation, and border control. The practical work of statecraft – issuing visas to foreign travelers, expelling the undocumented, and responding to the needs of citizens from home living abroad – will become more challenging as more people seek to move more frequently. Neither technological innovation nor management wizardry will be sufficient to tame the bureaucracies that will grow to handle these issues.
But for all of the changes that a new century will certainly bring, the basic truth about foreign policy will remain constant. The decisions that shape the course of global politics are made by people. Whether they are leaders of countries, industry or civil society, they will continue to sit down together, break bread, and talk. What will be new in the future is that the whole world will be talking too – to them, with them, and around them.