Knowledge and Skills in Diplomacy in the Age of Digitalisation

By Haidah Halid

There are a plethora of issues or challenges that diplomats face today with the rapid development of globalisation and digitalisation. These new challenges in the field of diplomacy have increased the responsibilities and duties of diplomats as well as international actors. As digitalisation allows anyone, anywhere to access information, more and more individuals are developing keen interest to know more about their country’s international affairs and foreign policies. 

Following that, the growing interest in these matters means the public are using their resources (i.e. social media and the internet) to influence and raise awareness. However, this could be problematic as social media is a self-regulated medium, therefore, the information disseminated through these platforms could be biased to an individual’s own interest, values, beliefs and propaganda.

In this case, diplomats should utilise their skills and knowledge that come with carrying out their executive work, such as collecting and analysing information, to ensure that the platforms that came from digitalisation are used to gain efficiency and not at the expense of efficacy. This could mean cross-checking any information that could be misleading and countering them immediately to ensure it does not offend or evoke chaos in the nation or having the potential to jeopardise relations with other countries.

While countering any false information or arguments from the public or other states, diplomats should ensure to practise ‘diplomatic communication’ in which they are trying to get their message across and convince people without causing damage to the relationship. Furthermore, through this communication style, diplomats would be in a position to avoid causing tension between individuals and states as well as acknowledging or interacting with the situations without being detrimental to relations.

For instance, in efforts to counter misinformation and misinterpretations of the European Union (EU), the alliance had launched a campaign with the German Foreign Affairs Ministry in June 2018 to correct misperceptions and falsehoods spread online about Europe by presenting verifiable information about the continent. The efforts carried out by the organisation could be seen as a means of diplomatic communication by using reasoning to address the misconception.

Speech by German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas at the Launching Ceremony for Europe United, a campaign aimed to correct misperceptions and falsehoods spread online about Europe
(© Thomas Imo/

Admittedly, in terms of knowledge, a diplomat should possess a wide and varied grasp on many issues, topics and matters. For instance, the nature of being a diplomat involved in cooperating and communicating with different nations. Here, a diplomat should have a good knowledge of the country one is posted to or negotiating with. Knowledge that is considered significant in establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations include the understanding of the nations’s historical, cultural and geographical significance, and economic and political awareness in the context of institutional topography, as well as the societal norms of the country. The knowledge on such matters would ensure that a diplomat does not ruffle the feathers of the other country. 

As an example, having knowledge on historical and geographical information would greatly aid a diplomat. Supposed, a diplomat is to be stationed in India, he or she should be mindful when meeting up with representatives of Pakistan and vice versa. Due to the two countries’ rocky history, a diplomat should refrain from making biased or partial comments about religious matters and the issue of Kashmir.

On the matter of being culturally knowledgeable, it is encouraged that diplomats who are stationed in Japan or carrying out diplomatic business with the East Asian country should be punctual and timely due to the nation’s culture of having exceptional time-keeping skills.

On the other hand, on the topic of being economically and politically informed, a diplomat should first put his or her analytic skills to work and learn about the economic or political status of the country before carrying out diplomatic relations or businesses. This is to ensure that no boundaries or feelings have been overstepped while the diplomatic duties are carried out. 

Besides that, the public’s increased interest in these topics has also influenced the media on what they choose to focus on when spreading news or information. Among some of the most frequently highlighted international concerns of today are primarily pertaining to matters of human rights or climate change.

It could be theorised that the decision to highlight on the topics of human rights and climate change are due to the public’s increasing concern on such issues. Younger individuals are taking the initiative to be more involved and voicing out their concerns that would largely affect their future. On these matters, diplomats are expected to negotiate or advise any governmental authorities whether it be their own or their host country’s government according to what has been expressed publicly. 

To illustrate, several years ago, the South Korean and Japanese governments came together with solutions to their centuries long conflict that pertained to the issues of forced labour and ‘comfort women’ of the Japanese Imperial Army. The Korean government at the time (in 2017) had agreed upon a compensation deal that was not run through by the victims of the atrocity as well as Korea’s general public. The public outcry severely pushed back the efforts of the Korean government and the deal was never carried out. 

Supporters of former “comfort women” who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II, hold placards during a demonstration demanding the Japanese government’s formal apology near the Japanese embassy in Seoul on September 18, 2019. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

This type of outcome should come as a lesson to those who are practising diplomacy as something that should be avoided. In other instances, the Korean government should have practised ‘diplomatic communication’ by consulting the general public whether it be through the victims themselves or even human rights bodies and societies to ensure a satisfactory and proper decision was made. This would have enabled alternative forms of mediation to be developed which would reconcile the interests of all sides allowing governments to operate as sovereign states, and yet simul­taneously use the influence and potential of other actors.

Using diplomatic communication would have showcased a country’s kindness, compassion and respect to their citizens who have been severely mistreated. Furthermore, the possession of skills is paramount for a diplomat to carry out diplomatic roles and functions. Diplomats must have good interpersonal skills which include effective and efficient communication skills, ability to work under pressure as well as good conflict resolution capabilities. There are many other skills that a diplomat should have, however, the prior mentioned skills are consequential to the success of diplomacy.

The nature of being a diplomat requires frequent interaction with others of different nationality, language or culture. Therefore, interpersonal and intercultural skills of a diplomat must be up to par to ensure that the communication is effectively and efficiently carried out. This includes using clear, concise language that is easily understood to ensure each of the country’s positions and goals do not overlap to create issues.

Besides that, with new digital media progressively evolving, any developments regarding actions, decisions or meetings of a state are being reported or televised in a blink of an eye. This signifies that a diplomat must possess skills that require sensitivity to fast decision-making as well as the ability to work under pressure to resolve conflicts quickly and to prevent misunderstandings or false assumptions from being raised or spread. 

Similar to other existing professions, there are certain skills or knowledge a diplomat must acquire. However, it should be highlighted that the skills and knowledge acquired by diplomats are not only catered to the field of diplomacy per se. In fact, being ‘diplomatic’ proves to be beneficial for all professionals to have a long-lasting impact on their career performance. The significance of diplomatic communication skills therefore cannot be denied.

Although globalisation and digitalisation have posed many new challenges for diplomats, the skills of adaptability, competency and policy capability that are instilled in them should help in navigating through these uncharted waters. While carrying out diplomatic communication, practitioners should stress on the aspects of kindness, compassion, and respect to ensure a peaceful, satisfactory outcome and a win-win situation.

Thus, it is highly encouraged for diplomats to acquire both the skills and knowledge to carry out their duties and responsibilities placed upon them as the official representatives of the country. The pros of having such abilities will directly help in the goals of defending or promoting the country’s national interest.

Furthermore, the expertise and knowledge that a diplomat possesses would lead to better fostering of good relationships with others and contribute to the development of mutual understanding, which can result in successful outcomes. However, the cons of having intensive knowledge and skills might be troublesome if they cannot be applied to their fullest potential or are not put to greater advantage to serve the national interest. ***

(Nurul Haidah Mohd Halid is a third year Communication student specialising in Strategic Communication. This article is written as part of the assignment series for Diplomatic Communication course.)

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