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Digital Diplomacy: Making Friends in the Age of Facebook

Australia’s Ambassador to Israel on the challenges and opportunities of working with the Jewish state

Dave Sharma
August 18, 2015
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Devanand Sharma
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Devanand Sharma
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Devanand Sharma
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Devanand Sharma

The following graduation speech—delivered by Australia’s current Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma—was delivered on June 27, 2015, to the Public Diplomacy major students at Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. It is reprinted with permission.


I’ve been asked to talk to you this evening about some of the challenges facing the practice or profession of modern-day diplomacy. In particular, the disruptive effect of modern communications, social and mass media, globalization, and the 24-hour news cycle on what is surely one of the world’s oldest professions.

I think it would be uncontroversial to say that the role of a diplomat has changed vastly in the past one hundred years. Partly, these changes are the result of the same advances in technology and communications that have disrupted so many professions. Partly, they are the result of the changing nature of the body politic, and of the growth in public accountability of governments.

But I am not sure if people in my profession—of diplomacy—have really thought through what all these changes mean for how we do our work. Diplomacy in years past was a largely closed profession, which enjoyed significant monopolies. Your archetypal ambassador back then was usually drawn from the aristocratic classes or the elite. He—and it was always a he—served several key functions.

In his country of residence, he was the main reporter and interpreter of events and their significance to his home country. He was the primary means of communication between his home state and his state of residence. In his country of residence, he was the sole representative of his country, authorized to speak and negotiate on his country’s behalf.

If any of you are familiar with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, or if you have watched the BBC television mini-series showing here in Israel, then Chapuys—the envoy of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to England during the reign of Henry VIII—is the archetypal example.

Such an ambassador enjoyed an effective monopoly in each of these three domains—information, communication, and representation.

Let’s take Chapuys as an example. There was no global media, so Henry VIII’s marital turmoil and his fractious relations with the Pope could not be read about in the tabloid press. Charles V would hear all this intrigue primarily from his ambassador in England, Chapuys.

If you were the King of England and wanted to pass a message to Charles V, to test his interest in renewing your alliance after you had divorced his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, you could not just telephone him. You certainly couldn’t direct message him on Twitter or WhatsApp him. Or write on his Facebook wall. Instead, you would convey your message through Chapuys.

At the same time, direct relationships between rulers and their court officials with counterparts in other countries were almost non-existent. Capital-to-capital and leader-to-leader diplomacy was exceedingly rare, simply because rulers didn’t usually leave their kingdoms. So, when Charles V responds positively to Henry’s overture, through his ambassador Chapuys, how does Henry go about negotiating the terms of this new alliance?

You do not up and move your entire court and go and visit Ghent or Vienna or wherever Charles V happened to be residing at the time. You might—just might—send over a trusted adviser to make the hazardous voyage. But more than likely you would negotiate directly the terms of a new alliance with the ambassador in country, Chapuys. Chapuys would have some sort of basic instructions from the Emperor about bottom lines, but within these parameters he would be free to negotiate as best he saw fit. There was no checking in with Ghent overnight.

In the modern-day world, as an ambassador, all this has changed.

Let me use myself as an example here. As ambassador, I no longer enjoy a monopoly on information. Leaders and decision-makers back in Canberra know what is going on in Israel. They can read Haaretz or the Jerusalem Post or YNet online. If it’s a big story, they will see the headline scroll by on the ticker tape of the 24-hour news service they have continuously playing on their television, or read it in their Twitter feed.

Sometimes, if events happen overnight, they know before I do. I still get those moments of cold panic when my phone rings in the middle of the night and the number is an Australian one. The fear is they are going to ask me about something that has just happened in Israel about which—because I’ve been asleep—I know absolutely nothing, and will have to somehow bluff my way through.

They also don’t need me to analyze developments. They can read papers from think tanks or universities, or read the columnists in the quality global media. People from Australia—business people, politicians, journalists, Jewish community leaders—travel to and from Israel all the time, and the political class back in Canberra will often call on them—not me—for an understanding and assessment of what is going on here in Israel.

I also no longer enjoy a monopoly on communication. If Prime Minister Abbott wants to talk to Prime Minister Netanyahu, he will likely just ring him directly. If my Foreign Minister wants to talk to Israel’s Foreign Minister, she might just text to set up a call. If I’m lucky, I’ll hear about the calls. If I’m good at my job, I’ll find out what was discussed. But the point is, I’m not needed. I’m dispensable.

Leaders do not need me to facilitate their communications with one another. Nor do large numbers of government officials, who have direct relationships and lines of communication with their counterparts in other capitals.

Lastly, I no longer enjoy a monopoly on representation. In my credentials letter, which I presented to President Peres in a ceremony in August 2013, I am described as “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.” This means that—technically—I am vested with the full powers to represent the Government of Australia here in Israel. I can sign and negotiate treaties. I can propose new areas for cooperation. I can declare Australia’s policy on controversial issues, such as the BDS campaign, or Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war last summer.

In Chapuys’ time, this would have given me some real latitude for action. Communication with your capital was slow and difficult. Ambassadors and delegations were expected to improvise and make decisions about policy within a wide area of discretion.

But today, everything, or nearly everything, is checked with your capital first, and policy is made at home, not abroad. Modern communications mean you can get revised instructions on how to handle an issue instantaneously or overnight. On sensitive issues, it is career suicide not to do otherwise. And usually, on the bigger issues, it is your political leaders who are the spokespeople. All the ambassador does is transmit the message to the in-country audience.

Nor am I the only diplomat at work on this relationship. Political leaders, defense forces, intelligence agencies, ministries of finance, civil society and community groups—all these frequently have direct relations and interactions with their counterparts in other countries.

To sum it all up, the diplomatic service no longer enjoys exclusive rights when it comes to diplomacy. My job is vastly different to that of Chapuys. Even compared to an ambassador of one hundred years ago, my role and powers are more limited. I no longer enjoy the natural monopolies on information, communication, and representation enjoyed by my professional ancestors.

Technology has disrupted the profession of diplomacy. Natural monopolies have been destroyed. Margins of advantage have been eroded. Diplomacy these days is a much more contested and competitive space.

On top of these changes, wrought largely by technology, I would also single out another driver of change: the increasingly democratic and pluralistic nature of the nations in which we live.

In days past, the ambassador was the personal representative of the sovereign. Often the ambassador was drawn from the ruling family, or was minor nobility or aristocracy. Today, ambassadors are still appointed by the sovereign. I was appointed by the Governor-General, for instance, the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. (Yes—Australia is still a monarchy.) But the notion that you are only the representative of the sovereign is today an illusion.

Today an ambassador is expected to represent his or her nation in the broadest sense—its rulers, its people, its society, its values, its diversity. Even, at times, its divisions and debates. Diplomacy is a much more accountable profession—to both your home government and your home public. And today people expect their ambassadors to be drawn from all strata and facets of society, not just an elite minority.

The other change caused by the increasingly democratic and pluralistic nature of our countries is this: The nature of the job—of who it is you are trying to persuade and influence—has changed. In the days of Chapuys, his efforts would have been focused on the royal court of Henry VIII. The king himself, the senior nobility, royals and clergy around him, his close advisers and office-holders, possibly his romantic interests. It was a narrow target audience.

But today this target audience is much broader, especially in democratic countries with a free and lively political debate. It is not just concentrated on a single person and the establishment around him or her. An ambassador today still seeks to influence the people at the apex of power and decision-making in a country. But power today in democratic countries is dispersed. It spans numerous arms of government and spreads across the political and bureaucratic class. It extends into the business and commercial realm. It includes the media, influential opinion-makers, academics, think tanks, religious figures, political movements, NGOs, and minority groups.

This is your target audience as a diplomat. To be a good diplomat today, you cannot just restrict yourself to speaking to your host government. You need to be speaking to everyone—the public, the media, activists, opinion-makers, NGOs, minority groups, business people, and people representing views right across the political spectrum. Just as importantly, you need to be talking to the people who disagree with you. And you need to be trying to persuade them.

I am amazed at how many diplomats still seem to think that their primary contacts should be at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other diplomats. Sure, these are important people to know. But your networks have to be much broader than that. As I tell every new arrival in my Embassy, you are here to get to know and understand Israelis, not other foreigners. And, because you are seeking to inform and influence people who are guided by political considerations, your role cannot be limited to speaking only to them in terms of your own country’s national interests.

Part of your role has to be to shape the political debate within the country, appeal to political instincts, and—perhaps most controversially—at times build or at least foster and promote political coalitions and debates which suit your own country’s interests. At times, this brushes up quite closely against one of those hallowed principles governing the interaction between states, and that is the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. But it is an essential part of the modern role of diplomacy.

For all this, you need to have an active public profile and presence. And you need to be engaged in topical debates. A willingness to do media, plus use of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, are immensely important in this regard.

This is a deeply uncomfortable position for many diplomats, especially those of an older era, who are more used to operating in the shadows and behind closed doors, and who tend to shun publicity. I think it’s one reason why politicians are increasingly being used and seen as effective diplomats—because the skill-set you need as a modern diplomat overlaps in many respects with that of a good politician.

So, putting all this together, the role of diplomats today is more contested and more challenging—or at least so I would argue—than it has ever been. Technological advance and the changing nature of government and society have thoroughly disrupted the old model of diplomacy. This is not by way of complaint. In many ways, it represents an improvement. The fact that an ambassador is no longer indispensable means more effort is spent in identifying and delivering genuine value.

If you’ve read any of the history about the lead-up to the outbreak of World War I, you’ll know that diplomats back then spent much of their time cutting out newspaper articles and editorials and mailing them back to their home countries. There is not a lot of value-add in such an effort today. And the fact that ambassadors today are expected to represent and be drawn from the full spectrum of the country they represent is undoubtedly an advance for equality. This is also a good thing.

But what all this change does mean is that you need to think quite carefully about what purpose and value a diplomat can still serve today, and to define and embrace the role accordingly. Today, when I think of my own role, I tend to do so in the following terms.

I am one part lobbyist, one part think tank, and one part spokesperson. Let me break that down. As a lobbyist, I should have an excellent set of networks and relationships across-the-board; understand the dynamics of issues; know how, where and why decisions are made; and be in a position to influence those decisions and actions where necessary on behalf of my client—the government and people of Australia. This sounds a little tawdry when I put it like that, but it is basically what it boils down to.

As I mentioned before, I no longer have a monopoly over representation, and I’m really just one option amongst many for my country to use to represent its views to a foreign country. So, the distinctive value of my role comes from the in-country networks and knowledge that only living in a country can bring, and which ensures that these views have the best chance of being heard and acted upon—what some people call the “last three feet” of diplomacy. This is as true whether I am attempting to help an Australian citizen in trouble or trying to encourage the development of regulations in the oil and gas sector so they are attractive to foreign investors.

As a think tank, I am not meant to be a news or wires service for my country. When it comes to reporting news, a diplomat cannot compete with the media—this is the loss of monopoly over information, which I mentioned earlier. Instead, the value comes from providing some explanation, judgement and interpretation for your country around events, tailored to your own country’s views and interests. Part of your role here is helping to filter and identify the significant from what is a continuous and otherwise overwhelming news stream.

Finally, as a spokesperson, I’m no longer the sole official voice of Australia here in Israel—this is the loss of monopoly over communication I spoke of earlier. Where I can add value though, is in helping to tailor a message to a local audience, finding a way to explain our views or position in a way which resonates and makes sense, and identifying the best channels and outlets to use to push our message.

Where I can also add value is in being a vigilant guardian of my country’s message and reputation within country. With the 24-hour news cycle, this means being quick to respond to questions or queries and ensuring that false assertions are countered or contested as quickly as possible. A quick response is at a premium here, but the compressed timeline is something that foreign ministries, as large and bureaucratic organizations, naturally struggle with.

I’ve spoken tonight about the challenges of how you conduct modern day diplomacy. I hope I’ve managed to convince you that diplomats still have a role to play in today’s world. I think at the least, in being forced to write this speech, I have managed to convince myself. And I would say—perhaps because of the challenges you face, perhaps because of your innovative and adaptive character—Israel produces some of the best diplomats in the world.

What I have not mentioned tonight though is the subject matter of modern day diplomacy—that is, what are the challenges that modern day diplomacy is and should be addressing. This is a much harder topic. It goes to the heart of what sort of world we will be living in within the next generation, and the concept of global order.

It has become a little commonplace to say that the current global order, the rules-based international system enshrined in the post-World War II settlement, is under threat. But I genuinely think it is. In many respects, we seem to be heading for a late 19th century or early 20th century world. A world of rising, dominant and declining states, jostling for influence and respect. A world that is largely free from ideological contest but less constrained by norms and rules. With the key difference being that we now live in a single international system in many respects—for the first time in history—where disorder and threats in one part of the system are readily transmissible to other parts.

These are topics you will all wrestle with as you leave school and embark on your professional lives. In one capacity or another, you will all be serving as ambassadors for your country. In that endeavor, I wish you all the success in the world.


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Dave Sharma was appointed Australia’s Ambassador to Israel in June 2013.