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When Canada’s diplomats are brought home, digital diplomacy can protect our ties – if it’s done rightAnthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

In March, Canada closed its embassy in Syria. Earlier this month, Canada closed its embassy in Iran. Now we learn that sharing embassies with Britain may benefit Ottawa's bottom line. In some of these cases, there were important diplomatic and security reasons for scaling down formal ties. But even without diplomats on the ground, Canada's relationships don't need to suffer. How do we protect ties in countries where we have no physical presence? The next best thing is a virtual embassy. And virtual embassies should be the anchor to Foreign Affairs' strategy in the area of digital diplomacy.

Embassies perform a crucial role in maintaining diplomatic ties with foreign governments, but their function is to maintain economic, political and cultural engagement with people in distant lands. There have been a few experiments with virtual embassies – the United States has one for Iran. But some have critiqued these early ventures as being largely about propaganda: links to press releases and pages about constitutional history do not make for lively cross-cultural engagement. Such basic websites don't support real interaction, which is crucial for letting political attachés in Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade keep their fingers on the pulse of the communities they are responsible for. Indeed, the work of diplomacy does not just involve talking, it involves listening.

Ideally, sane and stable governments have good conversations with each other. But in countries where diplomatic relations between governments have completely broken down, Canada's diplomats can still support civil-society groups that do good work. In less than ideal settings, Canadian diplomats should be involved in dialogue with political actors other than recalcitrant dictators.

Practically speaking, what digital tools, other than a website, should we use to equip Canada's foreign service officers? Our virtual embassy could offer online training in Internet security to help democracy advocates become more tech-savvy. Such an embassy could provide links to the surveillance circumvention tools being built. It could host a two-way social-media dialogue with non-combatant activists in Syria and Iran. It could provide – in Arabic and Farsi – information on Canada's political positions on global affairs and how to get visas, how to apply for refugee status, how to take advantage of Canadian educational opportunities. A virtual embassy needs to be more than a storehouse for propaganda; it needs fresh content and responsive, full-time staff. Some consular matters could still be handled through another country that does have a physical presence. But more than content, Canada's diplomats need permission to engage with foreign publics over social media without having each tweet edited by the minister.

Working digitally would not necessarily undermine the use of the other tools in the diplomatic toolkit. Indeed, modern diplomats increasingly find that their work involves both digital and face-to-face communication. In recent years, even the political officers of Canadian missions have found their local contacts migrating to Facebook. When we decide to break ties with a foreign government, we still have an obligation to engage with local democracy movements. If we pull out, we need to be ready to fill the vacuum with a virtual embassy to continue that engagement.

There certainly would be security concerns, as there are in the physical presence of any diplomatic mission. And as others have argued, the guidelines for clearing tweets can be similar, but not exactly the same, as the process for clearing other written communications. Ultimately, a designated ambassador should be responsible and should set the process and tone for communications. Tweets or other social media feeds shouldn't contradict Canadian policy and field staff should get clearance from Ottawa for messages on especially sensitive topics. Of course, diplomats' digital networks are ultimately their social networks, and these networks should not just serve the party in charge in Ottawa. Indeed, diplomatic relationships should outlast any particular Parliament.

This is not about dabbling in different communications tools. And Foreign Affairs should not build a social media strategy that is really only designed to guard against occasional mistakes or surveil its own diplomats. This is about building a large diplomatic corps with the tech savvy to conduct themselves responsibly over social media. It is also about projecting power: reaching vast networks of people our diplomats were not able to reach previously, and drawing strategic information from that network in the service of our foreign-policy interests. No tweeting recipes from the Canadian ambassador's kitchen. It is about building the organizational capacity to communicate, and listen, over social media. Canada's diplomatic officers need to be given the authority to respond and expand communications online. Most important, they need practice. Elsewhere, I've argued that we need more social media in international relations, not less, and that diplomats should climb the social media learning curve now, not a decade from now.

The Canadian government has closed its embassy in Iran, but we shouldn't end our relationship with the people of Iran. A virtual embassy would allow us to keep that interaction alive, and make visible what life is like in a country where freedom and faith coexist. A hundred years ago, only a country's senior diplomats and high level politicians were allowed to do diplomacy by telephone. Today, a growing number of people, including Syrians and Iranians, are on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Canada's diplomats need to meet them there.

Philip N. Howard is a fellow at Princeton University and professor in the communication department (on leave) at the University of Washington. He tweets from @pnhoward.