After years of sitting on the sidelines, Canada finally seems to be taking digital diplomacy seriously. Foreign Minister John Baird delivered a speech on Friday – appropriately in Silicon Valley, the world's capital of technological innovation – calling on Canadian diplomats to make greater use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media in their work. "The closed world of démarches, summits, and diplomatic dinners," he said, "is no longer sufficient to project our values and interests."
In a report last year, I documented how far Canada's foreign ministry had fallen behind its closest allies in the use of social media tools. The United States and Britain recognized the importance of digital diplomacy years ago and began encouraging their ambassadors and missions to engage directly with the public and policy leaders of other countries through social media. Both countries saw that online discussions were now driving real-world events and that these forums had become crucial arenas for diplomacy.
They also understood that they would have to give their individual diplomats greater freedom to communicate – and that the fluidity and informality of social media increased the risks of miscommunication and mistakes. The United States and the UK accepted these risks as the price of getting their voices heard in new media.
By contrast, until recently, Canada's foreign ministry used its relatively small number of social-media channels primarily to broadcast press releases, not to engage in real-time exchanges that are the currency of new media.
Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development now uses social media as a virtual "listening post" to analyze political patterns in foreign societies and movements. In addition, it partnered with the Munk School at the University of Toronto to create the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which uses social-media technology to circumvent Iranian government censorship, thus permitting Iranians, both inside and outside Iran, to freely communicate with each other. Although some questioned whether such an initiative belonged at a university – and wondered if the Munk School had allowed itself to become a de facto instrument of the government's Iran-obsessed foreign policy – the initiative nevertheless represented a creative use of digital tools to promote the maintenance of an open Internet.
What is still missing in the Canadian approach, however, is the recognition that digital diplomacy involves, at its core, a willingness to engage in two-way communications between government officials and interlocutors of various types. This requires, in turn, both a social-media presence (accounts with followers) and a policy framework allowing diplomats to communicate in the relatively informal and rapid style of these media.
In his speech this week, John Baird suggested that Canada is belatedly getting into the digital diplomacy game. He told his audience that diplomacy may never live up to the Silicon Valley mantra of "move fast and break things," but that in the "environment of instant communication and social media, we do have to move faster and not be afraid to try new things or to make mistakes." Further, Mr. Baird's office reports that in the last six months, the foreign ministry has launched 60 new accounts on Twitter and another 50 on Facebook. Clearly, the push is on.
But whether the Harper government will really "not be afraid…to make mistakes" in digital diplomacy remains to be seen. Relations between Canada's foreign service and the minister's office have been strained for years. Neither side fully trusts, respects, or even understands the other. In this climate, Mr. Baird's avowed willingness to let Canadian diplomats take chances and make mistakes will need to be demonstrated, not just stated.
Nor is it clear that the youthful apparatchiks in the Prime Minister's Office who control the government's communications will look kindly on such experiments, regardless of what Mr. Baird might want in his department.
Even more fundamentally, new public diplomacy strategies do nothing to address the principal deficiency of Conservative foreign policy: the fact that the Harper government has burned more bridges than it has built over the past eight years. A country in Canada's position – of middling size, yet open and vulnerable to global forces – must cultivate constructive relationships with a broad array of actors and deftly leverage these relationships, including in multilateral institutions, if it hopes to shape the course of events in its favour. Shouting from the sidelines accomplishes little, other than making our partners and adversaries alike reach for the mute button.
In spite of all this, Mr. Baird deserves credit for finally acknowledging that a genuine embrace of digital diplomacy is necessary – and that it involves a greater acceptance of risk-taking from his own control-freak government. Of course, the meat and potatoes of diplomacy will always be private state-to-state communications. However, unless our diplomats are permitted to engage with governmental and non-governmental interlocutors in real-time, Canada will remain on the margins of the biggest technological revolution to hit the practice of public diplomacy in a generation.
Roland Paris is founding director of the Centre for International Policy Studies and associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He tweets at @rolandparis.