The Conduct of Foreign Policy in the Information Age; The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Author:Roberts, Walter R.
Position:Commentary and Analysis - Essay

September 2016

The Compleat Public Diplomat is a collection of essays by Walter Roberts, including "The Conduct of Foreign Policy in the Information Age" reprinted at right. Edited by Barry Fulton.

June 21, 1994

It is a great pleasure to be here today and to share with you some thoughts on how the conduct of foreign affairs has changed in the wake of the communications revolution--a revolution that has altered our lives as decisively as the industrial revolution of the last century. We experience it in all our activities. Instantaneous communication has become the order of the day. Nowhere has its impact been more profound than in the conduct of foreign policy.

When Benjamin Franklin represented the new American government at the court of Louis XVI, he received his instructions by sailing ship. One story has it that after not hearing from Ambassador Franklin for a year, President George Washington mused: "Perhaps we should send him a letter." There is no doubt that in his negotiations with the French government, Franklin actually exercised, in that now archaic phrase, "extraordinary and plenipotentiary powers."

As sail gave way to steam and then to internal combustion and jet engines, the time required to carry the written and printed word physically from place to place was progressively shortened. Franklin, as a pioneer scientist, would have appreciated even more the use of electricity to transmit messages via telegraph and telephone. But neither he, nor most of my generation, just a few short decades ago could have foreseen how electronics, satellite television, fax, email, fiber optics, the Internet, and other digital technologies would transform diplomacy.

Those in charge of foreign policy, be they the president of the United States or the prime minister of Great Britain, face situations their predecessors never experienced. Literally every important event around the globe is instantaneously reported, most of the time on television, and reporters, whose numbers have increased enormously in recent years, expect immediate reactions from policy makers, who in turn often feel it necessary to comment when silence and quiet consideration would be preferable.

I am very much aware that in the United States this problem has reached wider proportions than in other parts of the world, including here in Britain. But the difference is only one of degree, and since the world is so closely interconnected, foreign policy statements in Washington have immediate policy and media ramifications here in London, and for that matter anywhere else around the globe.

When I started working in the State Department some forty years ago, the press office was basically a one-man operation. Cigar-smoking Mike McDermott, a former newspaperman, was the press secretary. His door was always open. The few reporters who covered the State Department would wander in once a day to inquire whether any press releases could be expected and whether there was anything worth reporting. What was the Secretary of State up to? Was he in town? Or on a trip?

The communications revolution has changed all this dramatically.

Three aspects in the changed conduct of foreign policy are worthy of examination.

The first concerns the actual organization and functioning of a foreign ministry in the information age. I won't dwell on this at length, because it has been excellently described by Steward Eldon, a British Foreign Service officer. In a recent paper written while detached to Harvard University, he assesses the belated response of many foreign ministries, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the State Department, to the information revolution. Eldon describes the information systems policy makers now use to respond as quickly as possible to news as it becomes immediately available from anywhere in the world. These days, foreign ministries are equipped with two-way video, fax machines, email, computerized retrieval systems, etc. They face a more formidable task than do most other government agencies, and indeed many non-governmental organizations, in that the security of their far-flung communications must be considered. Fortunately, new technologies have overcome this problem to a large extent. Today, secure instantaneous communication exists between a foreign office and practically every Foreign Service post abroad.

The second aspect of the changed...

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