SPECIAL GUEST POST by Matthew Wallin, Senior Policy Analyst, American Security Project
The advent of internet communications has given a rise to the concept of virtual public diplomacy engagement—that is communication with foreign publics without actually having a ground presence to do so. Some call it e-diplomacy. While this sounds like a revolutionary concept, functionally, it is not.
The ability to get information into a country without being on the ground there has existed for many years in the form of various types of electronic communication. Despite this, the announcement of Virtual Embassy Tehran by the U.S. State Department in 2011 has been viewed as a revolutionary occurrence.
In reality, it isn’t. Virtual embassies are fundamentally analogous to some forms of international broadcasting. For instance, though declining significantly in use in recent years, shortwave radio has been historically popular around the world due to its ability to cover vast distances of thousands of miles. Just as virtual embassies are subject to being blocked by authorities in the target countries, radio, too, has always been subject to jamming. Satellite broadcasting, which by measures of sheer distance and quality of signal may be considered the ultimate in remote information transmission, is also subject to jamming. This is particularly prominent in Iran.
In any case, the need to broadcast from outside of a country in order to reach a target audience can be viewed as an indication that diplomatically, something isn’t going well. In a worst-case scenario, there may be no diplomatic relations whatsoever. The U.S. currently has no diplomatic relations or presence in several countries with which it holds an adversarial relationship, including Iran and North Korea. But must it be so? Why is a virtual embassy even necessary in the first place?
During the Cold War, the United States maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, despite the existential threat it posed, the numerous proxy wars waged, and the many fundamental disagreements between those countries over a long period of time. It was simply in the greater interest for both countries to have diplomatic relations because the stakes were too high not to.
Certainly in the case of Iran, there is valid reason for not maintaining diplomatic relations, as diplomatic staff were targeted by the 1979 revolutionaries that now run the Iranian Government. There is thus legitimate concern that if relations were established, the Government of Iran would not be willing to provide diplomatic staff with appropriate assurances or protection. This was made further evident in 2011, when the UK Embassy was sacked by Iranian protestors after new sanctions were imposed for Iran’s nuclear activities.
Even though a virtual embassy doesn’t put staff in physical danger, its message is still able to be silenced. Since a key strength of the internet is the ability to use electronic methods to find out where information is being read, for how long, and how it is being circulated, one might think a virtual embassy is a great idea. The problem with this however, is that due to blocking from inside Iran, it is technically not possible to determine if one is reaching the target audience. As the Iranian people must use proxies, VPNs, or other methods to access the virtual embassy, these connection attempts appear as though they are coming from other countries.
Ultimately, if the best use of the internet as a medium through which public diplomacy can be conducted is as a component of real-world in-person engagement, then do virtual embassies stand out as bad PD, simply “better than nothing,” or actually effective? Without proper metrics, we won’t really know. It will take people on the ground in these countries to really find out.