Virtual diplomacy: Can Nepal benefit from it?

Thanks to the Geneva-based DiploFoundation, the concept of “Virtual Embassy” has finally materialised. Run with the help of internet, the virtual embassy occupies what is dubbed “Diplomatic Quarter of Diplomacy Island in Second Life” in cyberspace. The services and facilities of the virtual embassy are especially intended for the countries with limited human resources and severe financial constraints — the countries incapable of putting enough people on the ground. Considering its diplomatic efficacy, small and weak countries with limited diplomatic outreach may opt for it. In fact, smaller countries are ideally suited for the conduct of virtual diplomacy.

Recently, the Maldives became the first country in the world to bring to use the services offered by virtual embassy developed by DiploFoundation. Although the concept of virtual embassy is still in an adumbrative state, Sweden, a highly advanced Nordic country, intends to use it. The Philippines, too, along with other countries, is likely to follow suit soon. No doubt, this latest innovation will be brought to wide use if its worth as an effective diplomatic and cost-efficient tool is proven while it is used by the first few countries that embrace it.

Nonetheless, the virtual embassy looks like it’s here to stay. For it is likely to prove highly effective in diplomatic dealings in both regional and broader international settings. Any government can use virtual embassy for representation and negotiation on bilateral and multilateral concerns should two or more countries choose to adhere to the techniques and methods developed by the DiploFoundation. Certainly, cash-starved governments which are short on good diplomats may choose this option. However, no safe predictions can be made at a time when its concept is slowly evolving. Unseen complexities and outcomes cannot be ruled out in the atmosphere of highly competitive and self-interested negotiations among nations.

Modalities of the virtual embassy will gain popularity if governments believe state secrets and intelligence services will not be compromised by its use. Viewed in this context, the concept of virtual embassy might not take off comfortably, although it might be considered convenient to handle diplomatic business bilaterally and multilaterally. Moreover, its scope and activities are likely to be limited only to non-sensitive areas for aforementioned reasons.

Virtual embassy may not prove to be of much help if it is intended to replace the “substantial groundwork” of diplomats accredited to specific countries. Indeed, that is not its purpose. The reports Net diplomats send to their governments — prepared without ground-level observation and analysis — might not prove useful. Realistically, diplomats in question will be made worthless who contribute nothing substantive. Such practice will make diplomats look like boys at the other end of the keyboard who are not very aware about the ground realities of the place he is talking about. Their stature and personality will not be held in high esteem, the way traditional diplomats are looked upon.

The most defective side of diplomacy through virtual embassy is that it completely ignores the great value of the human touch and cordial contacts able diplomats make with other diplomats, politicians, officials and important persons through real embassies. Thus it is less likely to promote understanding and cooperation between countries. The physical absence of diplomats on the spot would, in effect, create a situation of non-linkage rather than generate an atmosphere of warmth and cordiality that are so important in diplomacy. Hence the question of importance of physical presence of diplomats, be it for diplomatic business or important ceremonial occasions, should be considered seriously before deciding if virtual diplomacy should be adopted.

However, considering the financial crunch that afflicts Nepal, it is advisable that the country adopt virtual diplomacy, which was especially designed for the countries weak in both financial and manpower resources. As such, its set-up cost will be far less as compared to the huge cost involved in putting in place a real embassy in a faraway place. Hence it will be a wise option to cut down on the number of real embassies from the capital cities of the countries of lesser political, diplomatic and economic importance.

The government should be prepared to work for education and training of staff and officials needed to conduct virtual diplomacy in places considered appropriate for the purpose. If our aim is to trim down swollen budgetary expenditures, why not turn to the DiploFoundation in Geneva for necessary advice and consideration? Is the government prepared to do this? If virtual embassies can be geared towards the intended purpose, it would truly help develop Net Diplomats who will sincerely work for the welfare of the Nepali people.

Shrestha is ex-foreign ministry official