High-level video conference on the social implications of COVID-19 - March 2020

Do diplomats trust online - and if so, how?

This article was written by Kristin Anabel Eggeling and Larissa Versloot
This article was published on

Kristin Anabel Eggeling and Larissa Versloot discuss the key arguments from their new Review of International Studies (RIS) article. If you'd like to know more you can read the full article here - Taking trust online: Digitalisation and the practice of information sharing in diplomatic negotiations.

Diplomacy has long had an idealised image in international relations. Diplomats gather behind closed meeting rooms doors, discretely deliberate on the state of the world, and later re-emerge to quietly share their solutions with each other and their sending states. Such work, historians and IR scholars have long agreed, builds considerable on diplomats’ personal capacities to be polite and tactful, as well as their abilities to read the room, exercise restraint, and build trust.

But the world we live in today has become faster and more interconnected. Just like other international professionals, diplomats today constantly carry smartphones with them, spend much of their time working on and through screens, and only seldomly find themselves in confidential spaces completely secured against outside distractions or the possibility of inside leaks. The reality of the changing formats of diplomatic work became even more pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic, when much of diplomatic life ‘moved online’.

In our new RIS article, we consider the effects of this changing work environment on international diplomacy and zoom in on one particularly challenged element: the building and maintenance of diplomatic trust. Can diplomats trust each other when negotiating complex files without looking each other in the eyes? How can a video conference (VTC) negotiation be successful when it is more difficult to read subtle signals of agreement or disagreement? And how do diplomats find delicate compromises among often incompatible national positions, when meetings happen without coffee breaks?

Our article asks the broader question underlying these situated concerns, namely: can diplomatic trust be taken online, and if so, how? To answer it, we draw on scholarship on diplomacy as ‘social practice’, which holds that diplomacy unfolds in everyday sayings and doings, as well as tacit norms and rules. Our starting point is a definition of practice as ‘competent performance’ and we approach trust as the temporary ‘suspension’ of uncertainty and vulnerability. To narrow down and study trust, we chose to focus on practices of information sharing to explore the conceptual relation and practical nexus between diplomacy, digitalisation, and trust.

Theoretically, information sharing is a good unit of analysis to study trust, because sharing sensitive information assumes recognition of shared vulnerabilities. As information sharing can of course also be an act of betrayal or distrust – for instance, when shared information is leaked – we take information sharing not as indicative of trust’s presence, but as practical opportunities to make enactments of trust ‘visible’. Empirically, and from our own data, information sharing emerged as an important thing that Brussels diplomats constantly do. Given that information sharing often involves the use of digital tools (e.g., emailing, texting, or posting information online) this practice is a good case to unpack the article’s central question.

What did we find?

Contrary to what is oftentimes argued, our analysis shows that the presence and use of digital tools in diplomatic work do not disrupt trust, per se, but become meaningful in situated use. This means that there is nothing inherently inhibiting to trust when negotiations happen virtually or when diplomats bring their smartphones to meetings. Rather, it is the ways in which these technologies are used and appropriated that effect relations of trust. What we find in our analysis, is that digital tools bring about a renegotiation of the place and boundaries of trust in diplomatic work. This happens along three lines.

First, the use of digital tools reconfirms the importance of old sites (such as the classic face-to-face meetings) while also carving out new spaces (such as WhatsApp chats) for diplomatic trust. While trust can and is taken online, the way it is performed via digital tools nevertheless differs from ‘offline’ trust due to new uncertainties and vulnerabilities (e.g., the possibility of a hack). Second, we find that whereas trust is often taken online, trust is more difficult to build digitally. Third, the use of digital tools makes diplomats reconsider what it means to ‘competently’ share information and reopens a social negotiation of the place of transparency and confidentiality in diplomatic communication.

The big take away of our analysis is that much of the literature seems to have been too negative about the effects of digital tools for diplomatic trust. While it is true that they open new uncertainties and vulnerabilities, digital tools are also used in positive and reaffirming ways on an everyday basis and have today become an important backbone of diplomatic work, including the maintenance of trust among diplomats. 

How does one go about that, studying trust?  

Our analysis builds on qualitative data gathered from 2018–2021 by interviewing, shadowing and working with diplomats in the Council of the European Union in Brussels. Trust, however, is a tricky concept to work with – which is why we published a detailed description of our methodological approach in an online appendix to our article.

What is especially interesting to note is the ways in which we also needed to build relations of trust to the diplomats we were working with for this article. As the pandemic closed off ‘traditional’ fieldwork options, we looked for alternative strategies to stay connected to Brussels and our participants’ experiences, and we adopted a strategy of following Brussels into its new and extended virtual sites. Some of them, like public webinars, were openly accessible and indeed made it easier to get in touch with ‘Brussels’ than ever; whereas others remained behind closed (virtual) doors, like the example of the Defence Council meeting ‘broken into’ by the Dutch journalist used in the article.

This mode of engagement created a clear symmetry between our way of exchanging with participants and their ways of exchange with each other that we were academically interested in. The use of digital tools and the performance of trust when using them thus not only became relevant as a research object but also as a research method: while conducting this research, we were ourselves experiencing what we were substantially studying. To write an appendix alongside the article was therefore, similar to its substantial discussion on trust, an act of information sharing and we hope all interested readers (especially students) may take a look at it.

Nuanced insights from fieldwork: information sharing via phone, e-mail and video conferencing

From our fieldwork, we find that two socially negotiated rules illuminate what it means to competently share information in EU and help sustain trust among diplomats: keep up internal transparency and ensure external confidentiality. Internal transparency is about an expectation of mutual sincerity about information shared. Sincerity should not be confused with full disclosure, but rather refers to the expectation that diplomats keep each other in the loop, informally. The second rule, external confidentiality, refers to the expectation that diplomats keep secrets from the right people, at the right time. Where those boundaries lie differs depending on context. Those who are not supposed to know a can at times be the broader public, yet at other times be another group of member states or even a particular diplomat or EU official.

As an integral part of the Brussels information sharing landscape today, digital tools broaden the horizon for when and where trust can be enacted. Digital enactments of trust have become central for suspending uncertainty during negotiations. This is for instance done via email, to ensure that everyone is ‘in the known’ through, or by ‘testing the waters’ via WhatsApp messages during VTC meetings.

Zooming in on how trust is enacted online, we find that this creates new hierarchies and explicates existing ones: some ‘win’ and some ‘lose’ when trust is performed digitally. Digitally ‘savvy’ diplomats navigate processes of digital information sharing more easily. They do not find it a problem to use multiple digital tools simultaneously. Older diplomats, or those who are less ‘tech savvy’, run the risk of being overtaken or even excluded. We also found that virtual negotiations during COVID-19 were more difficult to navigate for newcomers in Brussels. Those who were already there had informal digital channels set up from before the pandemic and were more flexible in meeting both online and ‘offline’ again. They had opportunities for suspending uncertainties that newcomers did not share, and found difficult to develop. This dynamic entrenches information asymmetries and potentially compromises internal transparency in the long run.

The use of digital tools for communication also creates uncertainty that proves difficult to suspend altogether by diplomatic trust. To deal with the risks of potential interruptions and hacks from outsiders, control is seen as the viable option to ensure internal transparency and external confidentiality, such as when mobile phones are not allowed in a meeting room.

Implications for diplomatic trust

Two broader implications can be drawn from our analysis. First, while trust is indeed often enacted online, it works in tandem with ‘offline’ enactments of trust such as in face-to-face meetings. When these were impossible altogether (as during COVID-19 lockdowns), the maintenance of trusting relations via digital tools becomes more demanding. Whereas it is possible to sustain trust virtually, it seems difficult to build trust via digital tools only.

Second, the analysis has shown the power of unspoken rules in diplomatic practice. We focused on how diplomats generally presume that others understand how to share information competently: by keeping up internal transparency and external confidentiality. These rules serve as a yardstick when it comes to (un)trustworthy digital information sharing. The presumption that diplomats gain competence in navigating these rules helps explain why it is possible that phones are regularly used in diplomatic meetings despite the uncertainties and vulnerabilities that come with their use. Paradoxically, aiming to preserve trust by prohibiting the use of digital tools in some settings may in the long run trigger contestation and reopen a more fundamental social negotiation of what constitutes (un)trustworthy diplomatic behaviour. Is one trustworthy when aiming to share sensitive information or rather stay silent during a VTC, with a similar aim at upholding internal transparency?

Take away points – for scholars

For scholars working on diplomacy and trust, our article suggests that ‘the digital’ is not necessarily bad news for trust. Indeed, trust can and is often taken online by EU diplomats. Our article thereby provides empirical support for earlier made theoretical suggestions that non-embodied interactions – such as sharing information via digital tools – does not impinge on trust per se, but rather that it challenges the building of new trusting relations. Future research could examine whether this finding is mirrored in other and perhaps less institutionalised diplomatic contexts.

For scholars working on the ‘digitalisation’ of diplomacy, our article confirm its ‘synthetic’ or ‘blended’ character and as such further nuance the debate on the impact of digital tools on diplomatic negotiations. Questions of the digitalisation first and foremost speak to the diplomatic self-understandings, norms and ways of doing things, rather than about the use of soft- and hardware. Further research may look at different diplomatic settings or focus on other digital technologies such as simultaneous interpretation performed by artificial intelligence.

Take away points – for diplomats and other practitioners of world politics

Diplomacy is today just as much performed in emails, on social media and in chat windows as it is in confidential negotiation rooms, in meeting breaks, or during formal receptions. Paying attention to these new sites needs to become part of the working repertoire for diplomats. At the same time, these digital sites should not be seen as entirely separate from the analogue worlds. They are generally linked to the norms and rules of a particular work environment and used by professionals in ways that correspond to these environments. When new digital tools are brought into this field, for example a new type of phone, computer or AI service, reflection is necessary as to how they relate to existing rules, norms and ways of doing things.

What our analysis shows in the context of trust is that diplomacy cannot only ‘go digital’ but that digitalisation can also be done diplomatically.

Want to know more? You can read the full article at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210522000559

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