by Dean Salpini USAID
In early April, the U.S. Institute of Peace sponsored a conference on "Virtual Diplomacy" at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. This forum was designed as "an exploration of how our world is being transformed by the global information revolution" and how technology "can be used to prevent, more effectively manage, or resolve international conflict," according to former Assistant Secretary of State, Richard H. Solomon, who gave the keynote address. In fulfillment of this objective, the Virtual Diplomacy conference brought together a "Who's Who" list of diplomats, technologists, private relief organizations, multinational donors, policy makers, and U.S. and foreign governmental officials.
Those attending included former Citicorp Chairman Walter Wriston, former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, Amb. John Negroponte, Cable News Network's Ralph Begleiter, Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies' Arno Penzias, and Gordon Smith, Canadian Deputy Foreign Minister. The World Bank, United Nations, International Peace Academy, Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA), and many more private voluntary organizations and non-governmental entities were present. Even Vice President Al Gore was scheduled to speak, but scratched at the last minute due to the demands of his less than mobile boss.
The range of topics and technology was broad. Geographical Information Systems, digital objects, Internet technologies (ie, search engines/browsers/applications), cellular telephones, satellite networks, packet radios, smart TVs, information agents and more were discussed as tools for conflict resolution. Even the effect of the media and the military on diplomacy through their use of advanced technology was discussed. While Arno Penzias of Lucent Technologies talked about "each PC today having more electronics than the U.S. did during World War II" and technology "affecting the hierarchical organization structure of organizations," such as the Japanese car manufacturers during their onslaught of the U.S. automotive market, there were reminders of the "technological have-nots." Ismail Seregaldin of the World Bank, painted a picture of the developing world where "there are growing inequalities between the rich and poor, and technology maybe exacerbating these differences." He also stated that the "top 20% of the world's population is 60 times richer than the bottom 20%," and that "over 1.3 billion people still live on less than $1/day." These two extremes provide one of the key obstacles to applying technologies to diplomacy--the inequality of infrastructure in the world community.
In another presentation, Warren Strobel, Washington Times correspondent covering the Department of State, recalled stories of the Burmese opposition group based in Thailand stirring public opinion through the internet and garnering "virtual constituents" in Boston, Massachusetts, to rise to their cause without having met any of the group face-to-face. This powerful community was able to send news information into Burma through informal channels, while encouraging the U.S. to limit trade to Burma due to human rights violations. Other examples included the Bosnians learning about civic roles in a democracy over the internet, coordinating food supplies to Rwandan refugees through packet radio links, and providing global positioning system and remote sensing based data to relief planners in Turkey for the Kurdish rescue operations.
Another presenter covered the U.S. military view of the technical revolution. Lt. General Paul Van Riper, U.S. Marine Corps, stated that "intellectual concepts" rather than technological weapons of mass destruction were the key to applying information technology more meaningfully in conflict resolution. His example dealt with the Germans in WWII and describing how they won on the battlefield with better execution of plans and strategies, such as "the blitzkrieg"--not technology. A similar point was made by several other speakers. Ted Okada of Food for the Hungry, for instance, talked about retail point-of-sale technology (certainly not a new development) being used to "tag" children and reunite them with their parents if they become separated in an evacuation process. Sharon Rusu of ReliefWeb indicated that facsimile was still a major information distribution technology for over 10,000 worldwide users to exchange data on the Great Lakes region of Africa relief efforts. Thus, technology is clearly an enabling tool, but not all communities require the "state-of-the-art" to accomplish their objectives.
And what technology was discussed during these two days of contemplation? The internet, of course. This medium was described as everything from the "great equalizer" to the "new universalism" destined to destroy sovereignty. The Clinton Administration's Next Generation Internet Initiative, with its goal of connecting universities and national labs, promoting research into networking technologies, and demonstrating new applications to meet important national goals, was mentioned by several speakers as indicative of the future programs planned involving technology. In addition, many vendors displayed their high technology "wares" in an adjacent exhibit hall. From the latest satellite-based terminals moving disaster relief data back and forth over the internet to communications managers deployed by U.S. Agency for International Development in remote areas of the globe, to the ReliefWeb home page of the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, which provides a clearinghouse of humanitarian activities, commodities tracking, expert registries, and emergency response information, computer technology was displayed prominently. Several consulting firms were also present to offering "user enabling" services to those venturing into the electronic world for the first time.
As would be expected in this technology-rich environment, several internet-related applications were displayed included the U.S. Information Agency's web site www.usia.gov covering U.S. embassies overseas and cultural exchange information for host country recipients and a collaborative workplace application running on a Web-based browser developed by Lawrence Livermore Labs and the Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California - San Diego www.igcc.ucsd.edu. The breadth of applications was truly invigorating.
And what of the future? Are we destined to ask the question posed by T.S. Eliot: "Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge?" or will we convert that knowledge into information of relevance? According to Marc Weiser of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the future lies in a world of "ubiquitous computing." This could mean a research student in Russia reading the text of a speech and viewing a video clip of the Israeli Knesset directly off the Web, or a citizen in a small town wanting to know the weather forecast and location of key tourist sites for an area field trip and downloading a geographical information system-based map along with geopositioning data to guide them to their destination. Digital objects and visualization will also become more prevalent allowing multi-dimensional object viewing from desktops, palmtops, and maybe even "wrist watches," a la Dick Tracey in the comics. This 3-D world will still require human interfaces and interpretation, but the technology tools will allow much faster analysis of the data.
The challenges in this new world will be much like the old: protection of basic copyrights and privacy of individual information. As we become more connected as a worldwide community, we become susceptible to commercial fraud and ethical abuse, not to mention outright criminal activity. Establishing "boundaries" or community enforcement mechanisms to deal with disruptive or negative behavior will need to be more defined if the "global esperanto" espoused here is to survive. This will entail more cooperation as international regulators, government bodies and technical groups collaborate to "stabilize" the internet and other "electronic byways" for the good of all mankind.
In summary, as Walter Wriston declared, "the mental process of reading dispatches is very different from today's instant publishing on CNN with images of body bags at Dover, AFB." Further, he suggested that "when the method of creating wealth changes, so does the power structure" and the "internet standard is much more draconian than the gold standard." As we move to the virtual community of the future and spread technology around the world, we must keep in mind the impact of these tools on the common man and provide more incentives for peace than warfare. Perhaps that is what "virtual diplomacy" is all about.
For more information on the conference, please contact Dean Salpini at (703) 875-1816 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His agency's web site is www.info.usaid.gov.