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World: Internet Spawns A 'Virtual Diplomacy'

Washington, 2 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A former high-ranking U.S. diplomat says the Internet and other global communications systems are dramatically changing the way nations conduct their diplomatic relations.

Richard Solomon, former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, made the comment Tuesday at the start of a two-day conference in Washington, entitled "Virtual Diplomacy."

The conference was sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace, an independent federal organization that promotes research, education and training on international peacemaking. Solomon is currently the president of the organization.

Solomon, who also served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, says the goal of the conference was to discuss how the Internet and new information technology will reshape diplomacy in the next century.

He says it is important for diplomats to understand the impact the Internet and other new communications technology is having on preventing, effectively managing and resolving international conflict.

Solomon says understanding communication patterns is the key to successful diplomacy.

Throughout history, Solomon explains, the innovation of more efficient methods of communication made possible higher levels of social organization. He says that man went from tribe to nation-state, and now is becoming part of a "global village" of people all linked electronically. Diplomatic techniques have to adjust accordingly, he says.

"Communications technologies are reshaping international relations," Solomon says. He adds: "With close to 70 million people in over 100 countries connected to the Internet, these technologies are paving the way for on-line international coalitions who are influencing international politics and policies, humanitarian missions, and globalizing economic growth."

Solomon says the challenge facing today's diplomats is to determine how society will evolve along the complex international pathways of the Internet and the global information superhighway, and how new information technology can be utilized to better manage conflict.

He says it is too early to fully understand the impact computer networks and technology is having on society, but observes that some implications are already being felt.

For example, he says new technology such as electronic mail, is "flattening" the bureaucratic structure and has greatly reduced the need for middle management by permitting a faster, more direct exchange of information between the top and bottom hierarchy. Additionally, he says, the increased access to information permits those in senior leadership positions to act directly and quickly if they choose to do so, increasing their effectiveness and personal accountability.

Solomon says computer networks are also blurring traditional territorial boundaries and cultural impasses by integrating international communities and bringing people together on the basis of similar interests, regardless of their physical and geographic separation. He says this free, unfettered exchange of ideas can mobilize people to act upon both political and social issues and help them coordinate their efforts.

Perhaps the most important implication, says Solomon, is that the information revolution is making the world more understandable by encouraging the collection, analysis and dissemination of millions of pieces of information.

He cites as an example international politics where the ability to instantaneously announce to the world information about human rights abuses or government infractions exposes government transgressions and puts enormous pressure on leaders. He says this often facilitates democratization, openness and political accountability.

Solomon emphasizes that "virtual" diplomacy is also "real" diplomacy -- the authoritative exchanges of ideas between different governments. But "virtual" diplomacy is different in the sense that the exchanges are conducted electronically rather than face-to-face.

"We are early in the process of learning the many effects of interacting electronically across national and cultural boundaries, across distance and time, and the implications for international relations of managing conflict by 'virtual' means," Solomon says.

He adds that early indications seem to be that electronic communications work better when the participants have already met face-to-face. Yet Solomon warns that as the era of electronic communication advances, interactions between people will be increasingly virtual as opposed to physical.

Still Solomon remains optimistic about the possibilities.

"New information technologies and communications procedures are presenting new opportunities for the prevention, management, and resolution of international conflicts," says Solomon.

He adds: "The challenge for government agencies, non-governmental groups, the military, and international aid organizations is to coordinate and standardize procedures for communicating and sharing information to their mutual benefit."