When it comes to the big stage, diplomats in the room always have the advantage

Jimmy Leach @JimmyTLeach

This week, Kosovo fell three votes short in their bid to join Unesco. As setbacks go, the deputy Foreign Minister, Petrit Selimi, was philosophical, calling it ‘a small setback in a long campaign’ by his country to gain recognition from a variety of international bodies, from NATO to Facebook, and plenty in between.

Kosovo had engaged a long campaign of public and digital diplomacy, designed to increase the pressure on the voting countries - to create an awareness of their position that went way beyond what happened inside the meeting rooms of Paris where the vote took place. In that they can be considered successful. When the final score came through, however, the fact remained that they had failed to get over the line. And therein lies the weakness of digital diplomacy - as an instrument of engagement, profile and disruption, it works well. As a tool of decision-making, in established organisations, it plays no formal part. Digital diplomacy and the existing instruments of governance are not natural bedfellows.

The fact that the Unesco vote was so close, with a number of abstentions swaying the final result showed that the long digital campaign of country branding that Kosovo has been involved in has had an impact. It also showed that, when set against the clearly effective old- school diplomacy of Serbia in particular, who were inside the tent rather than out, then working the room still has the advantage.

Towards the end of the week, the circus moves to the G20 in Turkey. Will things be different there?

Well… No. No, they won’t.

For the countries inside the G20, digital diplomacy is an irrelevance right now. They will be doing it the old way. People in suits meeting other people in suits. There will be digital activity, yes. But it will be communications, not diplomacy. Online tools will be enthusiastically used by ministers and officials to record their meetings, to amplify their opinions, to show them shaking hands in front of each others’ flags, and to offer a commentary of record (rather than a record of commentary) on events. In other words, they will, largely, tell you what the conclusions were, not what the discussions or even the disagreements were. What happens in the room stays in the room.

And, pejorative though that paragraph sounded, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The G20 states will happily engage in the old processes, with which they are comfortable and which they trust. Discussions can be nuanced, thoughtful, angry, disjointed and passionate all in the same meeting. And diplomats can look each other in the eye. And that’s how they like it. For those not invited, then lobbying and digital agitation will be their weapons of choice. There will be noise, there will be attempts at ‘disruption’. Digital groups will try and get their topics onto the agenda. And those in the inner circles will have a rather better idea of what people outside the G20 bubble think and want. And that may influence a position, here and there. Create an abstention, rather than a vote, maybe. But it’ll change little.

Digital diplomacy is not an outrider of such set-piece groups and meetings. It’s not about digital echoes of established practices, it’s about creating new networks - most often with non-state actors: with transnationals, protest groups, even terrorist groups. The sort of people to whom sitting in high-ceilinged rooms is strange - but making digital connections isn’t.

The rooms in Antalya will have high-ceilings, and its where’s High Diplomacy belongs. There may well be digital diplomats outside those rooms, tweeting away. But they don’t belong there. Their battles lie elsewhere, and the sooner they pack up their devices and re-establish their digital connections and engage in different battles, the better.