International Relations Digital Diplomacy
Marcus Holmes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0258


Digital diplomacy has no shortage of synonyms or terminology debates (digital diplomacy has been variously referred to, or described, as “e-Diplomacy,” “cyber Diplomacy,” “net diplomacy,” “#diplomacy,” “diplomacy 2.0,” “public diplomacy 2.0,” “networked diplomacy,” “real-time diplomacy,” “21st-century statecraft,” “diplomacy in the digital age,” “digitalization of diplomacy,” or “digidiplomacy”), yet each term shares a common perspective: the use of digital information communication technologies, such as the Internet, to achieve diplomatic objectives. While foreign ministries have used newly available technologies throughout their history for various purposes—including cable wire, radio transmissions, telephone, television, video conferencing, among others—the advent of the Internet ushered in an explosion both in the use of digital technologies in diplomacy and in scholarly interest in how those technologies may be changing the role of diplomacy in world politics (see Oxford Bibliographies article in International Relations “History of Diplomacy”). Digital diplomacy scholarship has developed through two fairly distinct phases, with different emphases and from two different, and distinct, vantage points. Early work in digital diplomacy attempted to answer broad theoretical questions about the activity itself: What is digital diplomacy? How is it different than traditional diplomacy (see Oxford Bibliographies article in International Relations “Face-to-Face Diplomacy”)? How does digital diplomacy affect traditional diplomacy, if at all? Subsequently, scholars have built upon these theoretical perspectives and asked specific methodological questions and interrogated critical issues of measuring causal effects: How can scholars empirically demonstrate the effect of digital diplomacy? What is the baseline upon which we can judge “successful” or “unsuccessful” digital diplomacy initiatives? What are the practical policy implications, and recommendations, that follow from these empirical perspectives? These two phases of development—theorization and measurement—have developed contemporaneously with two distinct substantive perspectives on the focus of digital diplomacy initiatives: projection and retrieval. Digital diplomacy projection refers to the ways in which states use information communication technologies to transmit information to statespersons, diplomats, or, as in the case of public diplomacy, foreign publics. Digital diplomacy retrieval refers to the ways in which states use these same technologies to gather information from these same actors, such as in the overlap between diplomacy and intelligence gathering. Some digital diplomacy endeavors accomplish both. The future of digital diplomacy study likely involves more refining of theoretical propositions regarding projection and retrieval, as well as development of more sophisticated, and precise, methodological tools to help study projection and retrieval empirically.

General Overviews

While Dizard 2001, Hayden 2012, Cull 2013, and others have argued there is evidence that foreign ministries were using digital information communication technologies in the latter half of the 20th century, the first general attempts to theorize digital diplomacy arrived only in the early 2000s, suggesting, perhaps, an initial hesitation to view the topic as worthy of serious scholarly pursuit. Potter 2002 provided a very prescient, and early, collection of chapters that envisioned some of the significant changes that digital tools would mean for foreign ministries in the decades to come. Sandre 2013, written by a practitioner of digital diplomacy, provided an overview of how foreign ministers were using a particular digital diplomacy tool, Twitter, and it serves as one of the first views of digital diplomacy, despite focusing on a particular application. Shortly thereafter, Sandre 2015 followed up on this work and provided a snapshot of how public and traditional diplomacy have changed more generally with the digital revolution. In both cases the perspective is that of the practitioner: insight into the quotidian life of the diplomat in the digital age. Bjola and Holmes 2015 provides the first systematic treatment of digital diplomacy from a theoretical perspective, launching a research program that will include both advances in theorization and measurement of causal effects of digital diplomacy. Holmes 2015, in particular, is useful for a general theorization of digital diplomacy as “international change management,” suggesting that the use of digital tools provides a unique way for diplomats and foreign ministries alike to proactively listen (retrieval), and respond to (projection), changes in the international system. Hocking and Melissen 2015 cautions that the digital tools used by foreign ministries both redefine existing issues and routines while creating new ones that must be interrogated in order to understand their full causal effect. Manor 2016 surveys foreign ministries around the world and finds evidence of states engaging in both practices, though there are limitations to their current activities, including the lack of collaboration with nonstate actors, which has limited foreign ministries from fully exploiting the power of digital tools. Digital technology and globalization are often viewed as closely related or interrelated, which has implications for diplomacy. Lule 2014 navigates the nexus between globalization and digital media, while Siracusa 2010 analyzes the connection between diplomacy and globalization more generally. Finally, Gilboa 2016 provides a useful survey of recent digital diplomacy scholarship as well as some of the private entities that track developments in the digital diplomacy field.

  • Bjola, Corneliu, and Marcus Holmes. Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2015.

    This edited volume is the first of its kind to bring together scholars and practitioners to dissect and theorize digital diplomacy in world politics. The book theorizes the nature of digital diplomacy, assesses digital diplomacy against more traditional forms of diplomacy such as face-to-face diplomacy (see Oxford Bibliographies article in International Relations “Face-to-Face Diplomacy”), and examines its limitations. The book includes both theoretical and empirical chapters.

  • Cull, Nicholas J. “The Long Road to Public Diplomacy 2.0: The Internet in US Public Diplomacy.” International Studies Review 15.1 (2013): 123–139.

    DOI: 10.1111/misr.12026

    This article traces the history and adoption of digital communication tools in the US public diplomacy context. While the focus here is on the American context, many of the themes that are developed in the article—such as the use of technology to engage with foreign publics through processes of listening, engagement, and exchange—are generalizable beyond the US context.

  • Dizard, Wilson P., Jr. Digital Diplomacy: US Foreign Policy in the Information Age. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

    One of the first books written on the topic of digital diplomacy. The focus is on the US case. Dizard laments, to some degree, the slow adjustment by the US Department of State to changing technologies in the Internet era.

  • Gilboa, Eytan. “Digital Diplomacy.” In The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy. Edited by Costas M. Constantinou, Pauline Kerr, and Paul Sharp, 540–552. London: SAGE, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781473957930.n45

    An overview of digital diplomacy scholarship in an excellent edited volume on the nature of diplomacy. The digital diplomacy chapter is most relevant for our purposes here, though the entire volume is useful for the student of diplomacy more generally.

  • Hayden, Craig. “Social Media at State: Power, Practice, and Conceptual Limits for US Public Diplomacy.” Global Media Journal 11 (2012): 1–20.

    A critical analysis of the limits of digital diplomacy vis-à-vis traditional diplomacy, with particular emphasis on the “soft power” role of public diplomacy for the US government.

  • Hocking, Brian, and Jan Melissen. Diplomacy in the Digital Age. The Hague: Clingendael Institute, 2015.

    This survey of digital diplomacy efforts is invaluable for its analysis of how digital tools affect traditional diplomacy. It makes several predictions regarding how digitalization will and will not affect diplomacy, with particular emphasis on issues of trust in social and political institutions.

  • Holmes, Marcus. “Digital Diplomacy and International Change Management.” In Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. Edited by Corneliu Bjola and Marcus Holmes, 13–32. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2015.

    This theoretical perspective suggests that digital diplomacy is a form of change management in the international system. That is, leaders, diplomats, and foreign ministries use digital tools to listen to, and respond to, both quotidian changes that occur in daily political life as well as big exogenous shocks to the system. Empirical illustrations include utilizing Twitter to gauge the potential for conflict in foreign countries and responding quickly to political or natural crises.

  • Lule, Jack. “Globalization and Media: Creating the Global Village.” In The SAGE Handbook of Globalization. Edited by Manfred Steger, Paul Battersby, and Joseph M. Siracusa, 363–379. London: SAGE, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781473906020.n22

    While not engaging with diplomacy directly, this is an important chapter for conceptualizing the intersection of digital media and globalization, which has direct implications for theorizing digital diplomacy. Of particular interest is the Marshal McLuhan metaphor of the “global village,” which foreshadows arguments regarding the extent to which digital diplomacy is successful at building bridges between publics through dialogue and engagement.

  • Manor, Ilan. Are We There Yet: Have MFAs Realized the Potential of Digital Diplomacy? Results from a Cross-National Comparison. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016.

    This book asks a simple question: Have foreign ministries realized their potential when it comes to digital diplomacy? Manor’s answer is that many foreign ministries have successfully institutionalized social media into their strategies, but they have fallen short in utilizing the full benefits of social media, particularly when it comes to enabling dialogue between host governments and foreign populations. Manor’s work suggests that dyadic dialogue and engagement are critical, and underutilized, processes that digital diplomacy enables.

  • Potter, Evan H., ed. Cyber-Diplomacy: Managing Foreign Policy for the Twenty-First Century. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2002.

    This is one of the earliest attempts to theorize what information communication technologies, particularly the Internet, mean for the conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy. This is an edited volume with chapters on a range of topics, from the use of satellites and wireless technology to prognostication about the future of cyber-diplomacy.

  • Sandre, Andreas. Twitter for Diplomats. Geneva, Switzerland: DiploFoundation, 2013.

    One of the first attempts to systematically analyze a specific Internet social media application in the context of diplomacy. The author’s perspective here is one of practitioner and shares insights from case studies, interviews, and his own experiences, to provide insight into how foreign ministries, and the diplomats they support, engage with publics, and one another, through Twitter. Copublished by Istituto Diplomatico (Rome).

  • Sandre, Andreas. Digital Diplomacy: Conversations on Innovation in Foreign Policy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

    In many ways a follow-up to his earlier work investigating Twitter, here the author tackles digital diplomacy more generally, rather than focusing on a singular application. The perspective is still that of a practitioner, though the vantage point is more broad and generalizable than Sandre 2013.

  • Siracusa, Joseph M. Diplomacy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199588503.001.0001

    A very useful book on the historical development of diplomacy. The chapter on globalization provides a prescient look at many of the debates that will develop in the digital diplomacy literature in the coming years, most notably the nexus between traditional diplomacy and its digital variant.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.