Turkey’s new digital diplomacy by Emrah Usta*

April 05, 2012, Thursday/ 17:46:00

The simplest explanation of digital diplomacy is to say that international ties are no longer just shaped by relations between countries, but that diplomacy now also uses digital tools and skills to prevent and overcome problems that occur in its arena.

Thanks to digital diplomacy, a form of classic diplomacy, it has become possible to listen, publish, communicate and evaluate through the Web. In this way, policies between countries become more visible through the virtual communication of their peoples.

The problem is to make sure that bloggers, activists and forums are arguing in an agreeable manner; that the topic of discussion’s general outline is being defined; that people/institutions’ opinions of this problem are being recorded; and that governments have an increasingly open approach to their problems.

This is a topic that is being currently debated in many countries all over the world by academics, journalists, activists and volunteer civil diplomats. Digital diplomacy is also very important for think tanks these days in terms of enabling them to relay their ideas to other people and institutions. One thing is definite, and that is that very soon, digital diplomacy -- which has up until now been viewed as a subset to classic diplomacy -- will start playing a much more central role than it has before. Digital diplomacy, which is ongoing and sustainable, can be used in a variety of different categories of diplomacy and looks set to be added to Turkey’s foreign policy strategy. It is difficult to assert that Turkey has done much yet in this area, though. The foundation being put in place, however, does show that the Turkish Foreign Ministry is trying to make progress on the digital front.

Countries worldwide move towards digital diplomacy

In the meantime, from the US to India, countries around the globe are seeing their own diplomatic efforts move more and more into the digital arena. The US keeps announcing new digital diplomatic projects, one of which involves educating its young diplomats at the State Department in ways that digital diplomacy can be used. The US government, in 2012, is initiating such projects within the scope of National Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy and is opening its doors to IT specialists who provide communication, management and digital design. Matt Armstrong from the US Public Diplomacy Council summarizes US projects in the field of digital diplomacy by alluding to remarks by former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “What we say and do, or even what we do not say or do, will affect the lands beyond us.” These remarks indicate that the US will be active in the digital field. Israel has also made serious strides in this area. Two of the clues to just how much importance Israel places on digital diplomacy are the opening at its Haifa University of a new graduate program called “Citizen Diplomats,” and the subsequent announcement that the country will begin educating a group of “online ambassadors.” The United Kingdom, too, is focusing on how to best use public personnel in the digital environment these days.

But where is Turkey in this midst of all this? Are Turkey’s various institutions really relaying sufficient information to the digital arena? These are two of the many questions on this subject awaiting answers. As the importance of digital diplomacy for Turkish foreign policy appears to increase every day, there are two projects in this field that have been attracting much notice lately. There is the “Ask the President” program that allows regular citizens to ask President Abdullah Gül questions, and the NTV History Magazine “Live Çannakale” project, which will run for 10 months and describe the war. With the project conducted by NTV Tarih, the Gallipoli campaign, which took place between March 18, 1915 and Jan. 9, 1916, is broadcast live, in Turkish and English, via Twitter as if it were happening today. In this way, an unprecedented database related to the battle of Gallipoli, a new resource and memory, will come into existence before the eyes of students, historians, researchers, organizations, individuals – all people, local or foreign.

Even though Turkey may not have yet taken enough steps to promote digital diplomacy, it does appear to be preparing in earnest the groundwork for future projects. The entire world watched with interest as the US worked from the 1990s to the 2000s to expand its technological prowess, as developments in the area of computer technology increased and spread into more and more areas of life. In fact, these developments were responsible for the appearance of more moderate policies around the world in place of the strong anti-Americanism that emerged in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The “soft power” concept heralded by foreign policy expert Joseph Nye after the 2001 attacks brought about big changes in the media. As Nye describes it, soft power is “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideas, and policies.” In Turkey this idea translates as the rich cultural heritage that allows the country’s policies to be accepted by other states and peoples as legitimate, and also allows Turkey to explain its policies and views more effectively to other nations. Recently, we witnessed Turkey gain a leadership position from soft power in Gaza after the Davos summit.

Moreover, Turkish television series marketed all over the world reach millions of viewers, especially in the Balkans and the Middle East. Turkish television series help familiarize other peoples with Turkey. The countries reached by the modern image of Turkey have gained familiarity with the country and become more likely to establish economic relations with Turkey. The economic interdependence between Turkey-Arbil is one example of Turkey’s soft power promoting trade. In recent years, some of the important Turkish institutions doing work in the area of soft power have included the TC Prime Ministerial Public Diplomacy Coordination center, the TC Prime Ministerial Turkey Cooperation and Development Agency, the TC Prime Ministerial Directorate of Turks and Related Communities Living Abroad, the TC Foreign Ministry Diplomacy Academy, the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) and the Yunus Emre Cultural Institute.

For Turkey to maintain access to the outside world, coordination between all these institutions must be made more functional. There are Turkish diplomats and politicians present in some of these sorts of institutions who -- on an individual basis -- use digital diplomacy as tools. According to Halil Ibrahim Izgi, one of the founders of Yenidiplomasi.com, a site which defines itself as an independent digital institution, “Turkey has much to do in this area, and the strategy it puts into place must be systematic.” Izgi, who defines digital diplomacy as using the Internet to solve foreign policy problems, believes that the Internet can be used in myriad ways to listen, broadcast and influence in the arena of what used to be classic diplomacy. Thus, for example, relations between different countries can be measured in advance of creating policy, and it can be predetermined what sort of dangers they present. This arena also presents the opportunity to see and analyze relations between states and masses of people and thus predict what sort of responses and reactions states’ actions will elicit in their citizens. As İzgi sees it, Turkey experienced its first real example of this when four American journalists were kidnapped in Libya. The fact that Turkey worked as a go-between to arrange the release of the journalists and that Turkish Ambassador to the US Namık Tam made statements over Twitter in relation to the situation were signs that Turkey had passed some important global test of its diplomacy. Another name attracting much attention in this area is Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Davutoğlu’s use of social media in an effective way has helped place him in a significant role among international envoys. Another factor to note is recent statements made by Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selçuk Ünal which signal the strong sense of importance that Foreign Ministry officials put on digital diplomacy.

Foreign policy clues found in social networks

Some of the careful preparations in building a stronger foundation for digital diplomacy include the Foreign Ministry’s renewal of its website, the increase in messages related to social issues coming out of the ministry, the renewal of the Center for Strategic Research (SAM) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that the ministry has begun using the social media tools of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It is difficult to say that Turkish foreign policy has really produced much in the way of serious projects here. But there is one particular project which has been attracting considerable attention lately.

The project, being run at Georgetown University in the US by Yusuf Özhan, aims to turn social media data into visual evidence and has been in progress since November 2011. Called “Using Hashtags to Follow People and Concepts in Turkish Foreign Policy,” it is producing data that will no doubt cast much light on certain institutions and figures over time. Özhan’s project gives space to news and statements made by people, the media and institutions over, for example, the “hashtag” (a word or phrase used as a tag in Twitter) “#Davutoglu.” This project also illuminates the frequency and connections between keywords in Turkish foreign policy and points to the knowledgeable and determined ways in which users of digital platforms try to shape daily and national agendas. One interesting instance in the project shows the profusion of #Davutoglu hashtags coming out of the US when Davutoğlu stated publicly that Turkey’s foreign policy has become an important global actor. This evidence in turn points to the fact that there is indeed a large and close following of Turkey’s foreign policies in other countries.

It is quite clear that Turkey is new to the arena of digital diplomacy. And of course, the most powerful card held by a Turkey which is able to complete its technological underpinnings will be its own human population. A Turkey which is able to increase its diplomatic strength and which appoints well trained diplomats to critical areas of the world should take the next step of seeing that volunteer individuals and nongovernmental organizations play more effective and active roles in conducting foreign policy, and that they are present in the decision-making mechanisms as well. In this way, the foreign policy aims of Turkey, which now can mount active political arguments within its society through technological means, can be reached. At this point, it is a must to encourage citizens to contribute to this process more actively. Individuals who can work voluntarily as civil diplomats in the countries where they live can bridge international gaps, and this ability can be harnessed to contribute to Turkish diplomacy. It is certain that countries that adopt more flexible policies related to access to communication networks will form policies based more closely on their citizens’ own agendas. A Turkey able to carry this all off will also see its international opportunities and competitiveness expand, as its use of digital diplomacy does at the same time.


*Emrah Usta is a US foreign policy analyst and a fellow at the Center for American Studies at Süleyman Şah University in İstanbul. He can be followed on Twitter @StrategcAnalyst