United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres noted that two seismic shifts will shape the 21st century: the climate crisis and digital transformation. Just as international cooperation is crucial to preserving the health of the planet, it is also needed to reap the benefits of digital technologies while mitigating their risks. This entails the introduction of new issues on diplomatic agendas and new tools aiding the work of diplomats.
To navigate this new world shaped by digital technologies, diplomats will not only need technological skills. Critical thinking – the ability to question what is offered and to discern conflicting information – will remain an essential skill for them to be able to understand the ongoing rapid changes across a wide range of topics and to ensure that the digital age is safe, inclusive, and sustainable.
Digitalization has brought about new opportunities to access and share knowledge and use of more sophisticated tools for decision-making, including influencing opinions. Digital technologies are defining new areas for economic competition and regulatory divergence, propelling issues, such as privacy, data protection and the regulation of artificial intelligence, directly on diplomatic agendas. These issues were at the center of debates at the Summit on Digital Diplomacy and Governance – convened by DiploFoundation, the non-profit foundation established by the governments of Malta and Switzerland.
I had the pleasure to speak at three sessions: the high-level opening on equal access to digital technologies, alongside Amandeep Singh Gill, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Technology; and lively discussions on how we can prepare diplomats for 2030 and beyond, and on how diplomatic negotiations can contribute to speeding up the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.
The presence of Ignazio Cassis, President of the Swiss Confederation, and Robert Abela, Prime Minister of Malta, demonstrated the importance that these two countries attach to digital diplomacy, and how much they invest in multilateralism.
At UNECE we can observe the potential of digital technologies to accelerate the achievement of the 2030 Agenda across multiple areas, ranging from economic cooperation and trade facilitation, data gathering and exchange, to systematization and diffusion of standards, and tracking of the implementation of international regulations.
Promoting innovation and digitalization as an instrument to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is rapidly gaining momentum across the UNECE region and this theme will dominate UNECE’s forthcoming 70th session.
Given the recent crises that have highlighted the need to build stronger resilience while maintaining and further enhancing inclusive development, the focus on digitalization is exceptionally timely. Digital technologies can allow for more informed policy decisions and a closer relation between governments and citizens, bridging the distance and overcoming the disadvantages of disability, age and other factors.
Artificial intelligence (AI) tools are becoming widespread and are within the reach not only of corporations but also of individuals who use them to become more productive in routine tasks and assist in decision-making.
In the world of diplomacy, such tools can allow for a broader conversation where more voices and interests can be heard. They can bring a positive influence on international cooperation as a catalyst for new forms of multilateralism including multiple actors. But to preserve this positive influence on global diplomacy we need to maintain the quality and openness of the conversation and ensure that it is not restricted due to persistent inequalities in access to the Internet and digital technologies.
Diplomats need to be aware that the widespread use of digital technologies comes with many challenges that can pose serious harm to the environment and societies. They have a potential for spreading hate and sowing division, fragmenting the world community and national societies, and widening the existing divides.
A gap has already emerged between those who are able to perform better because they can integrate digital tools in their work and those who cannot or remain attached to more traditional instruments. Globally, an estimated 2.7 billion people are offline, with those living in urban areas almost twice more likely to use the Internet than those in rural areas. This discrepancy in use by location can be observed across the UNECE region.
Today’s diplomats also need to be aware of technological determinism and the fact that AI is a predictive tool that looks into the past to provide insights about the future. Digital technologies cannot fully substitute human intervention. We cannot let AI take away our future by shaping our beliefs on the basis of a past we may want to change. The future belongs to us.
This is why the UN Secretary General has called for a Global Digital Compact to be agreed by governments at the UN Summit of the Future in 2024, with input from technology companies, civil society, academia and others. The Global Digital Compact is expected to “outline shared principles for an open, free, inclusive and secure digital future for all” and be firmly anchored in human rights.
Within and across countries, we need to ensure that access to digital technologies and the relevant skills are available to all citizens. Only in this way will the full potential of digitalization to advance sustainable development be achieved.
As diplomats, we have an opportunity and a moral obligation to make sure that we use digital technologies responsibly and in a way that promotes inclusion rather than exclusion. Let us all live up to this responsibility.