Virtual Diplomacy

Could conflicts be managed by technical tools in the Digital Age? Ivo Skoric reports from a conference about Virtual Diplomacy, presents possible communication tools and tells us how Radio B92 saved the West.

A new political Scenario

Internet, despite being perceived as a sort of an anarchist tool, firstly developed as a military gadget and it went top to bottom. So, in sixties all the infrastructure (copper wire) was already laid down and number of users was a joke. It seemed that the possibilities are endless. Today with the number of users that increased hundred-thousand-fold and largely the same infrastructure, the net behaves more and more sluggish. Yet, upgrading the infrastructure costs money. And the ever increasing usership drives down the prices. It seems that the market would not saturate before it collapses.

Soon, a hand held satellite telephone is going to be available (from Iridium) enabling wealthier globe-trotters to have a single telephone number regardless of location, yet, still, 50% of all Internet use is in the U.S., and 50% of people on the planet will not even make a voice phone call in their lifetime. And the state structures like military, intelligence and diplomacy lag heavily behind the private sector and NGOs in the Internet use, who rapidly fill in their role of mediators between nations - not only in the Third World countries or former communist bloc, but also here, which prompted organizing of Virtual Diplomacy conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC on April 1-2.

The meeting gathered members of various governmental agencies like USIA, non-governmental organizations like World Vision (that poured over $ 10 millions since 1992 in its reconciliation, relief and reconstruction programs in Bosnia), academia like George Mason University, military, UN, business and media. It was a type of thing with having George Schultz over for dinner (Al Gore dissed the lunch event cutting his losses after the China visit), and I was the only guy in a T-shirt.

When the moderator asked the public who among us belonged to diplomatic circles or academia or business or government, there were just a few hands up. Then somebody suggested NGOs and half the hall had their hands up. Apparently, NGOs constituted 50% of the conference attendance. That make sense. They are the future of government, and, therefore diplomacy. NGOs are structured like little governments (which is also a paper-shuffling not-for-profit corporation like them), yet, unlike the government, which pretends to know and can do everything, each NGO picks up one narrow mandate and sticks to it religiously (and perhaps finds followers/interns - who would do the job on voluntary basis, or are expected to do just that). So far the government is reduced to handling military, intelligence and telecommunications (which all may be subject to privatization by NGO-s of the future).

Of course, with complex humanitarian emergencies, prevalent in the post-cold war period, where countries simply implode to a chaos which aspects are impenetrable to any single agency, dozens of organizations react at the same time, NGOs, military and other organizations agendas sometimes violently overlap or crash into each other. For that purpose The Center for Advanced Concepts and Technology (National Defense University) suggestsCiMiLink: enhancing the civil - military interface. Entwinement of military and civilian objectives and responses was the issue at much of this conference, actually: putting the military and intelligence apparatus in the service of humanitarian and conflict resolution needs.

U.S. interests in, for example, Mexico are shaped by 32 government agencies (and many independent NGOs). Ideally they'd be able to coordinate.

The organizers were United States Institute of Peace (USIP), the organization created and funded by US Congress, which Board of Directors is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate - so it can be safely assumed that views of the USIP do not differ widely from the American foreign policy premises.

They definitely share the whining stance greatly summarized in George Washington's sentence printed at the back of USIP's booklet: "My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth." Since Washington said that, America lead many wars and built the strongest military force in the world.

Joseph Duffey (Director of USIA) said at the conference that many people do not understand America. He didn't elaborate. He just said that USIA's job is to teach the world about America. Well, USIA is notoriously slow to change, so let me help them here. Like, in the U.S. tough decisions are simply postponed. Particularly tough ones are rather passed on to the next administration. And consequences are gladly viewed [on CNN] but not in our own backyard.

Bosnia was a quagmire. It was waited for the next administration to take on the issue. They too were reluctant to do much besides the take-it-or-leave-it session at Dayton air-force base.

Technical Tools for Virtual Diplomacy

This conference showed some tools that negotiators would have in the near future at their disposal to prevent, manage or reconciliate conflicts without use of military force in its typical role. In fact the military will cooperate with humanitarian operation and merely police the effort. Making Washington's wish closer to reality than ever (of course, if it works...)

Of the first allied 200 soldiers deployed in Normandy only 15 were able to continue to fight after the first hour. With today's political priorities (that our boys should not die) the Invasion of Normandy would not be possible. With tomorrow's technologies it might not be necessary.

In prevention of conflict information from a number of sources is collected at the monitoring place, where the information is verified/authenticated and further disseminated and analyzed. Obviously the authentication is crucial. Usenet as it is so clogged with crap to the point that it is near useless. People sometimes post false information under a respectable header that they pasted from the real message, then they send that post through an anonymous remailer. Even with information being correct - there are too many messages to make anything relevant: "knowledge is lost in information" - as Sharon Rusu said.

Essentially, the main problem with the Net based information is its authentication, and the ways to get it without compromising privacy. It is like a land for peace swap in the Middle East and in the Balkans: here it is privacy for security swap. In order to have serious business - like peace negotiations - conducted on the Net: all parties must be absolutely sure that the messages they get are coming from those names that show up in the header.

I gathered that the participants expected the "management" to come after the "prevention", or at least an attempt on prevention, so the "Management" session put an emphasis more on dissemination/distribution/political mobilization/marketing than on verification: by the "management" times the sources and the authentication protocols would already be established and we should concentrate on forging alliances. As a nice example of conflict management Richard Johnson, a retired US Army colonel, offered PowerScene, a software tool used in Dayton to help Croats, Bosnians and Serbs find acceptable ways for peace in Bosnia. PowerScene, which will be commercially available the end of this year for Sillicon Graphics platform (the Windows and Mac versions will follow), combines satellite images, aerial photographs, maps, topographical data, to provide the most realistic view of any region, then it lets you fly right over it, view it from different angles and zoom levels. It feels like high-end 3D first person computer game. Yet, it's for real.

Media picked up on the story that PowerScene coerced Milosevic to accept wider Gorazde corridor. But PowerScene was tool used all the time, although Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Tudjman refused to work off screen - so the maps had to be printed for them while they slept. The next day they'd find something else to disagree, drew some new lines on the map - no problem, the revised maps waited for them in the morning. $4 million worth electronic equipment was at their service. 30,000 color maps were printed (Johnson said they greatly missed the new Epson's 1400 dpi printer). And all their changes were instantly recalculated (10 minutes delay) with a 0.003% margin of error to see if they fit the 51:49 division of Bosnia agreement to which all parties seemed to cling religiously. They also mostly liked the UNPROFOR's map of Bosnia which accidentally had 1% vertical stretch, making Bosnian territory 1% bigger (probably that's why they liked it). PowerScene was also used by NATO pilots to preview their targets in Bosnia - reportedly each bomb hit its target and nothing else in their later sorties.

Unrelated to PowerScene at the conference another mapping system was shown: Relief Emergency Mapping System, that is designed to help relief organizations organize emergency deliveries most efficiently. REMAPS Edit pull-down menu includes commands like "Move refugees by hand."

Besides being a showcase for PowerScene, Dayton peace agreement was also a good example of time compression in shuttle diplomacy: instead of traveling from one to another leader by airplanes, Holbroke just walked a short distance from one leader's accomodation to another, greatly reducing the time which would otherwise be wasted on travel. In some future negotiations that could be done through teleconferencing (the conference offered plenty of teleconferencing options with the most expensive one and the closest to real meeting being TELESUITE by IBM Global Network - where your interlocutors appear "sitting" on the opposite side of the table real life sized on the big screens...).

Paul Strassman (Information Economics Press) at another session calculated that Internet reduces cost for 80%: 12 hours 40 person working party in Geneva costs .5 a million dollars while the same "virtual" meeting would go for $43,000!

The "management" would then continue into "reconciliation" phase, where, obviously, the dialogue is everything. When it comes to Bosnia this phase is NOW. George Soros's (and other NGO's) money is evidently expected to be the vehicle for that reconciliation. One of the projects presented was the Villanova University School of Law Project Bosnia: would it work? Who knows. Hundreds of donated computers will however certainly make Bosnian law students very happy, and happy people are more likely to make peace than the unhappy ones.

Radio B92

The star of the Reconciliation session was, however, Veran Matic of Radio B92. As the USIA's Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy puts it - the "right audience" for American ideals of multicultural civil society abroad more and more is not in the foreign ministry: increasingly it's the Internet bound NGOs like Radio B92. When Serbian government decided to shut down Radio B92 during the student and opposition protests over the government's rejection of the election results in which the opposition won a few major cities, B92 decided to encode its broadcasts in Real Audio and post it on the World Wide Web (using satellite telephone if necessary). B92, also, made arrangements with the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the Deutsche Welle to pick-up their program and rebroadcast it back to Serbia on shortwave. Suddenly, Milosevic was faced with B92 program heard in the entire Serbia and through the Internet in the entire world. Faced with such an ungainly perspective, in just 24 hours Serbian authorities turned B92's transmitters back on, apologizing that they were down due to "flooding."

It seems that USIA saved B92 and Veran's ass. Wrong. B92 saved USIA and Duffey's ass. VOA and RFE lethargy during the Croatian and Bosnian wars was shameful. In the beginning it was believed (particularly by the partisan Croatian lobby) that this was either the consequence of an unclear American policy which swings between its moral and real-political prerogatives, or the consequence of the old pro-Yugoslav editorial cadre, but it soon became clear that the problem was deeper: the cold war inflexibility was not confined to political agendas - it was a system-wide problem of not accepting new ideas, new technologies, new ways in general. The apparent uselessness of USIA's international broadcasting in the post-cold war period prompted Congress to consider cutting funds and tinkering with maybe dismantling the VOA or RFE altogether.

Crucial help that VOA and RFE delivered by rebroadcasting B92 to the Serbian opposition proved their ultimate usefulness. Too bad they didn't do it earlier. Like if they put together Radio Zid (Sarajevo), Radio 101 (Zagreb) and Radio B92 (Belgrade) a few years ago, maybe they could stop or even prevent the war. In 1994, good 4 years after the wall fell, the USIA decided to restructure for the new world order. International Broadcasting Act (IBA) that became a law that year initiated the consolidation of the US international broadcasting. Over $400 millions are saved since then. Today, operating costs are 20% less than in 1994. IBA executor, Kevin Klose, moved RFE from Germany to Prague, saving millions in rent, and, besides, RFE somehow belongs in Prague anyway, doesn't it?

Since B92 became the USIA's success story, Veran is now in the U.S. every two or three months giving speeches, participating at panels, etc.

Would the lack of success of virtual diplomacy be followed by the virtual war, or would wars still be real? (Ivo Skoric)