Can robots replace diplomats?

Article by Joana Lopes | Illustration by Matilde Morri

Can robots replace diplomats? You might be thinking how strange and bizarre this question is. But is it really? The main question of this article took inspiration from a TED talk of the former French Ambassador to Sweden, David Cvach, who questioned whether his figure could ever be substituted by artificial intelligence (AI). He highlighted the “deep irony in the fact diplomats should fear robots” because, for centuries, “they were the closest thing you could find to a robot”. The audience laughed, as the remark was meant to be amusing, but the Ambassador was actually being serious and explained why: “the rules of modern diplomacy were designed to constrain emotions”.

Managing state relations efficiently implied portraying a “very cold and analytical” figure, so diplomats ought to operate while repressing their feelings. In fact, he explained, countries rotate diplomats on a regular basis, usually for three or four years, partly because “they don’t want them to become too emotionally involved in their country of residence”.  Wittingly, Cvach added: to the current day, “the worst possible thing a diplomat can say about another is that he or she is very passionate”.

Taking into account the Ambassador speech, the word “robot” may be used in two ways: either as a metaphor to characterize the diplomat, or as the robot-machine in itself (AI). In this article we approach the question “can robots replace diplomats?” considering these two meanings, intertwining the issues of emotions and technology (especially the issue of digital diplomacy, aka e-diplomacy). It is difficult to access rigorously, but we briefly present two possible answers.

On the one hand, the former characterization of the “diplomatic agent” (as stated in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of the United Nations, 1961), no longer seems to be appropriate. As emphasized by Sir Ernst Satow, it is well known that consensus, agreements and alliances are far better achieved by fostering amicable relations, using tact and warmth, rather than aggression.

According to Professor G. R. Berridge, Niccolò Machiavelli has even viewed “sincerity and frankness of great importance” to the conduct of official relations. Sophia, the world’s first AI robot, created by the Chinese company Hanson Robotics in 2010, has already acquired citizenship (granted by Saudi Arabia in 2017), seven “siblings” (2017) and actually manages to produce 62 facial expressions, yet it is unlikely that she will be able to perfectly recreate the beauty of real emotions or making use of them. Thus, human emotion is important as much as reason and knowledge.

The importance of human emotions might be better demonstrated through misconduct. The rather “positive” depiction of diplomacy, of sincerity, is not exempt from criticism, partly related to the use of morality and ethics in international politics. Highly debated since Hans Morgenthau, Machiavelli or Otto von Bismarck, who dismissed ethics from foreign policy in favour of realpolitik, some contemporary authors, as George Modelski or Kenneth Thomson, have criticised diplomacy for being morally dubious, and diplomats for telling lies or being suspicious.

Although these assessments are exaggerated and deeply unfair to those in the field, denying or ignoring the use of deceit to advance any national interests would be naive. In 1975, Hannah Arendt argued that “lying as a way of life is no novelty in politics. (…) It was quite successful in countries under totalitarian rule, where the lying was guided not by an image but by an ideology”. Lying, she explained, was especially regarded as “justifiable in emergencies”, particularly those “concerned with specific secrets, as military matters, which had to be shielded against the enemy”. In the XXI century, lying is indeed no stranger to any politician or diplomat, not because they are liars themselves, but because there are various examples of its use in state affairs, amongst democratic societies.

From corruption scandals; to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States of America – onward without the approval of the Security Council of the United Nations and constructed upon the false assumption that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – to the controversial issue of “humanitarian interventions” and to the tweets of the President Donald Trump, Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin (which often depict false claims, while being scrutinised), lying has acquired a new amplified importance, mainly due to the information age and the emergence of the “post-truth society”, dominated by disinformation and fake news. All of these actions greatly diminish the credibility of the nation state and jeopardize the establishment of a peaceful order.

On the other hand, the “replacement” of diplomats with robots may be not too far from reality. The diplomat may no longer be “cold and analytical”, in the sense of needing to restrict his/her emotions, but has to operate in a new technological world, therefore slowly becoming “robotized” due to the increase use of automatization in his/her work. The diplomat has also to deal with an ever growing field, the so called digital diplomacy, which might reinforce the “robot” hypothesis. Digital diplomacy, sometimes seen as a part of public diplomacy, is all about using social media for diplomatic endeavours.

Scholars are still trying to access the impact of digitalization in diplomacy and understand whether it represents a critical game-changer on how actors interact. Nonetheless, it is certain to argue that this new panorama requires a new approach to deal with international actors also and poses new challenges. For instance, Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Professor of Political Science, argues that these “new open forms of communication” challenge “diplomacy’s three foundational pillars: time, space and tact”.

If, for centuries, being diplomatic meant displaying a very cold, righteous and intelligent conduct, almost like a robot, today is not that different. However, human emotions do play their game in state affairs, being today regarded as important as much as reason. However, as diplomacy becomes more technological, the “robot diplomat” hypothesis might not be too far from reality, which is also enhanced by the use of digital diplomacy. Still, since scientific and technological progress is an on-going process, there always will be a Pandora box waiting to be discovered: until further developments, the question “can robots replace diplomats?” will be open for discussion…

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