Diplomacy, development, and security in the information age

13 Mar 2013

The information revolution is permanently changing the face of international relations. Wired, networked protestors help power and publicize the Arab Spring, leading to the downfall of authoritarian regimes long believed unshakable. Secret cables published by Wikileaks expose the mechanics of U.S. foreign policy decisionmaking to a global public. Chinese Internet users spread photo evidence to expose corrupt local officials. Israelis and Palestinians use video and social media to add another dimension to real-time conflict.

But what do these disparate events really tell us? The popular narrative generally holds that time and distance are collapsing, everything and everyone is scrutinized, filters are nonexistent, and nonstate actors hold disproportionate and ever-increasing power. While powerful, and containing some elements of truth, this narrative is rarely re-examined in the context of policy discourse or the decisions that arise from it.

There is far more to understand about international relations in what is commonly termed the information age. Changes in the speed, volume diversity, nature and accessibility of information, as well as the ways in which it is exchanged, have contributed to a variety of emerging and evolving phenomena. These include the rise of nontraditional security threats (cyber and otherwise), networked forms of organization, asymmetrical conflict, decentralization, recentralization, altered global governance structures, multicentrism, information asymmetry, new development models, contested global norms, and much more. All of these present challenges and opportunities for states and nonstate actors and require a substantial rethink of the lens through which we view international affairs.

Yet fresh thinking on these issues, while taken up by specialized academics, rarely makes it onto the public agenda. Such research tends to get tucked away into the vibrant but often impenetrable (to outsiders) fiefdom of communications research, such that followers of international affairs do not tend to encounter it on a regular basis, if at all. Thus, the initial analysis of events hardens into an accepted truth, and it becomes increasingly difficult to pose alternate narratives or even further explore the dominant one.

This working paper series intends to illuminate this narrative by delving further into the trends in international affairs that have been accelerated or otherwise augmented by the information revolution. Because this task could easily prove unmanageable, the series will examine in particular two separate but linked phenomena enhanced by the information age: heightened transparency and increased volatility.

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