Technology and Diplomacy


It looks like any other diplomatic meeting. Seated on one side of the table is the President of the United States. Opposite him is the prime minister of a small African nation. The discussion centres on the African’s desire to accelerate the arrival of promised military aid in response to a rising coup attempt.

The atmosphere in the room would be tense, but for the fact that the meeting is taking place using TelePresence, and the two parties are situated on opposite sides of the world.

TelePresence is an advanced videoconferencing system created by the US computer network technology maker, Cisco. It enables people to meet in a much more realistic situation than is possible in traditional videoconferencing technology, thanks to its use of high-speed broadband technology and high-definition video equipment.

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And while our opening scenario actually came in US television series 24 Resurrection, collaboration technology is having a real impact on how governments – following the lead of multinational businesses – are conducting their affairs.

High-definition videoconferencing systems such as TelePresence, or Halo from Hewlett-Packard, are being deployed today by the likes of Telstra to facilitate better communication between offices. They provide a strong benefit through reducing the need for travel, with associated cost and carbon emission savings, but carry a price-tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nevertheless, the Australian Government believes that is money well spent, recently announcing that it would be deploying TelePresence across more than 20 government offices. The network will span thousands of kilometres and reach across all states and territories, and is intended to ‘reduce the cost of travel, improve productivity and lower the impact of carbon emissions’. The system will be used for inter-jurisdictional meetings, including Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and Ministerial Council meetings.

While such high-end technology is yet to be extended to diplomatic circles, many organisations are using more cost-effective technology, such as standard-definition video conferencing, online collaboration tools (where documents can be shared between remote users), webcasts (where sessions are broadcast over the Internet) and online seminars, called webinars.

For instance, videoconference technology is used extensively throughout the United Nations. According to the UN’s chair of its working group on knowledge management, Linda Stoddart, videoconferencing is used primarily for small meetings and interviews, but has been used to connect large conference facilities.
‘We are exploring the use of webinars, and have facilitated several global webinar events,’ Stoddart says. ‘Webcasts have been in use for a few years. We are also exploring the use of virtual meeting tools such as WebEx for day-to-day use, as well as for use during emergencies when physical meetings are difficult, [such as during] pandemic conditions.’

Stoddart says the knowledge management strategy being developed by the UN will incorporate many of these tools into a strategic framework.

An ‘explosion’ of tools and facilities

‘Additionally, experimentation will continue with proliferating pilot projects focused on timely and effective collaboration as well as knowledge retention,’ says Stoddart. ‘Use of the current tools will expand. The increased emphasis within the UN on knowledge management, together with the explosion of tools and facilities commonly available, will result in expanded awareness, demand, and uptake of these new ways of breaking down the barriers to effective online collaboration.’

Much of the diplomatic use of these tools to date has been within trade missions, such as New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). NZTE’s director for information technology and services, Phil Hayward, says the organisation has been using videoconferencing for seven years, and deployed its first units in foreign locations three ago. He says the use of videoconferencing makes for better engagements.

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