On the world’s first public digital meeting of female foreign ministers

“Without women there will be less development and less sustainable peace”

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström made a name for herself – and her government – when she announced, in 2014, the world’s first ‘feminist foreign policy’. Coverage of this ‘feminist government’ consistently appear on international publications, and the foreign minister is often invited to speak specifically on the topic. She has, perhaps unexpectedly, become a bit of an icon in world politics.

On Women’s Day ‘17, that is today, March 8, she made a similarly bold move by organizing what appears to have been the first public digital meeting of female foreign ministers. The idea was to discuss issues relating to the broader theme of Women, Peace and Security. Participants included Wallström and the foreign ministers of Kenya, Panama and Liechtenstein.

The talk was live streamed on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Here’s the clip in full:

There are obviously several angles to discuss this rather unique event; one can consider it from a theoretical perspective, discussing how it connects with debates on a mediated transnational public sphere; or in terms of the discourse(s) circulating in the meeting, as well as potential effects on concrete policy on women’s empowerment globally. For instance, Kenyan FM Amina Mohamed talked about economic empowerment, arguing that many of her country’s programs involved pushing for better access to finance and credit. She brought up a case where 30 per cent of government contracts were reserved for women and youth, and said: “I think as you get more economically empowered, the other issues somehow begin to fall slowly, gradually into place. So that’s where we’re putting the emphasis.”

While all of these angles are certainly interesting, and worthy of proper analysis, I am most interested here in the event itself, as a fascinating case of Digital Diplomacy. After all, the hashtag used by the Swedish diplomatic service, in its announcements ahead of the live stream, was indeed #DigitalDiplomacy, which, I must admit, seems slightly misdirected and somewhat vague. A more proper hashtag would have included something on Women’s Day or the fact that it was the first digital meeting of female FMs.

Now, in one of my earlier blog posts, I expressed skepticism about some of the content that was published on the Facebook page of Sweden’s Mission to the UN. Videos were not always professionally done, and it seemed unclear to me whether the target audience was foreign or domestic. In any case, I will now say that Sweden (disclaimer: I’m indeed a Swedish national) certainly tries to make use of digital media in ways that are both innovative and informative. The online conference with female FMs was a good case in point, and probably one of the most interesting illustrations, that I have seen at least, of the changing character of public diplomacy. Amina Mohamed even proposed that it turns into an annual event, and Panama’s FM Isabel De Saint Malo De Alvarado wanted to include male counterparts as well. (Meanwhile, Liechtenstein’s top diplomat put on a homemade “pussy hat”. This is true, watch the clip.)

In her article The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice, Christina Archetti notes that, “The opportunities offered by social networking media to connect governments to worldwide audiences bypassing the mainstream media also lead to a blurring of the distinction between diplomacy — in its strict sense the negotiation among official actors — and public diplomacy, meaning communication between governments and foreign publics”. Wallström’s initiative undoubtedly made that distinction even blurrier. And one can certainly, as Jan Melissen does, talk about ‘a new public diplomacy’ in this respect. However, Archetti also cautions about the actual effects that digital forms of public diplomacy can really have, since the results depend a great deal on structural factors. She argues, for instance, that these structural aspects include “the countries’ position within the international system”. Bearing that in mind, we realize that an online gathering like this, involving the FMs of Sweden, Kenya, Panama, and Liechtenstein, does not necessarily mean concrete results.

Which forces us to think about the objective; I mean, was this meant to be informative, or perhaps instructive to decision making in international bodies, or simply stimulate civic participation? It’s not entirely clear, which is perhaps why the conversation towards the end mostly concerned the ‘next step’ (fyi, seeing ministers brainstorm in that way about how to move forward was a first for me… Perhaps that was the goal?). Regardless, as a viewer, I am left wondering: What were the results? How are they measured? What can we expect? Will there – really – be a follow-up? And so on…

Having said that, it is also clear that the initiative stood out as a new form for communication towards global publics. And this is where references to a transnational public sphere might be relevant. As noted by the Facebook user below, the world’s first digital meeting of female FMs has stimulated questions that may have far reaching implications for discussions on Digital Diplomacy, more specifically, but also in terms of broader reflections about participation in a mediated public sphere:

One Comment

  1. Joshua Ndip Ako

    I am so impressed with your analysis on how new media have changed how development work is carried out. Assuming that development is not just about the practicality of it, but also about how to communicate development in public debates, your piece of work resonate with the real essence of new media as a creator of public spaces where information about development is instantly or visually shared across a wide audience. Even though there are still structural differences, there is a probability that the debate on public spaces created by new media penetrate to places where formally it was impossible to. The percentage of people using new media in developing countries has increase exponentially, which means there chances for a great number of people to pick up the debates on their social media networks because of the random networking on new media nowadays.

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