Polemics Interview with Markus Kornprobst 

Can you explain the concept of digital international relationsand its importance in today’s global landscape?

No matter where we look, digital technology is making inroads into different policy fields, such as international peace and security and global health. We can reflect on how discussions about the Coronavirus outbreak began on social media in China, how medical doctors used online platforms to communicate about the new cases, and how nowadays satellite imagery can detect troop movements and military hardware. However, digital technology also presents challenges, especially in areas such as arms control and disarmament. As technology progresses, there is a risk of relying too heavily on machines. We know from encounters during the Cold War that machines really can make mistakes. There were at least two occasions where nuclear exchange was possible but was prevented simply by people doing the right thing – basically not believing the machines. With that in mind, we need to strike a balance between the opportunities offered by digital technology and its potential dangers. In the future, there will likely be a hybrid international relations approach, where digital and non-digital coexist. 100 years from now, we may look back at the digital age as the distant past, as new technologies, such as quantum computing emerge.

How can digital technologies facilitate and promote nuclear disarmament efforts?

One way could be through surveillance, although there are limits to that, particularly with deep underground nuclear installations and submarines. However, old concepts like Confidence Building Measures can still be useful. In the past, the US and the Soviet Union agreed to surveillance flights and visits to increase mutual knowledge about each other’s possessions. Nowadays, it’s easier to gather information about what’s happening, thanks to advancements in technology. For instance, you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to see what a certain place looks like. I mention this as just a pedestrian example compared to what tech companies, states, and intelligence communities have at their disposal.

What do you think the most pressing cybersecurity challenges are right now?

Cybersecurity is a massively flourishing field with increasing interest from the public. It first emerged as a concern for civilian infrastructure, such as what happened to Estonia when it was on the receiving end of cyber-attacks from Russia. Since then, Estonia has become one of the most digitally savvy countries in Europe in terms of defense. While there are many scenarios and risk assessments that could pose significant threats, I don’t want to be alarmist because states have generally adhered to certain norms and rules, just as they have for physical infrastructure. However, there is a need for such rules and norms in the digital sphere, and I would assert that they are being developed. Drones are another concern, they have drastically changed warfare, as we see in the Russian war against Ukraine, the Tigray war in Ethiopia, and in Sudan today. And then semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons, or colloquially speaking ‘killer robots’, are also worrisome. If you’re asking about peace and security, that’s high politics. States find it difficult to even speak to one another in meaningful ways. On the one hand, technology is advancing at a rapid pace, on the other, international politics is lagging in regulating it due to this crisis of multilateralism.

Do you believe that the democratization of technology will promote peace, or do you believe that it increases tensions? And if it can lead to increased tensions, what are the potential risks?

Well, if democratization of technology means that states become more democratic with a stronger rule of law, and there’s more inclusivity and multistakeholder approaches in international politics, then it can promote peace and be a great thing. Ultimately, democracy, among other things, is about checks and balances. However, if democratization means that more actors have access to more sophisticated digital technology, then it can be quite problematic. Tech companies have a lot of power, and non-state actors, some of whom are not well-meaning, can also access this technology. This is concerning because the global trend in the last 20 years has been more about diffusion to all kinds of different actors, rather than democratization with checks and balances. So, while some non-state actors like human rights networks may have good intentions, others with questionable intentions can also access this technology, leading to potential risks and increased tensions. If we look at the last 20 years or so, there have been a lot of regresses in democratic systems, so the international rule of law is also under duress.

Since you mentioned checks and balances, do you think it would be an overstatement to say that Big Tech are now in charge of our freedoms and our rights?

I think it would be a slight overstatement, but there is some truth to that. We use all kinds of digital devices that are not state-owned and are provided to us by tech companies. Social media platforms, for example, set rules and norms about who can speak and what they can speak about. This is quite different from what we had in the past. If we add to that the fabrication of news and deep fakes, it becomes even more troublesome. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between real and fake content. This gives tech companies and ‘digital nerds’, as two contributors to one of my forthcoming edited books ‘Digital International Relations’ put it, a lot of power that they previously didn’t have.

Could Big Tech be seen as a threat to democracy? Or do you think that these developments have the potential to promote democratic values and institutions?

When you look at the Arab Spring, at the time people were very optimistic. Suddenly there was democratization, people could communicate with one another, they could have access to free media and assert themselves. There was a honeymoon period for social media in terms of public perception and scholarly perception, and then things took a wrong turn there. If we look elsewhere – at the Brexit referendum or the U.S. presidential elections with Trump – there is the usual argument that there were attempts by outside powers to influence these processes. Still, it would be wrong to say that everything was great in the beginning and then everything turned horrible. There are lots of positive and negative influences of social media on politics. It fosters civil society in places like Kenya, but at the same time, there was a lot of dehumanizing ethnically based language that circulated online and fuelled conflict. This phenomenon was very pronounced in Somalia, where the diaspora wrote all kinds of horrible things about ‘rival clans’, and this, in turn, underpinned the lashing out against them.

Coming back to global health, which you mentioned earlier, how has digital diplomacy been used to address the global health challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic, and what impact has this had on international efforts to control and mitigate the spread of viruses in general?

To answer your question, we can look at the International Health Regulations from 2005, which outline how to report the outbreak of a disease or potential threat. This was traditionally done in non-digital ways, such as reporting to a World Health Organization office. However, with the rise of online platforms like Twitter, doctors and health officials can immediately communicate with each other and share information. This allows for the rapid detection and response to outbreaks, which is crucial in controlling the spread of communicable diseases. Digital technology also enables the quick sharing of genome sequences, which helps track the spread of viruses and understand their transmission patterns.

While digital technology has potential benefits for global health, it’s important to note that non-digital infrastructure, such as primary health units, is also crucial. Without basic infrastructure, including medical supplies and facilities, digital communication alone cannot effectively address global health challenges. So, it’s a combination of digital and non-digital efforts that can have the greatest impact on global health.

What steps can political decision makers take to ensure technology is used for good in international relations and to protect values like online privacy and free speech? Should they be more involved, and if so, how?

Political decision makers are already quite involved in this area, but not necessarily always in the right direction. It’s important to be realistic here. For example, if there’s an authoritarian system in place, they may shut down the internet when criticisms or opposition is expressed online, if they’re not technologically advanced. More technologically sophisticated authoritarian systems have a surveillance system in place and don’t need to shut down the internet – a clear case would be China. In democratic systems, the challenge is to ensure democratic communication and debates take place online without hate speech, deep fakes, or threat speech. While hate speech is often detected by bots, threat speech is not. Therefore, careful monitoring is needed. Internationally, I think it can also go both ways. The UN could be reinvigorated with civil society participating on a daily basis, which would be great. But that also depends on who would be able to participate. Is it possible for people in the global south also have a say? Or would they be sidelined yet again due to lack of access to technology?

In terms of concrete steps, the 2024 United Nations Summit of the Future is a great opportunity for young people to make a difference and provide input. There will
be a digital global compact with a focus on global communication. This will overlap with other areas like global health and peace and security. Autonomous weapons will also be a part of the new agenda for peace.

What topics do you think should be prioritized given the current issues we are dealing with?

I suppose they are my own biases, but I think that digital technology offers new opportunities for more democratic societies domestically and for more democratic approaches globally. The way many people imagine the world now is with network metaphors, and I think that if people around the world can communicate more effectively, we can better cope with future challenges and break through diplomatic debates. At the same time, we must be aware that there are all kinds of methods of manipulating digital communication, but I would hope that the direction we head towards would promote a more democratic communication.

How would you describe digital diplomacy in one word?

“QUICK”. It’s hard to describe in just one word, but I can offer a few thoughts. Digital diplomacy is quick, meaning it operates in real-time and is less formulaic than traditional diplomacy. However, like any communication tool, it can be used for both positive and negative purposes. On one hand, it can be used to spread propaganda or manipulate people with deep fakes. On the other hand, it can be used to engage in sustained dialogues with other states and society, promoting more positive interactions.

Yes or no: are you optimistic about the digital trajectory we are headed towards?

Yes and no. Technological inventions often have both great impacts and not-so-great ones. Take nuclear technology, for example. While nuclear fission has benefits for civilian use, it also has catastrophic consequences for military purposes. The same is true for digital technology – it offers many opportunities for positive change, but also has the potential for negative consequences such as the spread of propaganda or manipulation. So, my expectations for the future of digital technology and international relations are contingent and cautious.


Written by Maryam Sindi and Viktoriya Teliha

Photo credit to: Dmytro Shchurevskyi, Viktoriya Teliha, Julia Drössler


Find more publications by Professor Markus Kornprobst:

Digital International Relations: Technology, Agency and Order. Routledge Studies in Conflict, Security and Technology Series. London: Routledge, 2024 [edited with Corneliu Bjola].

Diplomatic Peace, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy (published online ahead of print 2023).

Understanding International Diplomacy: Theory, Practice and Ethics. London: Routledge, 2013 (1st edition), 2018 (2nd edition), [with Corneliu Bjola], Mandarin translation published by Beijing University Press.

“Global Health: An Order Struggling to Keep Up with Globalization”, International Affairs 97/5 (2021) [with Stephanie Strobl] {in special issue: De-globalization: The Future of the Liberal World Order, edited with T.V. Paul}.

Diplomacy and Borderlands: African Agency at the Intersections of Orders. London: Routledge, 2020 [edited with Katharina Coleman and Annette Seegers].