Donald Gips
Donald Gips

Diplomacy is changing

Once the preserve of dilettantes exchanging formal communiqués in cloistered offices, today’s diplomacy — call it Diplomacy 2.0 — should be a wide-ranging discussion that involves individuals at all levels from the echoing marble halls of government buildings in the world’s most powerful countries to the 16-year-old with a mobile-enabled cellphone texting with a US diplomat via the net.

In fact, under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton, the entire US State Department is focused on what we call “21st Century Statecraft”. Simply, it means that we understand that it is not enough to sit in our buildings, looking through the reinforced windows. We must be present, we must be visible and accessible in both the real and virtual worlds and we must be accountable.

At the US Mission to South Africa, we’re changing how we do business. We’ve launched platforms on electronic networks including Facebook (www.facebook.com/USinSouthAfrica), Twitter (@USEmbPretoria) and MXIt (American BeatBox). We’ve established physical libraries and reading rooms in KZN, Gauteng, Free State, Western Cape and English language programmes in nine other communities, plus virtual centres online. We fund projects throughout the country from the smallest village to the largest cities, aimed at improving the lives of South Africans. We host dance and music programmes, lectures and fine arts events.

Make no mistake: we are representatives of the United States and it’s our job to represent America. However, it’s also our job and perhaps our most important one, to listen to what you say, not only about America but about our global community. In South Africa, technology has become an important tool to do just that.

We understand that technology is not diplomacy in itself. However, I firmly believe that technology is a critical factor in facilitating communication between previously unconnected people. Last week, in fact, I co-hosted an event with our consul general in Johannesburg that proved just that. I had the honour of sitting down with some of the smartest, most inspiring South Africans I have met since my arrival in this country. These individuals represented a range of arts, media, advertising, legal, government and other professions, but were representative of the new South Africa — highly wired, highly connected and highly aware of both the responsibilities and rights of living in South Africa today.

During the wide ranging (and shall we say enthusiastic?) discussions at the dinner, we talked about the future of South Africa, the role of individual citizens and civil society, the role of new media in South Africa and the relationship between the US and South Africa. It was a conversation with lots of questions, a few answers and a great deal of debate. And how did we meet these people? Twitter.

@Anele, a participant at the dinner (I’ll be Twitter-friendly and identify by Tweet title) captured this event in Twitter’s 140-characters: “Last night, I was at a dinner where no one was trying to be right but trying to find out how to do right.” This is the communication that our two countries need: collaborative, not combative. Engaged, not prescriptive. Honest, but not accusatory. Forward-leaning. Proactive.

President Obama has said that America alone can’t solve the world’s problems. I believe that here, in South Africa, that we have started that conversation on how we, together as a global community, can start doing just that.

This week, the United States honoured one of the great Americans, Dr Martin Luther King. Dr King said: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Engage with us. Take the first step.

We want to hear from you.

Official website: http://southafrica.usembassy.gov
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/USinSouthAFrica
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/USEmbPretoria
Email: [email protected]
Telephone: 012-431-4000
MXIt: American BeatBox