Digital Diplomacy in Estonia: A Diplomat’s Tale – Favour (Nigeria)
Imagine that you only needed less than 25 minutes to establish a new legally running company, and that you only needed about 5 minutes, to get your taxes taken care of, without the assistance of an accountant; or even voting for your preferred candidate in your parliamentary elections online, while on a trip to the Cayman Islands. How about concluding and signing official documents and business contracts, from the comfort of your living room, or from your office?
This is not wonderland, but an actual reality for Estonians, on a daily basis. Today, due to the fast and quick innovative use of ICT, Estonia is said to have experienced a digital revolution, in which lifestyle has been deeply immersed in and penetrated deeply by smart technology, so much that it has popularly gained the moniker of e-Estonia.
Through governmental policies and priorities, advancements in digital society through the uptake of ICT, has become the order of the day, with the country being at a fast pace on the path of economic, governance and social change, as a result. On the cyber-security front, Estonia has become a powerhouse, despite its ‘small’ size. It took the initiative to become the first state to grant e-Residency to non-residents, who are able to make use of the digital services and signatures, from whatever part of the world.
Technology has had effects on governance, ensuring more transparency/openness, and also revolutionized the practice of diplomacy in so many ways!
Prior to travelling to Estonia, and spending several months living and studying at the University of Tartu, I really did not know much about Estonia as a country, but its digital and ICT reputation was notorious, and endeared me to it. It was fascinating to gain the opportunity of experiencing firsthand, some of the innovations that sounded like fairy tales to me. I enjoyed the greenness and serenity of the environment, but did not get the opportunity to get around much because school was a lot! I was learning so much in-depth details about the post-Soviet space, and the educational system felt different in so many ways, from the previous systems I was used to. I experienced my fair share of cultural shock too – to be discussed at a later date.
As a student of international relations, my academic interests have often included international law, foreign policy, peace and conflict studies, and the créme-de-la-créme being diplomacy. I had the amazing privilege to have been taught an elective course in Diplomacy, by an Estonian politician, who was a former Estonian diplomat to Russia, former Foreign Minister and now currently a Member of the European Parliament (MEP). It was an exciting time learning a lot about the field of diplomacy, through personal experiences of hers and guests which were often invited to our sessions. On one of such sessions, we received a current diplomat, who was one of Estonia’s many Non-Resident Diplomats, and a high-ranking official at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was so smitten and hungry for more by the end of the session, that I requested an audience with him, for an interview about Estonia’s diplomacy and the role/use of the digital technologies and ICT in its diplomatic practices. Who better to ask about this tantalizing topic, than H.E. Mr. Lauri Bambus*, a diplomat whose very job depended on the efficient use of these technological tools, as a non-residing ambassador?
The trip from Tartu to Tallinn, on that cold winter day, was refreshing and exciting! I had so much to ask, and so much that I wanted to know, from beyond what I could just read from the news or academic articles. If you have made it this far into this very unconventional blog essay, I am saving the best for last! I was slightly nervous, but I felt right at home, due to the amazing hospitality I had received. I would go ahead to conduct a semi-structured interview of roughly 50 minutes on Estonia’s digital diplomacy.
Diplomacy has changed a lot in the 21st century, especially where tools of diplomacy were becoming modernized, making for fewer physical contacts of state representatives in strengthening bilateral state relations, according to him. Platforms such as social media, have had benefits and non-benefits, where live-reporting and immediate accountability are almost expected of diplomats, without not enough room for consultations with home/sending states.
Public diplomacy has become an important frontier, because diplomats are no longer simply conducting state-level interactions, but trying to communicate with the publics of foreign states. Pop-up embassies were also new nowadays, especially in Estonia, where diplomats no longer
need to reside permanently in the host state. He would define digital diplomacy as a fast and efficient way of conducting diplomatic activities, allowing for transparency. Foreign diplomats to Estonia, are encouraged to utilize diplomatic digital ID-cards, to improve time efficiency.
Estonia might be geographically and demographically small, but it has managed to pull some influence through the ICT and technology niche. Speaking about digitization in diplomacy, he maintained that it was easier for smaller/younger states than larger states, who might find it more difficult to make the switch from having old administrative traditions that were non-digital and paper-based, and Estonia has tried to share its experiences. Interestingly, he asserted the persistent importance of face-to-face and physical diplomacy, which was necessary. A lot of
potential exists for ICT, as a modern and efficient soft power tool for small states like Estonia, which is doing excellently well in this regard. Estonia has been able to save about 2% of its GDP via the use of digital signatures! Life has become mostly automated, that certain normal processes can be considered inconveniences. Estonia cannot afford to have representations in all states of the world or as extensively as the U.S. or the UK, but digitization has provided avenues for states like Estonia to match up!
As in daily life, Estonians are quite straightforward, and in
many cases, this transcends into the diplomatic style of its diplomats. Social media continues to allow Heads of States and Governments, as well as other officials, to interact with different publics in unique ways – bringing many into their personal lives, for instance.
He says, “ …we achieve a lot, because we did not spend much time, and money especially. For the taxpayers, it is the best argument, to show that you did something without spending too much ”.
As a foreigner, I am impressed at the strides taken by Estonia in this regard, and cannot imagine how true it must feel and be for the taxpayers!
I look back at this wonderful experience, and at all the issues I had the pleasure of discussing with him, that I cannot provide every detail of, and I find it quite amusing and ironic that the Baltic states, continue to strive towards transparency and eliminating corruption – an unfortunate plague of former socialist/communist states of the Eastern European region – using ICT, especially as in Estonia, as a pivot!
*H.E. Mr. Lauri Bambus is a Former Estonian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, current Non-Resident Ambassador to Oman, and the Chief of State Protocol at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.