Date: 16 Apr 1997 15:26:50 +0200
From: Ivo Skoric

Virtual Diplomacy Conference
A Report

Ivo Skoric

The Internet, despite being perceived as a sort of anarchist tool, developed first as a military gadget. It went top to bottom. In the sixties all the infrastructure (copper wire) was already laid down and the number of users was a joke. It seemed that the possibilities were endless. Today with the number of users having increased a hundred-thousand-fold, but with largely the same infrastructure, the net behaves more and more sluggish. Yet, upgrading the infrastructure costs money, and the ever increasing usership drives down the prices. It looks like the market will collapse before it’s saturated.

Soon, a hand held satellite telephone is going to be available (from Iridium) enabling wealthier globe-trotters to have a single telephone number regardless of location. Still, 50% of all Internet use are in the U.S., and 50% of people on the planet will not even make a voice phone call in their lifetime. And state structures like the military, intelligence, and diplomacy lag heavily behind the private sector and NGOs in Internet use, who are rapidly taking over their role as mediators between nations - not only in Third World countries or the former communist bloc, but also here. This is what prompted the organizing of the Virtual Diplomacy conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC on April 1-2.

The meeting brought together members of various government agencies like the USIA, non-governmental organizations like World Vision (who poured over $ 10 million since 1992 in its reconciliation, relief and reconstruction programs in Bosnia), academia like George Mason University, military, UN, business and media. It was like having George Schultz over for dinner (Al Gore dissed the lunch event, cutting his losses after the China visit), and I was the only guy in a T-shirt.

When the moderator asked the public who among us belonged to diplomatic circles or academia or business or government, there were just a few hands up. Then somebody suggested NGOs and half the hall had their hands up. Apparently, NGOs constituted 50% of the conference attendance. That makes sense. They are the future of government, and therefore diplomacy. NGOs are structured like little governments (which are also a paper-shuffling not-for-profit corporations like they are), yet, unlike the government, which pretends to know and be able to do everything, each NGO picks one narrow mandate and sticks to it religiously (and perhaps finds followers/interns who would do the job voluntarily - who are expected to). At this point governments are reduced to handling military, intelligence and telecommunications (all of which may be subject to privatization by NGO-s in the future).

Of course, in the complex humanitarian emergencies of the post-cold war period where countries have imploded into a chaos impenetrable to any single agency, with dozens of organizations reacting at the same time, NGOs, military and other organizations’ agendas sometimes violently overlap and crash into each other. For that purpose, The Center for Advanced Concepts and Technology (National Defense University) suggests CiMiLink: enhancing the civil - military interface. Entwinement of military and civilian objectives and responses was the main issue of this conference, actually: putting the military and intelligence apparatus in the service of humanitarianism and conflict resolution.

U.S. interests in Mexico, for example, are shaped by 32 government agencies (and many independent NGOs). Ideally they’d be able to coordinate.

The second afternoon was divided into concurrent sessions. The televised one (CSPAN aired all events from the Regency room live) - Conflict Reconciliation - was hosted by Aryeh Neier (Open Society Institute, formerly of Human Rights Watch), and featured Veran Matic, the director of Radio B92 in Belgrade. The other two were Conflict Management and Conflict Prevention.

The Conflict Reconciliation session grouped a heavy NGO presence (three from Soros) with one officer from the USIA, from which one could conclude that this is where the conference organizers see the role of NGO’s, particularly Soros and Viesel.

The Conflict Management session was moderated by Anne Solomon of the US State Dept. and included a few academics and a retired US army man, which makes me think the organizers see the role of the US here.

The Conflict Prevention session was populated mostly with people from UN based agencies suggesting "prevention" is where the organizers see the UN’s role.

The organizers were the United States Institute of Peace, an organization created and funded by the US Congress, the Board of Directors of which is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate - so it can be safely assumed that views of the USIP do not differ widely from the American foreign policy premises.

They definitely share the winning stance summarized perfectly in a line by George Washington printed at the back of USIP’s booklet: "My first wish is to see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth." Since Washington said that, America led many wars and built the strongest military force in the world.

Joseph Duffey (Director of USIA) said at the conference that many people do not understand America. He didn’t elaborate. He just said that the USIA’s job is to teach the world about America. Well, the USIA is notoriously slow to change, so let me help them here: as in the U.S., tough decisions are simply postponed. Particularly tough ones are passed on to the next administration. And the consequences are viewed [on CNN] happily, so long as its not in our own backyard.

Bosnia was a quagmire. It was put off until the next administration could take on the issue. They too were reluctant to do much besides the take-it-or-leave-it session at the Dayton air-force base.

This conference showed some tools that negotiators would have in the near future at their disposal to prevent, manage, or reconcile conflicts without use of military force in its usual role. In fact the military will cooperate with humanitarian operations and merely police the effort. Making Washington’s wish closer to reality than ever (of course, if it works...)

Of the first 200 ally soldiers deployed in Normandy, only 15 were able to continue fighting after the first hour. With today’s political priorities (that our boys should not die), the Invasion of Normandy would not be possible. With tomorrow’s technologies it might not be necessary.

In conflict prevention, information from a number of sources is collected at a monitoring place, the information is verified/authenticated, then further disseminated and analyzed. Obviously authenticity is crucial. Usenet as it is, is so clogged with crap that it’s nearly useless. Sometimes people post false information under a respectable header that they pasted from a real message, then send that post through an anonymous remailer. Even when information is correct there are too many messages to make anything relevant: "knowledge is lost in information" - as Sharon Rusu said.

Essentially, the main problem with Net-based information is authentification, and the ways to get it without compromising privacy. It’s like a land for peace swap in the Middle East and the Balkans, but here it’s a privacy for security swap. In order to have serious business - like peace negotiations - conducted on the Net, all parties must be absolutely sure that the messages they get are coming from the names that show up in the header.

I gathered that the participants expected "management" to come after "prevention", or at least an attempt on prevention, so the "Management" session put an emphasis more on dissemination/distribution/political mobilization/marketing than on verification: by the time we’re ready for "management," the sources and authentification protocols would already be established, and we should be able to concentrate on forging alliances. As a nice example of conflict management, Richard Johnson, a retired US Army colonel, offered PowerScene, a software tool used in Dayton to help Croats, Bosnians and Serbs find an acceptable peace strategy in Bosnia. PowerScene, which will be commercially available the end of this year for Silicon Graphics platform (the Windows and Mac versions will follow), combines satellite images, aerial photographs, maps, and topographical data, to provide the most realistic view of any region. Then it lets you fly right over it and view it from different angles and zoom levels. It feels like a high-end 3D first person computer game. Yet, it’s for real.

The media picked up on the story that PowerScene coerced Milosevic to accept a wider Gorazde corridor. But PowerScene was a tool used all the time, although Milosevic, Izetbegovic, and Tudjman refused to work off screen - so the maps had to be printed for them while they slept. The next day they’d find something else to disagree on and draw some new lines on the map - no problem, the revised maps waited for them in the morning. $4 million worth of electronic equipment was at their service. 30,000 color maps were printed (Johnson said they greatly missed the new Epson 1400 dpi printer). All their changes were instantly recalculated (a 10 minute delay) to within a 0.003% margin of error, in order to see if they fit the 51:49 division of Bosnia agreement to which all parties seemed to cling religiously. They liked the UNPROFOR’s map of Bosnia most, which accidentally had 1% vertical stretch, making the Bosnian territory 1% bigger (that’s probably why they liked it). PowerScene was also used by NATO pilots to preview their targets in Bosnia - reportedly each bomb hit its target and nothing else in their later sorties.

Another mapping system unrelated to PowerScene was shown at the conference: Relief Emergency Mapping System (, designed to help relief organizations organize emergency deliveries with the most efficiency. REMAPS Edit pull-down menu includes commands like "Move refugees by hand."

Besides being a showcase for PowerScene, the Dayton peace agreement was a good example of time compression in shuttle diplomacy: instead of travelling from one leader to another by airplane, Holbroke just walked a short distance from one leader’s accommodation to another, greatly reducing travel time. Future negotiations, however, could be done through teleconferencing (the conference offered plenty of teleconferencing options; the most expensive one, the one closest to real meeting, was TELESUITE by IBM Global Network - where your interlocutors appear life-sized on big screens "sitting" on opposite sides of a table...).

Paul Strassman (Information Economics Press) at another session calculated that the Internet reduces cost 80%: 40 people working 12 hours in Geneva costs half a million dollars, while the same "virtual" meeting could happen for $43,000!

"Management" would then continue into the "reconciliation" phase, where, obviously, dialogue is everything. When it comes to Bosnia this phase is NOW. George Soros’s (and other NGO’s) money is evidently expected to be the vehicle for that reconciliation. One of the projects presented was the Villanova University School of Law Project Bosnia ( would it work? Who knows. Hundreds of donated computers, however, will certainly make Bosnian law students very happy, and happy people are more likely to make peace than the unhappy ones.

The star of the Reconciliation session was, however, Veran Matic of Radio B92 ( As the USIA’s Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy puts it - the "right audience" for American ideals of multicultural civil society abroad is less and less in the foreign ministry: increasingly it’s the Internet bound NGOs like Radio B92. When Serbian government decided to shut down Radio B92 during the student and opposition protests over the government’s rejection of the election results in which the opposition won a few major cities, B92 decided to encode its broadcasts in Real Audio and post them on the World Wide Web (using satellite telephones if necessary). B92 also made arrangements with the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the Deutsche Welle to pick-up their programming and rebroadcast it back to Serbia on shortwave. Suddenly, Milosevic was faced with B92 programming heard across the whole of Serbia, and across the entire world via the Internet. Faced with such an ungainly perspective, Serbian authorities turned B92’s transmitters back on after just 24 hours, apologizing that they were down due to "flooding."

It seems that the USIA saved B92 and Veran’s asses. Wrong. B92 saved the USIA and Duffey’s asses. VOA and RFE lethargy during the Croatian and Bosnian wars was shameful. In the beginning it was believed (particularly by the partisan Croatian lobby) that this was either the consequence of an unclear American policy which swings between its moral and real-political prerogatives, or the consequence of the old pro-Yugoslav editorial cadre, but it soon became clear that the problem was deeper: cold war inflexibility was not confined to political agendas - it was a system-wide problem resistance to new ideas, new technologies, and new ways in general. The apparent uselessness of the USIA’s international broadcasting in the post-cold war period prompted Congress to consider cutting funds and tinkering with the idea pf dismantling the VOA or RFE altogether.

The crucial help that VOA and RFE delivered by rebroadcasting B92 to the Serbian opposition proved their ultimate usefulness. Too bad they didn’t do it earlier. Like if they’d put together Radio Zid (Sarajevo), Radio 101 (Zagreb) and Radio B92 (Belgrade) a few years ago, maybe they could have stopped or even prevented the war. In 1994, a good 4 years after the wall fell, the USIA decided to restructure for the new world order. The International Broadcasting Act (IBA) that became law that year initiated the consolidation of US international broadcasting. Over $400 millions were saved since then. Today, operating costs are 20% less than in 1994. IBA executor Kevin Klose moved RFE from Germany to Prague, saving millions in rent, and besides, RFE somehow belongs in Prague anyway, doesn’t it?

Since B92 became the USIA’s success story, Veran is now in the U.S. every two or three months giving speeches, participating at panels, etc.

Would the lack of success of virtual diplomacy be followed by the virtual war, or would wars still be real?