In the hit movie “Arrival,” a linguist played by Amy Adams is tasked by the US government to communicate with aliens who have landed from outer space. Are they friend or foe?
What she discovers is that she must break free of limited thinking – for example, about the nature of time. She also ultimately breaks free from government to act for all humanity by embracing the strangers.
The film’s plot is similar to a decision last month by Denmark to appoint a special kind of envoy – a “digital ambassador” to the world’s tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple. These global nonstate entities with their extraordinary power and immense wealth do not fit neatly into the normal diplomacy of the nation-state. Their purpose is not always clear. Their language of bits and bots is alien. Are they a force for good or evil? Most of all, can a country’s fear of the “other” be turned into an opportunity – by engagement rather than estrangement?
In appointing this special envoy, Denmark hopes not only to invite more tech investment but to work with their foreign companies on issues such as digital privacy, cybersecurity, fake news, and the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on jobs and society.
“We simply need to have closer ties to some of the companies that affect us,” Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen told the Politiken newspaper.
Special envoys are hardly new in diplomacy. Under recent American presidents, their numbers have exploded. Most are targeted at specific countries, regions, or conflicts, such as Darfur or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As global issues have grown – and fear of them – so have the number of “special” ambassadors or “high representatives” to deal with them.
Many countries as well as the United Nations now have envoys for climate change, terrorism, migration, diseases, hunger, or cybercrime. “You can emphasize an issue in a world where government to government traditional diplomatic contact is less and less the whole equation, and how things play out in the media, how they play out in social media,” said Thomas Perriello, who has twice been a US special envoy, at a conference on the topic two years ago.
In a survey of 19 countries last year, the polling unit YouGov found that less than half the people in the West see globalization, such as trade and migration, as a force for good. (Those who look more favorably on globalization tend to be under 35.) Such surveys help explain the rise of nationalist politicians who promise to protect voters from what are seen as negative foreign influences.
By assigning special envoys, however, countries hope to solve a global issue, or even use it to good effect. The alternatives are walls, bans, and other forms of isolation that merely accept a fear of outside forces. Societies that can rise above such fears send out ambassadors to listen, learn, and embrace an “alien” situation. They break free of self-imposed limits.