AI in International Relations: The Era of ‘Digital Diplomacy’

“I’ve become convinced that AI and the surrounding disciplines are going to bring a change in human consciousness, like the Enlightenment.” - Henry Kissinger 

In view of the sorry conditions that the world’s international relations find themselves today, some argue that there may be a case for an upgrade in international diplomacy, perhaps with elements of higher technology in establishing cross-country communication lines. One such area where a technological upgrade is already progressing is the use of AI in international diplomacy. In particular, China has been active in making use of AI in providing insights for its diplomats into the possible scenarios and the evolution of events on the international arena. There is also an increasingly active use of AI in supporting economic diplomacy in trade negotiations. Going forward it will be crucial to ensure greater access of developing economies to the possibilities opened by AI to concluding international accords and boosting international cooperation. 

The use of AI in international diplomacy has been extensively explored with respect to areas such as international security, the use of autonomous weapons systems, or the monitoring of concluded agreements.  Over and above the sphere pertaining to international security, there is also a wide range of areas in economic diplomacy, where AI is already starting to contribute to international cooperation. AI may prove to be an important tool in international diplomacy to build trust among the key stakeholders in conflict resolution or dispute settlement via the use of impartial procedures that are at the same time verifiable and transparent. In these spheres joint cross-country elaboration of AI systems may attenuate concerns regarding the objectivity or transparency of procedures/approaches coming from one or several countries. 

Notwithstanding the notable benefits associated with the use of AI in international diplomacy there are also significant risks that need to be addressed at an early stage of AI’s use in international relations. At the global level one of the key risks associated with AI development is the possibility of the progressive rise in the technological gap between the advanced and the least developed economies. In particular, a Chatam House report “Artificial Intelligence and International Affairs: Disruption Anticipated” argues that “in the medium to long term, AI expertise must not reside in only a small number of countries – or solely within narrow segments of the population”. Furthermore, the report emphasizes that “corporations, foundations and governments should allocate funding to develop and deploy AI systems with humanitarian goals”. 

How to Avoid Wars in Cyberspace?
Shi Ze
In order to minimize the threats of war in cyberspace and to ensure stability and  cybersecurity, Russia and China should join forces, says Shi Ze, Director of the Center for Security and Development of Eurasia, China Institute for International Studies.

Indeed, advantages in the development of AI capabilities translate into economic strengths ranging from a stronger base for further technological innovation (cumulative causation in technological development) to a stronger and more efficient economic diplomacy. A technological race between countries may engender polarization and inequalities in areas such as talent development and access to advanced technologies. And ethically, within the country-level dimension of technological development there is always the question of whether advanced economies will be prepared to share their know-how and innovations with the rest of the world community. 

This is why there is a need to develop AI and other technological capabilities at the global level of international organizations such as the UN or the Bretton Woods institutions. An AI system at the level of global institutions would partly resolve the issue of the dissemination of technological advances and capabilities to less developed economies. Furthermore, in order to tackle global problems such as climate change or energy supply disruptions there needs to be a global AI capability that is the product of cooperation and contributions from individual countries. 

More generally, AI as a crucial technological capability that increasingly takes on international scale will likely develop not only at the country-level, but also at the level of regions (including perhaps regional integration arrangements) and the global economy. There are accordingly regional and global international AI platforms that could be developed to provide early warning systems, optimal negotiation strategy algorithms and/or venues for dispute settlement and conflict resolution. 

One area of diplomacy where AI is already making a difference is trade negotiations. In particular, the Cognitive Trade Advisor (CTA) developed by IBM “aims to assist negotiators dealing with rules of origin (criteria used to identify the origin/nationality of a product) by answering queries related to existing trade agreements, custom duties corresponding to different rules of origin, and even the negotiating profiles of the party of interest”.  The CTA was created in the process of the trade negotiations between Mercosur and Canada and initially focused on the analysis of the rules of origin via a combination of AI, data analytics and cloud computing resources.

Cyber Warfare
Cyber warfare involves the actions by a nation-state or international organization to attack and attempt to damage another nation's computers or information networks through, for example, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. War is no longer declared.

In effect CTA provides analysis on complex technical trade issues that otherwise would have taken significant amount of time to evaluate. In allowing the trade negotiators to choose the optimal strategy this AI system effectively strengthens the competitive advantage of the economic diplomacy of the country supported by such advanced technology. The Cognitive Trade Advisor enables trade negotiators to better understand the strategies of trading partners and to optimize trade policy based on incoming data. It also includes a cognitive assistant named “Adam” — a trade AI assistant that is able to understand human language and can address various queries about trade agreements. Such AI enhancements to economic diplomacy may be particularly useful for least developed and emerging markets that are frequently hampered by the lack of qualified personnel in the sphere of trade negotiations. 

In the end, AI is unlikely to replace diplomats, and indeed diplomacy will probably be one of the last professions to succumb (if ever) to the onslaught of Artificial Intelligence. International diplomacy is too important a matter to entrust solely to robots and AI. There is also a strong inter-disciplinary component in international diplomacy which inherently limits the scope of AI application. That does not preclude AI however from likely becoming an increasingly important factor in international relations and diplomacy as technological capabilities become the key competitive advantage in the power struggle on the international arena. 


M.I. Cummings et al. Chatam House report. Artificial Intelligence and International Affairs. Disruption anticipated. June 2018 

Ben Scott, Steffan Heumann and Philippe Lorenz. Artificial intelligence and foreign policy. Stiftung Neue Verantwortung. January 2018. 

Artificial intelligence summit focusses on fighting hunger, climate crisis and transition to “smart sustainable cities”. United Nations website. May 2019. 

Corneliu Bjola. Diplomacy in the age of artificial intelligence. ARI 98/2019 – 11/10/2019 

Abjhijeet Katte. How AI is running China’s foreign policy. 31/07/2018


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.