The Impact of Information and Communications Technologies on International Conflict Management

by Margarita S. Studemeister

International Order of Nations

Much has been written about the role of technology in the establishment of a global economy and its effects at the local, regional and national levels. Similarly, there is a body of literature on what is known as the revolution in military affairs (RMA) and about information warfare. In fact, ASIS sponsored a session on information warfare during the 1996 Annual Meeting in Baltimore. The effect of emerging information and communications technologies on international relations, however, is a subject first publicly broached at a conference sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace in April 1997

“How can such technologies assist us in the prevention, management and resolution of international conflict?” is a question posed by the Institute to leaders in business, industry, academia, policy-making, diplomacy, the military, media and international and non-governmental organizations. Examples can best illustrate the impact of such technologies on international peacemaking.

Porosity of Geopolitical Boundaries

We practice international relations with the assumption that human communities are organized into sovereign nations with clearly defined territorial borders. There are presently 192 sovereign nations in the world, following a dramatic wave of state formation in the early 1990s. A large majority of the 25 new nations were created in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

In its legal dimension, sovereignty enables a nation to stop others from intervening in its internal affairs. Geopolitical borders, however, are porous to information flows, allowing all kinds of data to move across, over and through frontiers as if these do not exist.

Remote events such as the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that same year, the Gulf War of 1991 and the battle for control over the Russian parliament in 1993, were reported in real-time across the world by CNN. Such instantaneous coverage of events affects political groups, leaders and the public at large, driving some of them to respond immediately. The Chinese government “pulled the plug” on CNN’s coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. According to Margaret Tutwiler, White House spokesperson during the Bush Administration, daily briefings during Desert Storm operations served to inform three types of audiences: Americans, particularly those with loved ones participating in the Gulf War; Saddam Hussein and his advisors; and other nations. Thus, global media networks constituted an alternative channel to conduct diplomacy.

Whereas coverage of world events on network nightly news programs has declined sharply since 1989, practitioners find that there is more international information available than ever before from sources that serve selected audiences. Satellites broadcast programs to specialized markets within the United States. Information services of regional or national focus have proliferated online and on the World Wide Web.

People’s ideas and actions can increasingly transcend local, regional and national territory. The Zapatista rebels in Chiapas made their demands known to the world by having sympathizers upload their communiqués on the World Wide Web shortly after their insurrection in January 1994. Like rebels in Chiapas, other ethnic or religious groups of regional and local scope, even indigenous peoples that have been surrounded or divided by national boundaries, can avail themselves of global networks to disseminate information beyond their immediate geographical area and gather support among a worldwide audience.

Since the early 1990s, the Internet has been crucial to connect Burmese exiles opposed to the regime in Rangoon. Seasia-l, an electronic mailing list, carried reports from Thai newspapers and other sources posted by an exile living in California. Since late 1993, BurmaNet has been distributing up-to-date information and has also mobilized Burmese exiles to use the Internet as a means to connect with each other. BurmaNet grew to 750 known subscribers by January 1997. In 1994, the Burmese embassy in Washington and other Rangoon supporters were accepted as subscribers in the interest of free speech and open debate. Eventually, despite strict state control over information, Burmese exiles began to transport news taken off the Internet into Burma on computer diskettes or printed as newsletters. Reportedly, soldiers have been readers of such news.

Also thanks to the Internet, teenagers in the Middle East can sustain friendships developed during summer camp in Maine sponsored by Seeds of Peace, a U.S. non-profit group. Violence linked to the September 1996 opening of a second entrance to a tunnel leading to an area sacred to both Jews and Muslims led 100 youngsters to produce, via the Internet and faxes, a joint statement which they sent to the White House. President Clinton read the statement to Yasir Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu and King Hussein during their early October 1996 meeting in Washington.

“The Internet,” explains John Wallach, of Seeds of Peace, “is the great asset” of young Palestinians and Israelis who are willing to nurture a new outlook on deep-rooted animosities based on ethnic and religious hostilities


People can mobilize around a global issue without taking their immediate neighbors into account. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines


is a recognition of the power of the Internet in enlisting worldwide support against the use of land mines. From Putney, Vermont, Jody Williams used her e-mail account (banmines@sover.net) to coordinate the more than 700 organizations in over 60 countries that make up the coalition.

The convergence of technological tools has also allowed for creative ways to overcome boundaries. Radio B92 in Belgrade, a principal alternative to government controlled media in Serbia, faced with the jamming of its broadcasts during the 1996-7 pro-democracy movement, recorded its news programs as RealAudio files and sent the files via the Internet to a server outside the country. The news programs were then rebroadcast into Serbia by the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the Deutsche Welle. Preventing B92’s transmission of the RealAudio files would have required the shut-down of the national telephone system in Serbia.

Heightened Role of Local Data

Because of the information revolution, local information is acquiring greater importance, as are software applications that collect, process, transmit and visualize such data. Locally collected and processed data are distributed to narrow audiences, frequently via electronic discussion lists and online news services. Non-governmental organizations active in Chiapas utilized the computer networking services of LaNeta to report on local conditions while the government attempted to regain military control following the January 1994 insurrection there. LaNeta is a member of the Association for Progressive Communications, a worldwide network of peace and human rights activists.

Radars can reach deep into the airspace of countries. High-resolution cameras mounted on satellites orbiting the Earth can pinpoint geographical features, as well as civilian, military and commercial facilities within national boundaries.

In El Salvador, CARE, a private aid organization, used a global positioning system (GPS) to parcel land for the benefit of former combatants. The system relied on a network of 24 U.S. Defense Department satellites orbiting the Earth, and was funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Nearly 12,000 acres were mapped and divided into individual plots as called for under the country's peace agreement.

About four million dollars in advanced hardware was moved to Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995 in preparation for peace negotiations for Bosnia-Herzegovina. There, representatives of the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic continued to wrestle over the territorial division of Bosnia-Herzegovina, among other issues. Every time negotiators shifted boundaries, mappers were on hand to produce new maps and to compute land percentages using ArcINFO, software from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). Proposed lines were also projected on a terrain visualization system, called PowerScene, using terrain elevation data and imagery to provide real-time, three-dimensional views of the land.

In his recollections, Col. Richard Johnson, who led the technical mapping team, refers to PowerScene as an “electronic flying carpet,” a “virtual reality fly-through system.” It was developed by Cambridge Research Associates, initially under a contract with the Navy. Dayton was the first instance of international negotiations over territory that had the support of such advanced mapping and visualization technology


Jack Dangermond of ESRI estimates that there are some 35,000 organizations developing geospatial databases in the world, and that by the end of the year there will be some 25,000 map oriented Web sites, allowing users to generate maps on the fly. Beyond serving to visualize data, Dangermond conceives of geographical information systems (GIS) as means to analyze relationships between features, to model processes in time and space and to assist in situation monitoring and decision-making. Indigenous populations in Brazil, for example, have digitized their land resources and are using GIS to consider the relationship between proposed spatial activities and what is by law set aside for their survival. GIS is helping them to manage their resources increasingly subject to the encroachment of other groups, corporations or governments.

Political Autonomy of Nations

In its political dimension, sovereignty enables nations to use their economic, military, technological and other resources to adopt, implement and enforce domestic and international policies within their territories. Today, nations increasingly face constraints on their freedom of action by worldwide problems that defy only local, regional or national problem-solving. For example, the population displacement and migration accompanying violent conflict, or the spread of nuclear weapons, cannot be addressed, much less resolved, only domestically.

As a result, the past decades have witnessed an extraordinary expansion in the numbers and capacities of global political institutions. In 1981, 1,063 international organizations established by governments were active. By 1992, there were 1,147. The United Nations is just one of the more visible and important sets of organizations in an expanding network of international political actors. It has launched nearly 20 peacekeeping operations since 1990, more than in the previous 45 years, in response to civil strife and war. In 1988, only 26 nations were involved in UN peacekeeping operations; by the end of 1994, there were 76. The number of non-UN. peacekeeping missions has also increased from one in 1988 to at least six by 1993. In 1988, almost 10,000 troops served as peacekeepers. By mid-1995, they numbered 65,000.

Another set of important political actors are the many and varied non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operate in conflictive situations or complex humanitarian emergencies. Additionally, the formation of local non-profit and voluntary associations throughout the world has developed a third sector, called the civil society. In France, 54,000 private groups were formed in 1987 alone as compared to about 11,000 per year in the decade of 1960. Reportedly the enlargement of civil society has been even more dramatic in developing countries. About 4,600 Western voluntary groups are actively supporting some 20,000 indigenous non-governmental organizations. One factor contributing to this phenomenon is the expansion of global networks enabling grassroots mobilization and organized action. For the price of a local call, some 50,000 NGOs in 133 countries have access to the bulletin board and e-mail services offered by the Association for Progressive Communications.

On the ground, indigenous and external groups interact with international governmental organizations, perhaps in the form of a peacekeeping force or a relief agency, as well as with local authorities. Lack of cooperation, gaps in assistance coverage and waste of limited resources erode responses to fast-moving crises or complex humanitarian emergencies. Delegation of operational responsibility to the field, trust among participating groups and individuals, a reliable communications center that can serve as a central information clearinghouse, and interoperability supporting communications and data exchange in the field and with headquarters have been identified as key elements in such operations.

In an effort to strengthen the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance by the United Nations, a resolution adopted by the General Assembly in February 1997 directed the development of ReliefWeb as the “global humanitarian information system” for reliable and timely information on such emergencies. It also called on NGOs, governments and UN agencies to contribute to ReliefWeb through the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

ReliefWeb (www.reliefweb.int) contains reports from NGOs and news agencies, maps from various sources and project descriptions and financial information about relief assistance. It is far from the instrument that it could be with the energetic support and sustained contribution of NGOs, governments and U.N. agencies. For example, it does not fully exploit the Internet tools currently available, particularly the interactive capability. However, ReliefWeb represents a first good faith effort toward information exchange, accountability and transparency in humanitarian relief responses.

An important technical advance that will contribute to strengthen relief coordination occurred in early October. Humanitarian agency representatives meeting in Geneva agreed on a set of core data relevant to all emergencies. They also resolved that humanitarian data should be regularly posted on ReliefWeb in a common format. In return, the U.S. proposed to develop a Memorandum of Understanding to exchange U.S. geospatial information with the relief community without financial cost to the humanitarian groups. The United States Institute of Peace was a key player in moving this agreement forward in Geneva.

Global networks can assist a nation-state emerging from violent conflict and facilitate the integration of nation-states into the worldwide community. Villanova University's Project Bosnia provides a good example.

In 1996, law students at Villanova University shipped Internet-ready computers to Bosnia in hopes to assist judges, lawyers and law students in using e-mail for information exchange, the Internet as a virtual library and the World Wide Web as a publishing medium. Project Bosnia arranged Internet connectivity through the University of Sarajevo and relied for content development on the Open Society Institute-sponsored Soros Law Center there. Shelling of Sarajevo by Serbs between 1992 and 1995 destroyed much of the city, including its libraries where court records were maintained. The new Internet-based legal system facilitates access to worldwide legal sources, allowing judges and courts to disseminate their decisions and building a collection of legal documents that constitute the raw materials of rule of law and democracy in the country. In turn, values, laws and regulations governing other nations and international treaties and agreements have become available to the Bosnian legal system.

The Role of Foreign Ministries

Few diplomats in the United States have publicly expressed keen interest in the impact of information and communications technology on the world system of nation-states and the conduct of international relations. The U.S. Department of State has traditionally lagged in the adoption of such technology. It is a department that employs about 23,000 individuals worldwide in nearly 250 embassies and consulates. It processes 2.5 million cables and 25 million e-mail messages a year. State Department officers complain of information glut. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher lamented receiving too many classified cables reporting on what he had already seen and heard on CNN. Field officers use e-mail to vet drafts of analysis with headquarters before committing the text to formal cables. Reportedly, cables from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico failed to warn of the 1994 monetary crisis in that country. Reporting, according to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, made Mexico look “like Norway.” Reasons cited for the technological lag have included budgetary constraints, security concerns and organizational culture.

Internationally, questions about the relevance of worldwide missions and consulates abound. Virtually every government agency deals with the world. And this is becoming increasingly true for regional and local governments. As other federal, regional and local government agencies manage their own international linkages, at issue is the role of the foreign ministries.


The multiplicity of actors in and outside of the federal government creates complexity in the management and practice of diplomacy and demands an examination of the key function of foreign ministries in an environment where they no longer have the monopoly over international contacts and where information can be quickly and easily transmitted. Increasingly, there is a recognition of the need to adapt to these realities, yet also the acknowledgment that foreign ministries remain locked in traditional roles.


The expanded information processing and communications capacity we have today can empower individuals and groups regardless of geographic location. Are nations less able to carry out diplomacy than they could before the establishment of powerful information networks? Can foreign ministries adjust to a global environment in which outside political entities such as other nations, non-governmental groups or supranational institutions share roles in responding to emerging crises? Are they securing, losing or giving up crucial aspects of their capacity to shape international relations? Can a more participatory and collaborative diplomacy be sustained by information processing and global networks? Will a new vision of diplomacy improve our capacity to prevent, manage and resolve violent conflict? Recent practice can begin to shed light on the key elements that constitute a reinvented diplomacy for the information age. Technological tools will be more relevant than ever for international relations.
Margarita S. Studemeister is director of the Jeannette Rankin Library Program at the United States Institute of Peace, 1550 M Street, NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005-1708. She can also be reached by phone at 202/429-3850; by fax at 202/429-6063; or by e-mail at mss@usip.org