Diplomatic mimes: Big tech, digital regulation and mimetic diplomatic practice

Principal Investigator:
Kristin Anabel Eggeling, CPD Research Fellow 2023-25

This project examines what I tentatively call "mimetic diplomacy" and how it is practiced by big tech companies. With this, I mean big tech’s imitationappropriation, and replication of a range of doings and sayings common in the diplomatic world. Based on ethnographic research on the European diplomatic community in Brussels, mimesis between the worlds of diplomacy and corporate tech seems to happen in at least four ways: in relation to work structures and events, institutions and norms, public communication, and professional infrastructures. This research is embedded into a larger research project at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) on the theme of digital sovereignty and European struggles for data control.

Empirically, the project focuses on the work of international tech companies in Europe and their attempts to influence the making of European regulations in international tech policy. One example is Microsoft, arguably the most vocal player in wanting to shape digital regulatory proposals. In the last ten years, Microsoft has opened a "Permanent Representation" to the UN and the EU staffed by ex-diplomats, published the "Digital Geneva Convention" (2017), the "Cybersecurity Tech Accord" (2018) and the "Digital Peace Now" agenda (2019), and frequently declares its involvement in international relations, For example, Microsoft provided the IT infrastructure to help states achieve their digital agendas (e.g., the ‘Making Tech Fit for Europe’ plan, 2020-), or exerting responsibility in international conflicts (e.g., ‘Protecting Ukraine against cyber attacks’, 2022).

Theoretically, the project speaks to a number of IR and public diplomacy debates, including but not limited to the diplomacy of and beyond the state; international order and the future of multilateralism; the power and role of multinational companies, lobbies and corporations; as well as key disciplinary concepts, including statehood, sovereignty, power, representation, (in) formality, regulation, authority and "rules of the game." Mimesis, moreover, seems to have both a positive allusion (imitation, emulation, striving to resemble) and a negative underbelly (parody, mockery, faking it, pseudo) and thus lends itself to critical study in the field. The project will draw on the work of different social theorists, including the work on mimesis and alterity by anthropologist Michael Taussig, the work on mimetic desire and rivalry by the historian and literary critic René Girard; as well as the sociology of Erving Goffman and his work on self-representation and interaction orders.

The findings of the study will speak to empirical and theoretical questions that arise at the intersection of diplomacy, regulation and lobbying in international tech policy. Questions include "How do tech companies understand and use political science concepts like 'sovereignty,' 'authority,' 'responsibility' or 'peace?'" "Is diplomatic work necessarily bound to the diplomatic profession?" or "What is the future of multilateralism and where does mimetic practice leave the state and formal international organizations?"

A hand holding out a virtual technology global network by khonkorn via canva.com