Even as the modern Internet era makes it easier to communicate, the classic diplomatic hotline remains an effective tool for resolving crisis situations.


Despite modern communication technologies, U.S. and Russian leaders communicate by phone. Photo: AP

On August 30, 1963, the Moscow-Washington hotline became operational. It was established as a response to the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis and its primary purpose was to prevent a nuclear conflict that could result from a misunderstanding between Russia and America. It also offered a fast, secure channel of communication in case of other emergencies.

The first hotline used teletype and encryption and wasn’t actually a telephone at that time, but it was considered revolutionary and more reliable and less prone to interception than a regular transatlantic phone call. The connection established in 1963 was for written communications only. A voice component was added decades later as the system evolved from an undersea telegraph cable to today's exchange of data by both satellite and fiber optic cables.

By 1990, U.S. presidents had used the text-only hotline more than fifteen times. President Lyndon B. Johnson notably used it during the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967 in order to prevent internationalization and escalation of the conflict.

Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev were the last leaders who exchanged messages via the hotline. In 1991, the Kremlin and the White House established a direct telephone line, which was often used by George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin. Since then, telephone calls have replaced written messages as the preferred mode of communication between the nations' leaders. The line proved helpful in the improvement of bilateral relations. Putin's call to Bush after the events of September 11, 2001 became famous as a step towards cooperation and trust.  Today, U.S. and Russian leaders prefer to communicate by telephone.

In 2008, an e-mail line was also established. It uses a dedicated and encrypted computer line, based on modern technologies such as satellite and fiber optic cable. This line provides chat facilities for coordination among users as well as e-mail for text messages. There’s no information whether this e-mail connection among leaders has ever been used, and according to the media, the telephone line seems to be much more convenient and frequently used.

U.S. and Russian leaders continue to make telephone calls in extraordinary situations when they arise, while foreign ministries are responsible for the routine process of dialogue between countries. Typically, the hotline is necessary in cases that require personal communication, such as in the aftermath of large-scale terrorist attacks and tragedies, when the leaders are committed to personally express condolences. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Barack Obama spoke on the telephone after the terrorist attacks in Boston.

Hotlines also exist among major nuclear powers, such as the U.S. and China, the U.S. and UK, China and France, India and Pakistan, etc. Originally, hotlines were intended for the exchange of information and consultations in case of crisis. The Moscow - Washington hotline is a classic example of Cold War diplomacy, and its purpose was to provide a channel of communication for the leaders of states locked in conflict, mistrusting each other and with only limited interaction. But since then, the diplomatic practice has changed.

With the end of Cold War at the end of the twentieth century and the increased interdependence of states, the diplomatic practice has changed, reflecting the transformation of contemporary international politics.  International relations in the twenty-first century are multilevel and multifaceted, the number of international actors has increased and new channels for communication have appeared. Such forums as the G8, G20 and BRICS provide an opportunity for leaders to discuss bilateral and global problems face-to-face. The new term “networked diplomacy” was included in the official Concept of the Foreign Policy of Russia for such high-level diplomacy.

Moreover, public diplomacy, aimed at citizens of other states, has emerged as an effective practice. Presently, diplomats and even heads of states use social networks and the Internet in order to communicate with the wider public. This practice is called ‘e-diplomacy’ or ‘digital diplomacy’. In 2010 Barack Obama jokingly proposed that he and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev abandon the hotline in favor of communication by Twitter.

The information revolution and emergence of new Internet technologies has changed both public and official diplomacy, which at present is conducted through mobile phones, e-mails and social networks in addition to traditional telephones and teletypes. However, the WikiLeaks incident, as well as NSA former contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about methods of American intelligence-gathering operations, indicate that the problem of information security remains prominent. E-mails and telephone calls can be intercepted, resulting in reputational as well as strategic costs. Thus, in the era of wide information access through the Internet, a way to conduct secure diplomacy is still relevant.

The reliability of communication channels is especially important if national and international security issues are discussed. That's why most of the “hotlines” established back in the Cold War are still in use. Moreover, in 2011 the United States offered to host such a hotline with Iran in order to stabilize the relationship between the states and prevent the escalation of conflict in the Middle East.

The Moscow – Washington hotline is still operational. Its advantages include safety and reliability, as well as the possibility of written communication, which is particularly important in times of crisis, when stakes are high and every word needs to be chosen with care.

Most of the operating hotlines exist among major nuclear powers, because they provide a direct and secure communication channel in relations where every mistake or delay could be fatal. However, with technical progress new options for the use of hotlines appear. The U.S. and Russia plan to establish a direct link in order to prevent a potential conflict in cyber space. On the one hand, this indicates the importance of securing cyberspace and resolving the information security problem. On the other hand, it emphasizes the importance of direct communication between the states and the creation of special and secure channels.

So, in the dynamic, complex and highly interconnected international political system of today, hotlines remain an effective diplomatic instrument. In many ways, they complement the possibilities offered by Internet diplomacy. Moreover, new problems that gain prominence on the international agenda, such as information security, require hotlines and direct communication links of their own in order to stabilize interstate relations.