Diplomacy is the profession and activity of skillfully managing international relations, typically by a country’s representatives abroad. It is the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representatives of states and countries. Or as Winston Churchill cynically said, “diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip”.
The first month of Donald Trump’s term has taught us many things about America’s first Twitter President. Aside from how he continues to use the platform to bypass the traditional media, the first month has also given us a fascinating (and some might argue troubling) insight into how the 45th President intends to conduct foreign relations.
If you were a fan of the TV show, The West Wing with Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe (or any TV drama or movie that peeks behind the curtain and shines a light on how the White House functions), you will be familiar with what is supposed to happen when an international crisis occurs. The chief-of-staff bursts into the Oval Office, interrupting whatever meeting may be going on and tells the President that he is needed by “an old friend from home” or some other coded message to summon him and other members of the National Security Council surreptitiously to the Situation Room.
What happened in the so-called “Winter White House” two weeks ago was executed as discreetly or smoothly. During a visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, the President was dining in a busy Mar-a-Lago ballroom, when word came in that North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile. As the President was handed a brief by an aide, his staffers used the light their cellphone lights to illuminate them. An onlooker snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook, essentially allowing the entire world to observe how the new Administration would deal with a crisis in the Situational Room.
There have been other examples testing the compatibility of social media and international diplomacy. In his first week in office, the President effectively baited the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel his upcoming visit to Washington, by tweeting: “The U.S. has a 60 billion trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting”. With Tweets setting back foreign relations on trade, immigration, nuclear arms deals, and human rights for refugees, you might be inclined to long for the days where foreign affairs was conducted in lavish surroundings by bureaucrats in pin-striped suits.
But social media has changed diplomacy and foreign relations for the better and here are few reasons why.
- Promoting trade and tourism – diplomacy is about dealing with dealing with international crises, but it also a vehicle to promote trade and tourism. Ambassadors and other diplomats frequently use social media to encourage trade and tourism.
The British Embassy in Washington promoting the NFL’s decision to play 4 regular season games each year in London, which has a massive economic impact and strengthens cultural and social ties between the UK and the United States
The Irish Embassy in Washington highlighting the growth of North American tourists to Ireland – an important part of the Irish economy
- Increased transparency – we longer live in a world where a handful of bureaucrats can frame the relationship between two countries behind a closed-door; social media has given more power to citizens to get involved with how their Governments ought to interact and cooperate.
- Humanitarian work and emergency response – When a disaster occurs abroad, embassies and diplomats can be proactive on social media in reassuring their own citizens who are concerned for family and friends that may be affected. They can also help justify the need for humanitarian aid after a disaster and direct money to needy causes.
- Foster dialogue and distill complex policy and trade agreements – social media is not going to replace diplomacy – it is never going to be possible to tweet your way to a bilateral agreement. Nevertheless, social media forces bureaucrats to engage with their citizens and translate complex policy and trade agreements into posts with 140 characters or less.
- Encourages diplomats to engage with the citizens and local communities where they are based – Ambassadors and diplomats traditionally moved in high circles, but social media has forced bureaucrats to acknowledge a broader range of opinions and ideas that exist within the country they are based, not just the official positions of the Government they are interacting with.
There are a lot of reasons to be worried about how diplomacy and foreign relations will continue to be affected by the interconnectedness and immediacy of social media – but the world is shrinking and there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about how countries, Governments, and their citizens will interact in the future.