Digital Diplomacy

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.


  1. 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.

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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


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The Irish Embassy in Washington highlighting the growth of North American tourists to Ireland – an important part of the Irish economy

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


  1. clinecapen · ·

    Nice post! The world is definitely shrinking and politicians should realize every decision they make will be publicly watched and debated on. I like your point about how social media allows foreign diplomats to understand the sentiment of the whole country vs just the officials they have normally been exposed to in the past. I do not believe the 45th President should be “calling out” certain countries or individuals not only will he lead to tension but it’s just plain rude.

  2. Danni Bianco · ·

    Great post! Trump’s use of social media has obviously been a major trending topic since the announcement of his candidacy, but I really liked that you focused your lens for this article to his handling of foreign relations. I also especially liked the point about increased transparency–though i do think our officials should be more careful about keeping briefs and conversations private, social media has definitely made that task much more difficult. One slip up used to lead to information spreading the way gossip does–fairly slowly and within a limited group of people–, but now information can reach millions of people in minutes.

    Another thing I’ve found particularly interesting about Trump’s use of social media is that he’s split his posting between the @realdonaldtrump & @potus handles, seemingly leaving the more emotional/volatile posts for his “personal” account. Do you think there should be a separation between the two? Should the president be allowed to have a “personal” account?

  3. lenskubal · ·

    I enjoyed this post very much. I agree with you on many of your points and I think social media has made diplomacy much more visible to the public. People in powerful positions have the responsibility and ability to shape their perception through social media in a positive way. Our president’s use of social media has been spotlighted from the beginning of his campaign but it was interesting how you took such a topic and used it to introduce the ways social media has changed diplomacy and foreign relations for the better.

  4. Nice post. I actually think governments are even at more of a disadvantage than companies when adopting social media nd other digital technologies. Many have rules and regulations in place to keep things from changing too quickly, and governments just have difficulties keeping up. In fact, I’m amazed that they do as well as they do.

  5. jordanpanza29 · ·

    I really liked this post! Like Danni I also find it really interesting that the President has two twitter accounts. His official “POTUS” account and then his old Donald Trump account. He still tweets from both of these accounts. He tweets pretty similar things from both accounts even thought the POTUS one is supposed to be for more official business. While I know its not him actually tweeting all these items (he most likely has multiple social media workers), it still concerns me how much he is using social media. While I see the benefits of him and companies using it, I am a firm believer in action not talk. Social media makes it a lot easier to do more of this talking which takes away time from the action part.

  6. Whether you agree with Trump’s policies (or lack thereof), I think one dangerous aspect of his presence on social media for diplomacy is the fact that he seems fine with revealing his hand to the public before a meeting even happens. If I’m a foreign leader, it’s easy for me to strategize for a meeting/negotiation with Trump because I know exactly where he stands on most issues beforehand. He prides himself as a great negotiator, but I’d argue that his pervasive social media presence puts him at a disadvantage in every negotiation he enters.

  7. drewsimenson · ·

    Social media is bringing us closer together. At the risk of sounding borderline political, I’ll just say that erecting physical borders seems like a painfully obsolete tactic when this is the reality we face – let’s see how social media continues to play on the international relations scene. The benefits to diplomacy that you mention are really interesting, particularly the notion of greater diplomacy. Even within a single country, social media is revolutionizing how conversations among citizens and governments happen. I am thinking about China, a country where the government has actively censored their internet and limited free speech for many years, but now social media is allowing people to organize themselves and eroding the ability for government control of free speech. Transparency is on the rise, and I suspect we could have a whole debate (#D?) about the pros and cons of that. Nice post!

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