Has a brave new world of digital diplomacy arrived?


Until now, diplomacy took place in a mainly cloistered world of the rich and powerful, whose operations could only be glimpsed from afar in most cases. The very purpose of diplomacy has been discretion — allowing nations to say to one another in private what they do not wish to say in public. Even when put on the grandest stages, such as the United Nations, the public display is for public consumption, while the real business of governments mostly take place in private exchanges. Nikita Khrushchev could bang his fist (or, perhaps apocryphally, a shoe) on a table in Turtle Bay, and then have time for a nice dinner in private later with diplomats to discuss issues without prying eyes and ears hampering the process.

Those days could be coming to an end, and not because it’s suddenly become toxic to meet with foreign ambassadors in Washington. The end of the cloister in diplomacy may come, as it has for other previously isolated and elite circles, from the near-universal use of social media and other easily accessed digital platforms. Two days ago, Medium bragged about the use of its platform by politicians, diplomats, and NGOs to conduct policy debates and connect with one another and the world:

The beginning of 2017 is signaling an increased interest in Medium as a platform for diplomacy, not only for politics.

After the recent debuts on the platform of the United Nations, former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning S, former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, and the Albanian MFA , in the past few months new high profile international players joined Medium actively posting on the platform. They include the The Obama Foundation, the FAO of the United Nations (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), the European Commission and the European Ombudsman (part of the European Union), and the Government of Nigeria.

“We believe Medium sits at a unique intersection of beautiful story telling, thoughtful conversation, and potential global impact,” said Matt Higginson, head of politics and government affairs at Medium.

He added: “It is exciting to see the global diplomatic community finding a home here and reaching new audiences with their important perspectives.”

From long-form content to photos and videos, the foreign policy community has been experimenting quite a bit, as previous edition of this series show.

That isn’t the most dramatic of recent diplomatic engagements on a digital platform. Donald Trump began a Twitter brouhaha with Mexico shortly after taking office, threatening a trade war along with the construction of the border wall. Trump’s tough talk about Mexico was nothing new — his campaign was filled with it — but as president, his official communications had a different diplomatic import. It led to a rare diplomatic fight in public between heads of state before getting settled more quietly through traditional diplomatic channels:

Peña Nieto sent Videgaray and Ildefonso Guajardo, Mexico’s Minister of Economy, to Washington for preparing his meeting with Trump. He instructed them to avoid both submission and confrontation in negotiations with the American administration.

But that plan faltered when, on the night before the emissaries were to arrive to Washington, Trump tweeted that Wednesday would be a “big day” for “national security” because he was looking forward to “building the wall”. Videgaray and Guajardo were actually in the White House when Trump left the building to sign his executive order.

This insult raised outrage in Mexico. Intellectuals, politicians and citizens, both left and right, demanded that Peña Nieto cancel his visit to Washington.

Mexico’s president answered this new provocation with a short video statement, in which he said that Mexican consulates would now serve as legal aid offices for undocumented Mexican migrants in the US. He resisted though cancelling the meeting with Trump, saying that he would make a decision based on Videgaray’s and Guajardo’s report out.

But another social media blast from Trump derailed that wait-and-see strategy, too … Even for mild Peña Nieto this was too much. He cancelled the meeting with Trump without even a press conference. Instead he tweeted: “This morning we have informed the White House that I will not attend the working meeting with @POTUS scheduled next Tuesday.”

Putting aside the specifics of this particular exchange (which hardly hurt Trump with his base), the overall trend toward transparency in diplomacy could be seen as a positive development, especially from the populist point of view. The problem with trade deals, diplomacy, and politics in general from the populist perspective is a lack of transparency, as well as a lack of honesty. The more those get forced into the sunlight, the more straightforward and accountable it gets. The very first of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points demanded nothing but public diplomacy ninety-nine years ago, even if the technology of the day didn’t lend itself to it:

I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

In the public view suggested more than just an end to secret protocols; it meant all diplomacy was to be conducted in the open, and where the throngs could access it, at least theoretically. Wilson saw the League of Nations as the forum for that transparency, but that dream died along with Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Wilson would probably love the idea of diplomacy conducted on social media now, which might not be a very good argument in its favor, frankly.

On the other hand, diplomacy tends to work in some very important ways because of its opacity. It allows for caution and rational thought where passions among the greater population might call for more drastic action. Does public diplomacy conducted in front of the throngs make war less or more likely, for instance? For that matter, will the throngs be conducting the diplomacy? In the US, we have the Logan Act prohibiting Americans from conducting foreign policy without specific grant from the president. That gets treated much like Mark Twain observed people treat the weather — we talk about it an awful lot, but we never do anything about it. If diplomats are accessible to all through social media, when does an engagement with an ambassador turn into a private negotiation publicly staged? Our future could more be a run of Logans than Logan’s Run (not that either one sounds terribly attractive).

Whether fortunate or not, it will be impossible to put this genie back in the bottle. Everyone seems to be orienting themselves to some diplomacy taking place in the sunlight — and I mean everyone:

A one-day workshop was held on Friday in the Vatican on ‘Twitter Diplomacy at the Holy See’. The event was hosted by the Vatican Secretariat for Communications (SPC), in conjunction with the British Embassy to the Holy See.

Participants in the workshop included Britain’s Ambassadors to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, and to Austria, Leigh Turner, along with Hungary’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Eduard Habsburg, and Professor Giovanni Maria Vian, Director of the Osservatore Romano. …

Sally Axworthy, Britain’s Ambassador to the Holy See, told Alessandro Gisotti after the event that the digital dimension is assuming an ever greater role in diplomacy. She said there are many points on which, even via Twitter, that the Holy See and international diplomacy can find a way to collaborate.

What does this tell us about the future? Diplomats will need specific expertise not just in protocol and international issues between nations, but in handling news and social media as well. That isn’t as easy as it sounds; we have seen politicians and diplomats figuratively shoot themselves in the foot on social media, either by oversharing or poor people skills. The Trump administration has yet to put forward candidates for ambassadorships, due in part to a backlog of Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointments in the Senate, but hopefully the White House is paying attention to this shift and planning accordingly. Social media gives American diplomats significant opportunities — I’d argue especially at the Vatican given the number of Catholics around the world, but in all other postings too — and poses significant risks as well. The days of the cloister are over, and the best candidates for diplomatic posts will be those prepared for the new transparency.