Messaging app becomes vital tool for diplomats to talk tactics, arrange huddles, tweak policy – and send Vladimir Putin emojis
When the world’s nations sit down to talk nowadays, there is a distinct difference to the way diplomacy is done. Influence is no longer defined only by special relationships and old alliances, but which WhatsApp group you are invited into.
The rise of WhatsApp diplomacy is transforming the negotiating chamber. There are countless groups of allies and virtual huddles, exchanges over policy statements and fine print, and fair amounts of banter and even emojis (Vladimir Putin is referred to by widespread use of a grey alien avatar).
“You can form small groups of like-minded allies, take photos of annotated documents, ask people what they think without the whole room knowing,” a senior western diplomat said.
The tool is useful for communicating with allies who might not be sitting close to them, diplomats say, as well as for agreeing negotiating tactics during difficult sessions and for organising break-out huddles in a way that avoids offending those left out.
One notable recent example of WhatsApp summitry occurred at last month’s breakthrough talks in Kigali, Rwanda, about banning HFCs. At these talks the instant messaging tool owned by Facebook was used widely to coordinate meetings, discuss strategy during talks and drum up support for different policy positions, said a consultant who was present.
The adviser said the kinds of exchanges included: “Let’s meet outside to talk about x,” or “Make sure you interrupt now,” or “Speak at the plenary in support of x.”
“You might have a country making a proposition and then there’ll be another opposing proposition, so you’d line up your allies on WhatsApp to say ‘make sure you express your view’ so there’s a lot of support. And if there are a lot of voices in favour of a proposition it can get through.”
The consultant first started seeing WhatsApp used at high-level diplomatic events two years ago but said that recently she has seen more diplomats and lobbyists using it, because of the availability of Wi-Fi and the app’s convenience.
“You don’t have to leave the room to have a chat ‘outside’,” the consultant said. “It allows some discretion if you don’t have to be seen grouping in a corner.”
Used by a billion people worldwide, WhatsApp is tailor-made for modern diplomacy. It is as fast and intuitive as texting while the group feature, by which several users can share messages, allows for the formation of fluid informal alliances. And it is secure, with end-to-end encryption since April this year.
“You can send a more secure message through WhatsApp now than most government information systems,” said Jon Alterman, a former state department policy planning staff official now senior vice-president at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
WhatsApp use has flourished particularly in multilateral institutions such as the UN and at EU headquarters, where there are large numbers of diplomats needing to communicate rapidly and secretly. Furthermore a lot of business in these international settings is done inside large buildings with deep basements where there is no mobile phone reception but strong Wi-Fi signals, favouring WhatsApp over texting.
An internal report at the UK’s Foreign Office this year found that rather than make use of specially tailored government encryption, many British diplomats use WhatsApp to discuss sensitive issues.
There is a WhatsApp group for British diplomats working around the world on Syria issues, for example.
“Even 10 years ago the standard form of diplomatic lobbying would often start with a note verbale, a heavily scripted and formulaic diplomatic message sent from an embassy to a foreign ministry,” said the report’s author, Tom Fletcher, a former British ambassador to Lebanon.
“The ambassador would then wait for the response, and follow up with a meeting or occasionally a telephone call. Now, all of that can be short circuited by text message – or, more favoured by diplomats as it is seen as more secure – WhatsApp.
“Most of my day-to-day communication with Lebanese leaders was done in this way. Of course there is no substitute for the rapport and trust built up by face-to-face encounters. But a huge amount of diplomacy can now be handled in this way, and any ambassador who doesn’t have the ability to WhatsApp key ministers will quickly fall behind.”
Fletcher, the author of Naked Diplomacy, that calls for a new generation of “digital interventionists” abroad, added: “The smartphone is now as essential a part of the modern diplomat’s armoury as courage, patience and a strong stomach. But it is also a threat to the diplomat – heaven forbid that leaders should start WhatsApping each other direct, without needing to go through their diplomatic envoys.”
“When you are sitting around a table, negotiating a document, you are not necessarily going to be sitting next to like-minded countries. This is a way to communicate while the negotiations are under way,” a senior diplomat said.
“It can be used for practical organisational stuff, to say we’re meeting in a huddle outside this room,” the diplomat said. “Or for lighthearted venting, taking the piss out of a colleague or sending around a picture of someone who’s fallen asleep.”
WhatsApp conversations are increasingly punctuated by emojis, which are evolving as a diplomatic shorthand. The full array of flags are ideal for that purpose as are the dove, and of course, the shaking hands, symbolising a done deal. Vladimir Putin is frequently embodied as a grey alien face emoji.
In Brussels, WhatsApp is used for organising some of the EU’s many meetings. Messaging services have been used by officials for planning an out-of-town meeting for 28 national ambassadors or getting an EU leader from summit table to press podium without any glitches. One embassy started using WhatsApp after the Brussels attacks as a way of sharing information quickly.
However flexible, informal and secret WhatsApp may be, Alterman argues that no messaging system can ever be a substitute for eyeball-to-eyeball diplomacy.
“It still matters if you are in the room with someone. It’s hard to read body language from a text message. Text doesn’t communicate intonation at all,” he said. “The challenge of text-based communication is that people read into it what’s not there, and miss what is there.”