Twitter Diplomacy: Hardly A Bold New World for Foreign Policy

Over two years ago, I wrote a critique of the then newly-elected Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi’s use of Twitter to respond publicly to the world leaders who had reached out to congratulate him on his success. Modi’s tweets were strategic, with close allies, such as Canada and Japan, receiving early mentions, while those with whom the Prime Minister had frostier relations, such as the United States, forced to wait. I concluded that tweets would never replace traditional diplomatic channels, though it could be used for soft power—that is, boosting likeability and demonstrating confidence. However, I did caution that any perceived misstep on Twitter would forever be available for over-analysis and dissection in the 24-hour news cycle.

Image courtesy of Michael Vadon, © 2015.

Clearly, I did not predict Donald Trump. In the weeks following the election, he has become known for using Twitter as a channel for foreign policy declarations, having used the social media service to share his opinions on nuclear weapons, the functionality of the UN, Israel, and China’s supposed drone-stealing practices, among a myriad of other topics of international significance. His frequent commenting on sensitive international relations topics in 140 characters or less has already drawn China’s ire, prompting Xinhua, the state-run news organization, to publish an article titled: “Addiction to Twitter diplomacy is unwise.” This article was released following a tweet suggesting that China has been draining US resources but refuses to help with North Korea—though he does not specify how China might assist with North Korean relations, or how China is taking money from the United States. Getting such granularity from a tweet is impossible, given the character limits: one of the many pitfalls of relying on Twitter diplomacy.

Some, like Newt Gingrich, have praised Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy. Gingrich called the use of Twitter “brilliant,” and suggested we get used to Trump making key policy announcements via social media, simply because “this is who he [Trump] is,” and he is not going to change. Though now that Trump has been sworn into office, he may find that he does have to change in order to be taken seriously as a world leader. It is one thing to rile up China through a series of angry tweets, but it’s another thing entirely to use those tweets as the basis of a coherent foreign policy doctrine that includes follow through and sparks change. If anything, it seems possible that China would be the one to follow through with a forceful response, since the Communist Party has been taking steps for years to understand public opinion and leverage that information to inform policy.

However, China is not the only one who would be concerned with a foreign policy based around social media declarations. Chatter about sensitive topics like nuclear policy, now that Trump is in office, would send a signal to other leaders that few issues are off the table when it comes to tweeting, which could, in turn, discourage them from meeting with the new president, for fear their conversations would become public. The same can be said of a foreign policy doctrine that includes reliance on any type of social media site, including Facebook or personal blogs, to discuss issues that affect national and international policy.

Gingrich is right about one thing: by using Twitter, Trump is able to, “very quickly, over and over again… set the agenda.” His unprompted remarks on various foreign policy topics have consistently made the 24-hour news cycle, sent policy wonks scrambling to find meaning and make predictions, and prompted foreign leaders to issue official responses. Twitter diplomacy creates a global conversation in a way that typical diplomatic channels and White House press briefings do not. The tweets come straight from the source, and everyone has a chance to respond directly (though whether or not Trump sees those responses is another question) and share their thoughts with the rest of the global Twitter community.

This platform seems more suited to Modi’s form of Twitter diplomacy, since he did not rely on the platform to discuss complex, nuanced topics that require well-thought out statements and in-depth negotiations like Israeli-Palestinian relations and nuclear proliferation. Modi’s tweets include comments such as, “India will remain a beacon of peace & progress, stability & success, and access & accommodation” and “I pray that those injured in the accident in Etah recover at the earliest.”  Trump’s Twitter history, on the other hand, contains remarks such as “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” which is deliberately provoking a foreign power without any form of evidence.

Trump has promised to be “very restrained” on Twitter, and now that he has official been sworn in, I, for one, hope that is the case. As a private citizen, Trump’s use of Twitter to rant about foreign nations was comical, but, as a world leader, that same use could have serious ramifications, from provoking other countries into altering their policies towards the United States to discouraging them from entering into discussions with the President. Perhaps the best we can all do is unfollow him.

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