Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Limits of Twitter Diplomacy

DENVER – Twentieth-century American statecraft produced Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke, and many others who balanced the power of the United States with its responsibilities to develop key relationships, solve problems, and build international structures. “Twenty-first-century statecraft,” we have been told repeatedly, promises to go further and deliver more, for now US diplomats – and those of other countries – can use Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

With so many international problems today, diplomacy does need to combine the old-fashioned statecraft of the twentieth century with the new tools that budding technologies have provided. But tools alone cannot solve or build anything.

And yet the new tools are everywhere. It is hard to find a US ambassador in any part of the world who has not embraced the challenge of mastering these communication technologies. Most have a Twitter or Facebook account, or post frequently on YouTube, in order to keep the public in the countries where they serve (and at home) informed of their daily activities, or occasionally their thinking about an issue or even their mood. The State Department estimates that its employees are in direct communication with more than 15 million people worldwide. Incredibly enough, more than 330,000 people “like” the personality-challenged department’s Facebook page.

This generation of American diplomats is fast overcoming a reputation for being remote, emotionally distant figures. To be fair, in the past, an ambassador had few opportunities to connect with the host country’s population, apart from the occasional newspaper or television interview, or a photo of a meeting with a host country official or waiting on an airport’s tarmac for a visitor from Washington, DC. Now, as America’s tweeting diplomats have shown, there is no shortage of such opportunities.

Time constraints are not an issue. Most US embassies ensure a constant stream of tweets by relying on public-diplomacy officers to get the word out about what the ambassador is doing day by day, even hour by hour. Many ambassadors have built mass followings in electronic terms, and generate numerous “likes” as they go about their daily routines of meetings and ribbon cuttings. All fun stuff.

But have social media really made for better diplomats or helped solve difficult problems? If so, why are there so many unmitigated and unmediated crises around the world – Syria’s civil war, the carnage in Egypt, and deteriorating US-Russian relations, to name just a few. The much-ballyhooed twenty-first-century statecraft, it seems, is really not up to the job.

Advocates accurately point out that social media are a tool that is ignored at one’s peril. But what is urgently needed today is an understanding that diplomacy is not only about shouting from the rooftops and communicating with the general public. It is about working on relationships one at a time. Above all, it is about keeping the door open to deal with unsavory governments.

Governments, even terrible ones, comprise the people who lead a country. Maybe they shouldn’t be in power; maybe the people demonstrating in the streets should be. But, in the here and now, these relationships need to be maintained in order to help polarized societies make progress toward overcoming their divisions.

The US ambassador to Egypt, Anne W. Patterson, was excoriated in the media – especially in social media, which have no international boundaries (and often no manners) – for her courageous efforts to keep the door open for dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood government. She did what any good – and, in her case, superb – diplomat should do: maintain relations with both sides and try to find a way forward. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood government and the secular opposition both complained about America’s relationship with the other.

That is the hot seat where American diplomacy belongs. With all due respect to “eDiplomacy,” this type of private, traditional communication remains the heart and soul of the business.

Similarly, Secretary of State John Kerry has launched a courageous effort to revive the Israel-Palestine peace process. Given the dearth of public information about his strategy, it is clear that he is not an avid practitioner of twenty-first-century statecraft – that is, he does not think out loud. And yet he got the parties together by developing trust, which is the coin of the realm for an effective diplomat.

It is perhaps a little unfair to contrast these efforts to what the US did in Syria. In an effort to stay ahead of intense media expectations (and reflecting a misunderstanding according to which Syria would be just another Tunisia), President Barack Obama’s administration essentially severed America’s relationship with Bashar al-Assad’s regime by publicly embracing the disparate opposition and calling for Assad’s immediate removal.

The US did not offer any clear indication of what it thought should follow such an outcome, apart from some kind of election process, which in a largely sectarian conflict like Syria’s would amount to nothing more than an elaborate census. Lo and behold, political leaders, especially tough and terrible ones like Assad, tend not to embrace a process whose stated purpose is to eliminate them.

US diplomats – indeed, all countries’ diplomats – might want to consider that, rather than chasing record numbers of social media “followers,” they should be building trust on all sides in conflict-prone societies and looking for more leaders willing to take chances for peace. When the shooting has stopped and the sides are talking, diplomats can tweet to their hearts’ content.

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    1. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree with the writer that it is not the tools that count but how we use them.
      And I also agree that at least for the time being physical, face to face contact yields better and faster results than virtual communication, although the efficiency of virtual communication in improving day by day.
      The problem is still with the mindset.
      The main difficulty is that the present administrations regardless of country, still think in terms of a polarized, "friends" and "enemies" world, creating alliances here against "those", then shifting the alliances against some other "those" according to actual personal, national benefits, subjective calculations.
      Such behavior has become destructive as in the meantime we evolved into a global, integral world where everybody is interconnected with everybody else and each element has become interdependent.
      In such an integral system a completely new, systemic mindset is required to make decisions, plan and act.
      We have vast amount of scientific, and real life information already to start such a mind-shift proactively, instead of being forced to do so by suffering and exploding global conflicts.

    2. CommentedAmin Ali

      I really find it very strange that Mr. Hill chooses to ignore the fact that the Brotherhood's government does not exist any longer and to describe what is going on in Egypt right now as a carnage, when it could very easily be described as a "War on Terror", as it really is. Anyway, it is now clear that America and the "Free World" are very angry because the Egyptian people - and army - spoiled their plan to put Islamist in power in the Middle East countries, just to avoid the headache they inflict on their world. Which was a good and canny plan, I admit, but not at the expense of the peoples that their only hope is to live free in a democratic society.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        I find myself in general agreement with Mr. Ali, though I must agree with the reasoning of Mr. Hill that keeping some contact with the Muslim Brotherhood is important simply because they held power, have some influence, and could gain power again (though hopefully not). It is critical however, that keeping contact in no way becomes support--moral or otherwise--and the moment that this somehow boosters the Brotherhood beyond there own benefit in having a way to make contact--it must be cut.

        It must be understood that while the Egyptian army is not necessarily pro-democratic, they are not ideologically aligned with totalitarianism and a philosophy justifying terror to achieve it. It had become pretty clear that Mr. Morsi's relatively well-behaved international stance matches that of democratically elected Vice Chancellor Hitler. Only he and his cohorts didn't have time to complete their burning of the Reichstag.

        There is a deeper issue here too. We are in a globalizing world, and everyone's survival depends upon goodwill acceptance -- even concern for the benefit -- of other people and their culture. Any group that ideologically seeks submission or exploitation of all others by means of force, are a fundamental threat to healthy globalization and the future of Humanity. This also applies broadly, and even to networks of financial interests that may so conspire. But in its most crude and brutal form, certainly the Islamists.

        The violent egoism of the Islamists (worst coming under the cloak of piety) may look like part of the Arab Spring and fooled a lot of naive people, but melanoma also often looks like part of a good sun tan.

        In the end, love must prevail over hate, and a Humanity united in its diversity, one of mutual responsibility and guarantee, must raise its multicolored, integrated patterned flag in march towards the middle of the 21st Century.

        -- Else we become a decaying corpse...

    3. CommentedMatthias Lüfkens

      I think you misunderstand the purpose of putting an embassy or a diplomat on Twitter. It is surely not to gain a large number of followers or to broadcast what the ambassador had for dinner...
      The primary objective of social media engagement is to make direct (and private) connections with new audiences and influencers beyond traditional government contacts.
      21st century statecraft will not solve difficult problems alone, nor will Twitter Diplomacy replace face to face meetings.
      Twitter and Facebook are simply powerful communication tools alongside the telephone and email.