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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.