Consider the evolution of communication technologies since the mid-19th century: telegraph, telephone, radio, television, internet. Each of these media innovations affected diplomacy by speeding up the diplomatic process and allowing global publics to observe more of that process. Twitter is among the most recent accelerants, easily accessible because of its brevity and lending itself to exponential audience growth through retweets.
As such, it has become a favorite medium for political gunslingers. Consider President Trump’s tweets. Many are fired off in early morning after the president has seen news stories that stir his partisan zeal. Although he has access to a range of intelligence community briefings and other resources, he apparently cannot resist the temptation to let his emotions shape his tweets. He considers his Twitter following to be a base he can galvanize in support of his policies and himself.
Trump has said that social media were essential in his 2016 presidential run, enabling him to reach his base instantly and influence the news media’s agenda. In an interview with Fox Business Network in 2017, Trump said: “Tweeting is like a typewriter – when I put it out, you put it immediately on your show….When somebody says something about me, I am able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it. The other way, I would never get the word out.”
As Trump notes, part of the allure of tweets is that they can be dispatched quickly and easily. Just type a message on your mobile phone and instantly release it to the world. This is fine if you are singer Katy Perry, whose Twitter account is the most-followed, with about 107 million followers, but whose pronouncements are unlikely to affect world affairs. If you are the president of the United States, however, even with just with half that number of followers, your tweeted messages are by definition matters of state and are likely to be carefully parsed by foreign governments trying to understand U.S. diplomatic initiatives.
But the use of Twitter for diplomatic messaging can be unwise. Trump’s tweets heaping insults on North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in early 2018 could have degenerated into a dangerous game of nuclear chicken. Twitter use is usually problematic in foreign affairs, particularly if one accepts the notion that fast diplomacy tends to be bad diplomacy. A measured response is almost always preferable to an off-the-cuff comment.
Foreign ministries have proved themselves, over the years, to be able to adapt to technological advances that affect their work, especially those that have raised the curtain that once kept the public from observing diplomatic wizardry. We have come a long way from the era about which British diplomat Harold Nicolson observed, “In the days of the old diplomacy it would have been regarded as an act of unthinkable vulgarity to appeal to the common people upon any issue of international policy.” Nicolson lamented the invention of the radio, which he labeled “a formidable instrument of popular excitation.” Twitter now is a similarly formidable instrument.
Today, people around the world can see the events that challenge diplomats– wars, famine, refugees, water shortages, and more – and use the new array of media tools to comment about the successes and failures of those diplomats. Although the “tweetstorm” is a new professional hazard for policymakers, many members of the public find Twitter a useful forum to articulate their views and debate other Twitter users. The nature of Twitter, however, means that such conversations are truncated, relying on catch-phrases rather than carefully developed ideas.
This is not to suggest that Twitter be eliminated as a means of communicating about a country’s diplomatic interests. In 2009, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, became the first foreign diplomat in Washington, DC to use a personal Twitter account. His short dispatches, in Spanish and English, presented Mexican foreign policy viewpoints to anyone who cared to follow him. More recently, Sarukhan’s Twitter use has been emulated by diplomatic missions around the world as a way to quickly disseminate information to large audiences.
But what if narratives from a country’s foreign policy establishment are contradictory? Suppose you are an American diplomat in Tallinn or Kiev and part of your job is to assure the government of Estonia or Ukraine that the United States will support them in the face of Russian hostility. But then comes a tweet from President Trump, such as this one from July 17, 2018, the day after his controversial joint press conference with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin: “While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy!” Praising Putin undermines assurances from U.S. diplomats that the United States will discourage Russian adventurism. The Trump tweet might just be Trump being Trump, but in terms of American foreign policy, such messages from the top can short-circuit what should be a carefully considered and consistent strategy.
Twitter has value, but because it is so often devoid of nuance, it can foster misunderstanding and exacerbate problems. Donald Trump appreciates what Twitter can do for his own political fortunes, but he does not seem to understand that what is politically expedient might not be helpful in addressing the complexities of international affairs. Those who embrace Twitter as a diplomatic tool should proceed with caution.
Philip Seib is Professor of Journalism and Public Diplomacy and Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He served 2009-2013 as director of USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy. He is author or editor of numerous books, including The Future of Diplomacy and most recently As Terrorism Evolves.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.