Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Twitter diplomacy can only take you so far

There is still value in an international system built on patience and compromise, rather than ego

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump meeting inside the Demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea. Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump meeting inside the Demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea. Getty Images

Just two days after making an impromptu offer on Twitter to meet Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump became the first US president in history to set foot in North Korea. It was the third meeting between the two leaders – all of which are without precedent – and spoke to Mr Trump’s proclivity for spectacle over policy.

The chance of anything tangible emerging from the meeting is negligible. Just three months after they met in Hanoi – a summit that ended in failure, with Mr Trump departing before a joint press conference – North Korea launched two short-range missiles, ending a hard-won pause in ballistic missile testing.

Still, there is some value in Mr Trump’s Twitter diplomacy. If nothing else, a handshake in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas is a powerful symbol. “I saw that tweet and it felt like you’ve sent a flower of hope for the Korean Peninsula,” South Korean president Moon Jae-in told Mr Trump.

Coming off the back of the G20 in Osaka, where the US leader agreed to de-escalate trade tensions with China’s Xi Jinping, this has been a brief window of multilateralism. Still, we must ask ourselves what is lost when Mr Trump tears up the diplomatic rulebook.

Like most industries, diplomacy is being altered by technology. The job of a diplomat becomes harder when ministers communicate directly with one another. World leaders, too, have been known to trade WhatsApp messages with their closest allies. Mr Trump pursues Twitter diplomacy like no other, yet his tweets rarely produce meaningful outcomes. To do that, his aides and advisers fall back on conventional diplomatic channels.

As the former UK ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, wrote on these pages: “We diplomats are trying to provide the lubricant in the system as continents, states, armies and ideas rub up against each other.” Anyone with experience of cutting trade deals or negotiating peace will tell you that the devil is in the detail.

The world is changing around us – and so is politics. One need look only at the current Conservative party leadership contest in the UK, where candidates have crafted wacky social media presences, to see that Mr Trump has blazed a trail. It is hard to imagine future US leaders not using Twitter in a similar – albeit less rash – fashion.

However, there is still something to be said for an international system based on patience, mediation and sacrifice, rather than ego. In the digital age, our diplomats should still bring good judgement and expertise to the negotiating table. Mr Trump’s bluster might open avenues for interaction – particularly in the curious case of North Korea – but we need conventional diplomatic channels to achieve tangible results.

There is an adage that if the United Nations did not exist, we would have to invent it. It appears the fractious world of Twitter will not replace it just yet.

Updated: June 30, 2019 04:36 PM

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