Trumplomacy: How leaders and diplomats cannot underestimate the effect of their words online
At Abu Dhabi's Diplocon, observers reflect on how comments made on social media can translate into an unwanted cycle of news stories
After spending last weekend in Paris being hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, President Trump did something, well, very President Trump.
The four-part tirade criticised everything from Mr Macron’s approval rating to France’s performance in the Second World War.
"They were starting to learn German in Paris before the US came along," he wrote in a message that stunned even seasoned observers of Mr Trump. It was followed by a demand to contribute more to Nato's finances.
The urbane Mr Macron responded in an interview with a French television network: "To be honest, I don't do diplomacy or politics through tweets and comments.”
But the rise of diplomacy via social media cannot be ignored – and it is one of the greatest challenges diplomats now face today, according to delegates at Abu Dhabi's Diplocon event.
And so diplomats must learn how to respond.
“Even if the news and social networks rush you to react, such as statements by presidents on Twitter, do not to react to that,” said María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar, the former foreign minister of Colombia.
“You have to think. You have to maintain calm and open windows. Do not be overwhelmed by social media. This is not diplomacy. Diplomacy has to maintain relationships with all countries.”
But the biggest problem is the problem does not end there. Comments made on social media then translate into endless cycles of news stories.
“Today's news cycles are not your traditional news cycles and a lot of policy is built on what certain opinions are in the public sphere,” said Lana Nusseibeh, permanent representative of the UAE to the United Nations.
“To be able to understand and perhaps even forecast where the trend lines are is a very important skill for the diplomat of the future.”
The ability to adapt quickly and frame your narrative to unfolding events is also key, said Ms Nusseibeh.
“I always look at my talking points and wonder if they are still relevant 24 hours later. There’s so much that keeps happening. You always have to be one step ahead,” she said.
And the need to adapt quickly is why personality is key in selecting diplomats for posts. And in addition to the demands of intergovernment diplomacy, officials also have to known how to speak to the public, in an age when many simply tweet questions at embassies or post messages on Facebook pages looking for help.
“At the entry level in our foreign ministry we actually test students to see if they can deal with new circumstances and pressure,” said Nabil Fahmy, founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.
“You will face so many different events and circumstances you are not trained for and therefore you need to be able to think about them and analyse them,” said Mr Fahmy, the former foreign minister of Egypt.
The Bahrain Institute of Diplomacy performs psychometric testing to ensure its diplomats are up to the job. But the tests can only tell you so much about a diplomat’s personality, said Dr Muneera Al Khalifa, the institute’s executive director.
“We are not just trained to face difficult situations, but also difficult people in the limelight, with Instagram and Twitter,” said Dr Al Khalifa.
“All of these things require adaptability, being able to assess a situation. So it goes back to these key skills of interpersonal relations of being able to handle pressure and adaptability is very important. We try our very best to create these environments, but nothing is like the real world.”
Before, when the world was more simple and less driven by 24-hour television news cycles and social media, diplomats used to wait for instructions from their capital.
Now there is no time. And no choice. They must respond.
“You have to think. The time you have to react with social networks is too short. And this is something that diplomats have to adapt to,” said Ms Cuéllar.
But technology is also very useful to diplomats, and it ensures they have up to the moment information.
“As a minister you are Whatsapping with your colleagues. If not the ambassador is going to be isolated. It’s very good too,” said Ms Cuéllar.
The way diplomats deal with each other has also changed.
President Trump, for example, is less willing to deal with institutions like Nato, whose mandarins and decision-makers were so influential in the Cold War and recent conflicts.
He prefers one-on-one relationships, often accompanied by back-slapping and statements of great friendship.
“One of the debates today is is there still a place for multilateral relations?” said Alain Leroy, former secretary general of the European External Action Service, the EU's foreign ministry.
“Some say what President Trump is saying, dealing more bilaterally is a trend we will see more in the future. I don’t believe in that. My opinion is that multilateralism is still very important.”
And more ministries are now working with civil society and NGOs, which can also present its own set of problems.
“As a diplomat you cannot talk like an NGO. So sometimes you understand and you adapt but the language you use still has to be the language of a diplomat. And that is quite difficult because they want to hear much more about an issue,” said Ms Cuéllar.
For example, the topic of immigration can be difficult for governments to talk about and diplomats need to be careful the way they speak about it.
“We have to avoid xenophobia about it, and if you talk about it a lot it can become a huge problem in those countries. So it’s not easy to deal with organisations and NGOs,” said Ms Cuéllar.
“For them it is much more easy for them to speak and confront these issues. But I think these days, ministers are talking with them in a private way. And I think this is the way to do it."
But in addition to dealing with more outside groups, diplomats are also expected to know more. At first, it was just economics to grasp trade.
“But it’s not just economics anymore,” said Dr Vali Nasr, dean and professor of International Politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, speaking in a panel discussion about diplomatic training in the 21st century.
“Now it’s climate change. Now similar with cyber you have to understand basic issues related to cyber and now global health.”
This requires diplomats to work more with others. And creating a system that brings different voices to the table, so you are surrounded by expertise that can help shape an overall policy, is critical, said Ms Nusseibeh, the UAE's ambassador to the UN.
“If you’re not ahead of these new regional or global trends so you can develop the expertise for it, you will always be a little bit behind in learning how to address it,” she said.
Updated: November 18, 2018 05:50 PM