Has digital diplomacy been Trumped?

Put off by Donald Trump’s erratic tweeting, governments might be disinclined to expand their social media engagement. That would be a mistake, argues Julian Dierkes.

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March 16, 2017
A woman uses a mobile device while working out in San Francisco, California July 21, 2015. Verizon Communications Inc on Tuesday lowered its full-year revenue target as it fends promotions from its competitors. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

As the Tweeting-Diplomat-in-Chief, U.S. President Donald Trump is transforming digital diplomacy — the leveraging of online communication technologies to pursue foreign policy. What used to be thought of as an opportunity to move diplomacy out of inter-governmental back rooms to a more robust and transparent basis of digitally enabled engagement of stakeholders seems to be getting dragged into the locker room of narcissistic posturing.

Just as there is some disillusionment with social networks that are being employed for nefarious and asocial activities, will Trump’s bombastic use of Twitter set back a movement toward digital diplomacy? The president’s digital communications strategy has likely scared diplomats around the world into paying closer attention to social media, but has equally likely reinforced their and politicians’ prejudices against attempts to rely on social media as a promotional tool for diplomatic activities.

In Canada’s case, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become something of a social media star, especially known for his fondness of selfies, the government has a ways to go when it comes to digital diplomacy.

Under Trudeau, Canadian diplomats have rejoiced at being “unleashed” and have indeed become more active and self-assuredly outspoken in private and in public than was the case during Stephen Harper’s time in office.

But while Global Affairs Canada accounts have multiplied, the government’s online communications contain little  substance — save a few pioneering exceptions — and it has yet to move towards meaningful engagement or the development of a digital foreign policy.

During the tenure of Trudeau’s first foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, official social media channels were animated by photos and reports of happy and productive meetings with a variety of foreign dignitaries. Unnoticed by most observers, Dion even briefly blogged about human rights. But direct engagement of Canadians and concerned audiences abroad? Not at Global Affairs.

Even though current Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland appears to be more social media-inclined personally, there are no indications of a renewed embracing of digital domains under her leadership yet. Some of the main foreign policy events for the Trudeau government, such as the approval of CETA, have been virtually invisible in a substantive way online other than through press release-like announcements. Even when CETA-skeptics marched in European capitals prior to the conclusion of the agreement, their criticisms were not addressed by a Canadian response online. Since its signing, there have been few attempts to share what this agreement means for Canadian or European businesses.

Clearly there was already room for improvement when it comes to Canada’s digital diplomacy, with or without Trump. But, while the shoot-from-the-hip randomness that the U.S. president brings to his pursuits means little is predictable about international relations at the moment, his online influence signals three trends for twiplomacy in Canada and beyond:

1. Diplomats are no longer ignoring Twitter.

The first weeks of the Trump era have been a wild foreign policy ride. Flip-flops on China, withdrawal from the TPP, pokes at allies… Many of these seemingly drastic reversals and redirections of U.S. foreign policy have been announced by Trump on Twitter. While they were sometimes elaborated on by spokespeople or softened by members of Trump’s cabinet, the real action has been on the microblogging site.

I imagine that diplomats — and likewise policymakers all over the world — have been glued to Twitter in anticipation of the next outrage. While reading Trump’s social media missiles, many diplomats may have also begun to follow discussions of Trump’s foreign policy online, particularly since these discussions are occurring in real-time responses to tweets. Whether it is simply as fodder for water cooler-conversations, or as the starting point for serious considerations of foreign policy strategies outside of the U.S., given the outsized impact of U.S. foreign policy globally, Trump’s tweets likely command diplomats’ attention and turned any Twitter-naysayers into passive listeners on social media — for the moment at least.

2. Digital diplomacy risks being confused with Trump’s use of social media.

There is a significant cohort of diplomats who instinctively shy away from social media or have been conditioned to regard any public conversation primarily as a risk rather than an opportunity. These diplomats will not be persuaded by Trump’s un-diplomatic Twitter outbursts to reassess their instincts. Instead, they will regard this as further proof that the serious matters of international relations cannot be conducted in 140 characters.

Given that Trump is not intent on actually engaging any members of his audience (other than the occasional screaming-match with celebrity critics or vitriol directed at The New York Times), little about his use of Twitter would introduce anyone to notions of a more robust foreign policy that can be built through digital engagement tools.

Responding to Trump’s online announcements of policy in kind, i.e. on social media, would miss the point that he is not engaging his audience or expecting any kind of reasonable discussion to follow his tweets. Even though Trump may be a poster, well, child, for recommendations to use microblogging as a way to develop a personal voice, this example is very unlikely to be attractive to many members of any government, including the foreign service.

3. Deepened online engagement can safeguard against turbulence.

Considering that many will be tuned to social media but reluctant to engage in Trump-style exchanges, few diplomats and policymakers will embrace a more active kind of digital diplomacy. Similarly, I expect little by way of a new thrust towards digital diplomacy for Canada.

However, policy-planners around the world should consider a deepening of engagement with stakeholders as one response to current Trumpian turbulence. If you cannot count on the U.S. president to remain committed to foreign policy tenets that were imagined to be unshakable by many allies (like NAFTA, NATO, good neighbourliness in general), should Global Affairs Canada not give some consideration to trying to engage Americans directly to counter any unexpected swing in Trump’s mood? Such engagement is likely to be more effective and more efficient when it is digitally mediated.

Rather than relying on state-to-state contacts only, the Canadian government could build digital platforms or utilize social media channels to speak to Americans directly. Given a crowded internet market place in the U.S., that would be a tall order, but the payoff in terms of a shoring up of Canadian interests shared with the U.S. independent of Trump could be significant. Even with an active embassy and many consulates in the U.S., Global Affairs is limited in the number of Americans it can reach in person. Online, no such limits hold.

This argument for deeper, direct engagement of stakeholders does not only apply to the U.S., but for other allies and partners, as well as for Canadians. Such a conclusion may not come quickly and will depend on some experience with the reality of Trump’s foreign policy tweets over the coming months. But if next-door turbulence emerges as a theme for the coming four years, or gains a foothold in U.S. public discourse, a direct engagement of stakeholders may be a solution Canadian policymakers will be looking toward.