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Trump, Twitter and diplomacy

Hand holding phone with Twitter app open

‘Diplomacy is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states,’ according to Sir Ernest Satow, British diplomat and Japanologist who published A Guide to Diplomatic Practice in 1917. So what would Sir Ernest make of the last few months in world politics? With President Trump sharing so much of his decision making, announcements and general opinion with the globe in just 140 characters over Twitter, what place does old-school diplomacy have in the modern world?

“While much has changed in our understanding of international relations in the hundred years since Satow first offered his definition, his stress on ‘intelligence and tact’ is still widely accepted as a core principle,” says Dr Guido van Meersbergen, an expert on the history of diplomacy and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Warwick. “So Donald Trump’s apparent rejection of tact in recurrent 140-character statements on international affairs has left many commentators questioning the intelligence of his “Twitter diplomacy.”

While Dr Megan Dee, associate research fellow at Warwick’s Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS) thinks the US President is doing what every politician has perhaps wanted to do at least once in their career, to diplomats’ dismay.

“How often must a politician (albeit in their wildest of dreams) have wished they could have said what they 'really thought', and for those comments to receive such an immediate, and often uproarious, public response?” asks Dr Dee. “Politically speaking @realDonaldTrump is certainly explosive; a seemingly candid, unfettered, and it would appear, entirely personal, snapshot of the world's most powerful political leader. For the diplomat however, the Twitter life of Donald Trump may well be a disaster waiting to happen.”

So, diplomats may be running scared, but the current political climate means they’re all over the news at the moment. We’ve heard about ‘career diplomats’, resigning diplomats, Russian diplomats and North Koreans ones. But what do they do and how?

"International diplomacy is the profession of managing your country’s relationships abroad. It is typically premised on unpublicised back-room negotiation between the parties,” says Dr Dee. “Bargaining, negotiation, compromise and consensus are achieved by the ability of diplomats to convey their government's position, interpret the demands and perceived 'red-lines' of their counterparts, and to develop rapport such that both parties trust the other sufficiently that any agreement is not only accepted, but then implemented. Diplomacy requires certainty, predictability and, when it comes to achieving results, trust between the parties.”

Back to where it all began

“Diplomatic activity has existed as long as states themselves, and has taken many different forms,” explains Dr Van Meerbergen. “The traditional consensus holds that the template for what we now identify as diplomacy comes from the city-states of Renaissance Italy.

“Most standard diplomatic histories start their accounts with a story about the standardisation and professionalisation of diplomacy, emphasising the moment when the city-states of fifteenth century Italy began introducing permanent resident ‘ambassadors’ into neighbouring polities. This way of negotiating between states was then held to have spread to other parts of Europe, with the international system we recognise now fully emerging in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), when a series of treaties were negotiated and signed to end the ongoing European wars.

“But this account of the origins of modern diplomacy, which only really acknowledges the role of developments in Western Europe, has now increasingly come under attack for its lack of attention to the part played by non-state actors, the role of women, and the contributions of non-European states and participants.”

The whys and the wherefores

Dr Van Meersbergen says recent studies have moved from focusing exclusively on what diplomatic interactions were about to analysing how diplomacy was done. Academics have begun to study the importance of local knowledge, the role of diplomatic sociability, and investigated practices of cultural translation to gain better insight into the way diplomats from different parts of the world reached, or failed to reach, cultural understanding.

He continues: “For diplomacy to function it is necessary for the different parties involved to at least agree on a basic set of conventions. Historically, these forms of protocol have often concerned the rituals through which rank, prestige, and the very relationship between rulers or states were expressed, constituted, and contested. So diplomatic history is packed with detailed descriptions of, as well as heated disputes over what was appropriate and what was expected, including written and spoken forms of address, gift-exchange, a diplomat’s positioning within a given spatial configuration, and the performance of acts such as kneeling or bowing. While this was true within Europe as much as beyond, it was in contacts between representatives from different diplomatic traditions that conflicting ceremonial demands led to particularly thorny situations."

To kowtow or not to kowtow

Lord Macartney Embassy to China 1793.jpg
Picture: Lord Macartney Embassy To China 1793. Macartney's first meeting with Qianlong

“Perhaps the most notorious of such customs was the prostration known as kowtow, which has entered the English language as a byword for ‘an act of obsequious respect’ (OED). Part of a Chinese imperial vision that framed diplomatic relations as foreign “barbarians” paying tribute to the “Son of Heaven”, the kowtow ceremony expressed submission to Chinese overlordship.

"Refusal to comply with this ceremonial demand, as seventeenth-century Russian ambassadors found out, doomed a diplomatic mission to failure."

“It was precisely its universalist pretensions which, from the 1790s onwards, turned the kowtow into such a contested issue in China’s diplomatic contacts with Britain, as this new imperial power sought to restructure existing hierarchies.So, drawing a present-day parallel, the recent row involving Trump and Taiwan could be read, as CNBC described it in their report on that story (26 December 2016), as Trump appearing “determined to end what he sees as America's kowtowing to China,” adds Dr Van Meersbergen.

Diplomacy and the Twittersphere

But, we don’t live in pre-modern times, this is the modern world. So can’t modern forms of communication and social media actually help diplomats do their job?

Only to a point says Dr Dee: "Whilst twitter has become a major component of diplomatic life, with diplomats themselves frequently tweeting position updates and news from negotiations, it does also present a major challenge for diplomacy. If diplomacy is best achieved where trust is developed quietly and away from the public eye, twitter can provide the medium for removing that trust between diplomats as any statement, off-hand comment, or 'red-line' presented can be tweeted and showcased to the world. Worse still, it raises serious concerns where diplomats' own politicians can broadcast statements which either contradict or undermine the position they are presenting or even attack the other party with whom the diplomats are seeking to build rapport and trust.

"That is why @realDonaldTrump is a diplomat's nightmare. It seems to go against the grain of expected statesmanlike behaviour. It is unpredictable because Donald Trump tweets himself with apparently no administrative oversight or input which may in turn cause diplomatic contradiction and confusion. And it breeds mistrust because diplomats cannot guarantee that an ill-timed tweet from the President of the United States may not derail an entire negotiation.

“And that is the power of his tweets. Ill-judged or not, any statement by the President of the United States will have a global impact. If Trump chooses to maintain his own personal twitter feed, he should take heed of that impact and consider what it is he is saying, who it affects, and if it is really necessary for him to comment at all,” adds Dr Dee. “Should.”

31 January 2017

Dr Guido van MeersbergenDr Guido van Meersbergen is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick, where he is a member of the Global History and Culture Centre. His research focuses on cross-cultural diplomacy, early modern ethnography, and the Dutch and English East India Companies in South Asia. Guido received his PhD from University College London (UCL) and has previously held the Max Weber Fellowship at the European University Institute (EUI) and a teaching position at the University of Amsterdam.

The way in which diplomats from different parts of the world reached, or failed to reach, cultural understanding is a topic that will be discussed during a workshop entitled Cross-Cultural Diplomacy Compared: Afro-Eurasian Perspectives (16th-18th Centuries) held at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Study on 1 February 2017.

Dr Megan DeeDr Megan Dee is an Associate Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research expertise covers international negotiation, diplomacy and decision-making in international organisations, with particular interest in the European Union, United Nations and World Trade Organisation. Megan has published widely on these topics with articles in journals such as The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, European Security and European Foreign Affairs Review. Her first book was published by Palgrave in 2015 entitled The European Union in a Multipolar World: World Trade, Global Governance and the Case of the WTO. Megan was awarded her PhD in Politics from the University of Glasgow in April 2013, she has an MSc in International Politics from the University of Glasgow and a BSc hons in Politics (1st class) from the University of Stirling.

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