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How to be diplomatic in the age of Twitter

Magazine

How to be diplomatic in the age of Twitter

Published 19 January 2023 in Magazine • 6 min read • Audio availableAudio available

The diversification of actors and a widening of issues challenges the traditional model of diplomacy. A convergence of skills is needed from the public and private sectors to facilitate engagement between states, business leaders, and civil society groups.

In recent years, we have witnessed a transformation in diplomacy. Government attachés are no longer first among equals. Instead, there has been a diversification to include more actors – from corporate leaders to civil society groups and members of communities – who now engage on a broader set of issues ranging from the environment to health, sport, equality, and peace building.

This decentralization of diplomacy arguably has made the field more democratic by catering to a wider set of views and issues. At the same time, it has raised questions around accountability – particularly if unelected officials seek to shape foreign affairs through unregulated channels. There is a further risk of asymmetry in diplomatic relations with the power going to those who have the biggest megaphones rather than those with the knowledge and skill to conduct nuanced negotiations.

Take the case of Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, who in October waded into geopolitics by putting forward a peace proposal to end Russia’s war in Ukraine on Twitter – the social media platform he has since bought for $44bn.

Bypassing traditional channels

The intervention sparked a strong rebuke from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Musk later suggested that Taiwan should hand over some control to China. US officials have been quick to distance themselves from the remarks, but there is growing concern about the billionaire’s ability to influence foreign affairs, and ultimately his business investments, by using Twitter’s clout to propagate his views.

Musk is by no means the first business executive to get entangled in diplomacy. Indeed, business leaders have previously been invited into diplomatic forums, as was the case when Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, and his Google counterpart Eric Schmidt attended the G8 in France in 2011.

Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist from Uganda, is a skillful operator in the new world of diplomacy

Moreover, CEOs are increasingly expected to speak out on issues ranging from climate change to equity, inclusion, and diversity, which requires growing engagement with stakeholders such as NGOs, trade unions, and civil rights groups.

Yet Musk’s ability to bypass traditional channels of diplomacy and use Twitter as a means to meddle in foreign affairs raises thorny questions about responsibility, and whether his actions can be disentangled from his own economic interests.

The concerns about accountability are not just limited to corporate actors. We shouldn’t romanticize civil society either. On the one hand, they can speak up on behalf of people’s values such as equality, the environment, or health. But they can also amplify narratives of self-interest and do so in a way that is divisive and polarizes the debate.

What new skills are needed?

Despite these challenges, I believe that there is an opportunity for states, corporations, and civil society groups to develop a symbiotic relationship of engagement where they seek to address the world’s growing problems – from the war in Ukraine to a deterioration in US-China relations, rising populism, inequality, and climate change – through a new type of diplomacy.

So, what kinds of skills and capabilities will be relevant for diplomats of the future and those business and civil society leaders that find themselves operating in spaces traditionally reserved for government attachés?

In this new world of diplomacy, players must be able to synthesize many existing diplomatic skills with the leadership attributes present in corporate and civil society. This will require a need to go beyond traditional diplomatic training that historically has put an emphasis on writing memos and communications.

Existing diplomatic skills that will remain crucial include an ability to contextualize. History is dynamic, and to understand where we currently are we need to first figure out how we got here and where we come from.

While the move into more informal diplomatic space – such as social media channels – will increase the informality of exchange, it is important that a certain professionalism remains

In addition, diplomacy will continue to be both a profession and an art, with the most successful diplomatic actors developing the instinct, intuition, and ability to read the room. They must be comfortable operating with a general sense of uncertainty and master how to build links and bridges with others, even when they don’t have all the information they need.

The language of diplomacy – which has long been a crucial factor in transcending regional codes of communication and allowing intermediaries to build a bridge, develop trust, and find common ground – will continue to play an important role. It allows intermediaries to identify meaning and learn how to give and take with a certain amount of flexibility while remaining firm on principle. While the move into more informal diplomatic space – such as social media channels – will increase the informality of exchange, it is important that a certain professionalism remains. You can’t just let loose on Twitter.

Just as business leaders will require a more nuanced understanding of geopolitics, diplomats can learn lessons from executives operating in the private sector.

For example, diplomats should hone their leadership skills and ability to work across teams in an engaging manner. Moreover, companies tend to move faster, which has intensified the pace of communication. By adopting the agility and the transformation ethos found in many companies, future diplomats may be able to throw off the bureaucracy that sometimes plagues government institutions.

Diplomacy will continue to be both a profession and an art, with the most successful diplomatic actors developing the instinct, intuition, and ability to read the room

Finally, the new diplomat will have to be very versatile. Many of the initiatives that are now being discussed by government committees and corporate boards were first raised by civil society groups that mobilized around a certain topic and pushed conversations on diversity, global health, and environmental destruction onto the global stage.  

As they engage with others, the modern diplomat needs to be able to move back and forth between different worlds and use these skills both internally within their entity and group and externally.

Creativity and humility

There are many examples of individuals who are already skillfully operating in this new world. We’ve also seen the emergence of many young leaders who have been able to connect local issues to the global conversation. A fine example is Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist from Uganda. She has raised awareness of the impact of climate change and rising temperatures in Africa and spearheaded a campaign to save Congo’s rainforests.

In conclusion, the old image of a diplomat as an agent of government is changing. We need to shake off the cliché that decision makers are heads of states or organizations. Diplomacy can now take place at a grassroots level within civil society and around the corporate boardroom. It is less of a job title and more of a mindset that requires creativity, but also a measure of humility and an understanding that we are acting in a wider world beyond simple, unique state interests. The change requires proper and respectful engagement based on knowledge that aims to bring institutions and people together rather than set them apart.

Authors

Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou

Deputy Director of the Graduate Institute

Mohamed Mahmoud Mohamedou is Deputy Director of the Graduate Institute, where he also serves as Professor of International History and Politics and Director of Executive Education. He holds a PhD in Political Science from City University New York.

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