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Digital diplomacy: international relations in the age of Trump

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore (Flickr: Creative Commons)

“Being nice to Rocket Man hasn't worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won't fail.”

Communication between foreign leaders and diplomats is facing a significant shift in the current political and technological environment. Traditional communication between diplomats takes both formal and informal means: official statements from heads of state, engaging in negotiations at summits, signalling through military action or economic sanctions. Recently, social media has emerged as a new form of political communication for leaders, which is producing mixed results.

One social media channel bringing possibilities for instant and direct communication of policies from leader to citizen is Twitter. But the early days of the Trump Administration illustrate the diplomatic challenges that may arise through its use.

A spat earlier in 2017 over a refugee resettlement deal between Australia and the US illustrates such pitfalls of digital diplomacy. After President Trump’s phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, there was speculation over whether or not the deal - which would resettle 1,200 refugees from Australia to America - was discussed. US officials’ response was inconsistent, before the Washington Post published an article revealing that the deal was a topic of tension during the call.

Later than day, President Trump tweeted “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!”. Likely fearing disruption to US-Australian relations, Senator John McCain immediately came out in support of the alliance, revealing fractures within the US government between Trump’s tweets and establishment foreign policy positions. The impact of this on US-Australian relations was minor, however greater challenges such as the threat of nuclear war are also heightened due to the President’s foreign policy tweeting.

More recently, President Trump has displayed on Twitter a lack of coherent strategy towards mitigating the threat of North Korea and the role China plays in this security dilemma. The President has responded to recent nuclear escalation from North Korea by criticising China for their inaction, to excusing China and Chinese President Xi Jinping for their failed attempts at assisting with North Korea, to again expressing disappointment at China’s inability to prevent North Korea’s most recent nuclear test. This culminated in Trump undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s attempts at engaging in diplomatic talks with Kim Jong Un’s government on Twitter. Besides the potential for inconsistency being equated as incompetence, these tweets, which must be taken as official statements of the President, raise significant questions for the future of American foreign policy.

The potential divergence between the positions articulated on President Trump’s Twitter account and the positions adopted by the US government presents interesting questions. How can the two be structurally reconciled? And how should other countries deal with this? It is perhaps too early in this administration to tell how these questions will play out, but in these first 10 months, there are some indications of the trajectory of US foreign policy as influenced by the President’s Twitter account.

First, perceptions of America as a global power and a reliable ally are likely to be diminished. The appearance of inconsistency between the President’s opinion and his administration’s apparent policy will cause allies and enemies alike to question the coherence of US foreign policy. There is no simple solution to this dilemma; Congress cannot simply start executing the President’s foreign policy as communicated on Twitter in the same way as if it were developed through public diplomacy. To do so could result in implementation of policies that ignore the institutional knowledge of the foreign policy and security establishments, as well the full implications of such policies on domestic interests.

And yet, inaction on the part of Congress could prove to be just as detrimental. Traditionally hostile states like Russia and North Korea will view discrepancies between the President and his government as an opportunity to strengthen its own well-defined foreign policy interests, while partners will be uncertain of where they stand with the US. As allegations of President Trump and his associates’ ties with Russia continue develop, and as the Presidents’ tweets oscillate between denying Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election campaign to foreign policy achievements made in partnership with Putin, the disunity between the White House and Congress will continue to project weakness to foreign powers. Thus, America’s lack of credible commitment will undermine its ability to project power through signalling.

Second, and following from this, diplomats are likely to face increasing difficulties in their posts. The uncertainty as to what constitutes official state policy, and the sporadic nature of President Trump’s outbursts will mean maintaining inter-state relations and negotiations in line with US positions at an individual- and domestic-level will be restricted.

For allies who tie their policies to the US, it will be difficult in this new era to gauge US policy and therefore difficult to set their own policy. Australia’s China policy, which has remained largely non-committal, and fluctuates between attempts to foster economic growth and maintaining close relations with the United States, reflects the difficulties in coordinating with an ally who is uncoordinated.

There is something to be said for using Twitter to protect and further the national interests of states as a new communication form through which diplomacy and international relations may be conducted. The immediacy of the medium provides an opportunity for politicians to communicate complex subjects like foreign policy in an accessible way. If digital diplomacy is to follow the current trajectory, however, it is likely to create new challenges for public diplomacy.

Isabella Gorrez holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, and will be completing her honours thesis in 2017.

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