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The pertinence and perils of twiplomacy

turkey 300x225 The pertinence and perils of twiplomacy

The recent protests in Turkey (Getty Images)

In the midst of the recent upheaval in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan has called Twitter the worst ‘menace’ to society. To be sure, these still hold, and while diplomats have stepped out of the halls of power and into the real world long ago, they now have to step into the virtual world ‘where the wild things are’ as well, if they want to be an effective force of good for their country. The tumultuous advent of Twitter and other social media have only underscored that reality. Governments will have to adapt to the fact that ‘everyone talks to everyone all the time about everything’ and adapt.

This is especially true for diplomacy and diplomats. Speaking about diplomacy the wily French Foreign Minister Talleyrand (1754- 1838) famously remarked: “surtout pas trop de zêle” (above all, not too much zeal). For diplomats living in a world where a mere word can send global markets reeling within seconds or give rise to violence on the streets ‘not too much zeal’ simply won’t do.

In his book Diplomacy (1939) Harold Nicolson lists truthfulness, precision, calm and modesty as essential characteristics for any diplomat. To be sure, these still hold, only now diplomats have to step out of the halls of power and into the real and virtual world ‘where the wild things are’ if they want to be an effective force of good for their country.

For starters, diplomats must link onto the vast social networks and tap into the societies they work in. There is simply no excuse for any diplomat not to better understand the people and their issues in real-time, unfiltered by media or the elite circles they naturally move in.

It becomes a bigger challenge, however, to effectively engage with the public, at home or abroad, through social media, for it is an illusion to believe that somehow once online, magically people will embrace their messages.

Furthermore, to get a good and relevant following on the web one needs to be interesting and fast as the speed of light. But simply aiming at thousands of followers cannot be the sole objective, for if that were the case one should turn to @JustinBieber for diplomatic advice.

And once diplomats enter the digital fray they can be accused of interfering in the domestic affairs of foreign states. Egyptian president Morsi was not amused when the US embassy in Cairo needled him on human rights via Twitter.

Finally, without a proper mission and a resonating message social media, like diplomacy, are simply tools to make more noise. Twiplomacy then becomes like a tap-dancing act in the tube during rush-hour: people will glance, but do they care?

So while fostering Harold Nicolson’s essential characteristics in a vortex of voices and engaging the world at large, diplomats must add something new to their trade: authenticity.

Dull facts won’t cut it online. Diplomats must offer alternative inspirational and authentic narratives to combat lies and myths that spawn and multiply on social media.

The new Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans – an avid Facebook user – is convinced of this. On his first day of office he encouraged his diplomats to challenge him in a continuous battle of wits and to get online and engage with current and new constituencies. He added that he would take full political responsibility for any possible fall out.

Dutch diplomats are taking up his challenge, and as we heed the perils and learn from mistakes, we are working hard to modernize and sustain our age old craft: for at the end of the day, despite the persistent notion than anyone can be a successful diplomat, diplomacy remains a specialization. There will be no substitute for ‘being there’, shaking hands and looking each other in the eye.

Talleyrand’s era with its luxury of time and seclusion is long gone. Now we truly belong to an ever smaller world, online, at the negotiating tables, in the streets, everywhere; whilst knowing our partners, learning to understand our foes and overcoming new challenges. And that’s exactly where we have to be.

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