Monday, 12 December 2016

Twitter Diplomacy: Preliminary thoughts on the Trump-Tsai phone call

First, a confession. I have no intention to engage here with the Tsai-Trump telephone conversation because I genuinely do not know what to make of it ... yet. I have avoided writing something since the news broke because I wanted to avoid joining the cacophony of experts, non-experts, and self-styled experts, all of whom had "something to say". I am struggling to identify the call's impact beyond its success in polarising global opinion and propelling Taiwan to the front pages. I have been advising Taiwan for 20 years how to raise its profile; Trump does it for them literally overnight, though it is a shame that this new and prominent discussion about Taiwan in the media is still framed in terms of cross-Strait relations. I believe there will only be reason to rejoice once Taiwan is reported in the news as a successful democracy and without mention of China. It is possible to argue that at least this attention raises awareness of Taiwan and forces a debate that would otherwise not occur. But how much of the media coverage actually contextualises the 'One China policy' or other intricacies of Taipei's relationship with Washington DC and Beijing? Is uninformed debate better than no debate at all?

Which brings me to Twitter ...  

As soon as the phone conversation between PEOTUS Donald Trump and President Tsai Ing-wen was announced, making the front pages of news media that otherwise ignore Taiwan as a matter of routine, the Twitterverse exploded with "experts" on Taiwan and China crawling out from the woodwork. The great thing about social media is that they give everyone a voice and every opinion counts. The problem with social media is that they give everyone a voice and every opinion counts. Reconciling this is a challenge we have yet to address in a meaningful way. Twitter especially encourages knee-jerk immediate reactions and uninformed debate, and Taiwan's political elite were wise to avoid responding prematurely to the outpouring of public opinion at home and abroad. For many Taiwanese - and some Taiwan watchers - Trump is suddenly a hero, while a more cautious and long-term perspective of the consequences for Taiwan of a Trump presidency is warranted. Taiwan's political elites need to reduce popular expectations at home, for Taiwan is heading at best towards disappointment or, at worst, something far more frightening to contemplate.                

Of course the telephone has long been used as an instrument of high-level diplomacy following the creation of the famous 'hotline' between the White House and Kremlin in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. Moreover, the media have also been a method of open diplomatic communication, as demonstrated by my research on international radio broadcasting in the Cold War (Radio Diplomacy and Propaganda). The role played by the Voice of America and Radio Moscow in helping resolve the Cuban missile crisis is perhaps the most well-known.  What has changed, of course, is the development of the Internet, social media, and both the speed at which information flows, and the expansion of voices heard in every conversation.

There are other concerns.

It is clear that Donald Trump has yet to make the transition from private citizen to President Elect of the US and potentially the most powerful political actor in the world. He needs to learn, and to learn very quickly, that whatever he now says or does will have repercussions - intended or otherwise. A President Elect cannot and should not make and announce policy via Twitter; and when your discussion with another leader will be judged provocative, there are diplomatic protocols to follow. President Nixon was accused of making foreign policy in the Oval Office, bypassing the State Department. Will Trump be a Twitter President? Such behaviour undermines American public diplomacy activity and challenges US soft power at a time when their protection is more urgent than ever given the global uncertainty of what a Trump presidency actually means. Public diplomats should not have to spend their time explaining to audiences what the President Elect actually meant or intended in a Tweet.        

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