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Nearly 100 years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt once suggested, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” In the social media age, that aphorism should be updated to “Carry a big stick and speak loudly on Twitter.” The days of behind-the-scenes diplomacy are over, thanks to Donald Trump’s recent embrace of Twitter as a very public way to change U.S. foreign policy literally overnight.
Diplomatic Twitter feuds
Consider just the amazing number of Twitter feuds that have erupted ever since Trump became the President-elect. The current spat, of course, is over North Korea and its presumptive testing of an ICBM capable of reaching the United States. Trump not only tweeted out “It won’t happen” – he also took China to task for not clamping down on its neighbor more effectively.
But it’s not just North Korea. Think about the brouhaha that erupted over America’s Israel policy in the waning days of 2016. This was the case with Donald Trump and Barack Obama when they took to social media to shape U.S. foreign policy. Apparently, any time Obama made a move that’s perceived as anti-Israel, Trump will fire back with pro-Israel tweets.
Oh, and what about Russia? The tit-for-tat sanctions that Obama leveled against Russia for its alleged cyber hacking of the 2016 election has also led to a lively debate on Twitter. Trump has even gone so far as to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin for his delayed response to U.S. sanctions (“Great move on delay by V. Putin – I always knew he was very smart!”).
The disruption of diplomacy
What we are witnessing is no less than the disruption of diplomacy. In previous eras, foreign policy was a delicate process that took years – if not decades – to articulate. Foreign policy took place behind closed doors, and nobody except a few highly-placed officials actually knew what was happening.
In the 18th century, couriers on horseback were dispatched across nations with diplomatic pouches filled with sensitive messages for another monarch or royal court to review. In the early 19th century, the telegraph disrupted long-distance communication and enhanced the ability for nations to communicate. In the late 19th century, the invention of the telephone made it possible for world leaders to talk via phone. And the invention of the airplane in the 20th century meant that diplomats could fly overnight to any “hot spot” in the world to talk face-to-face.
And now, in the 21st century, we are seeing how social media is disrupting diplomacy. It seems now that the President and Secretary of State need to have a firm grasp of social media if they want to articulate U.S. foreign policy. Why wait years for Congressional approval to change America’s Taiwan policy when you can do so with a single tweet?
The question, really, is how much credence other world leaders should place in a single tweet. If Donald Trump tweets out that he plans to increase the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons in the morning, can he disavow that tweet on the evening cable TV talk shows? If the President says one thing on social media, but the State Department says another, which one should we accept as the new policy?
In the next four years, everything you thought you knew about the world might change, thanks to social media. The Americans and Russians might be friends, the U.S. and Israel might be enemies, and just about any “tin pot dictator” in the world (yes, North Korea, we’re looking at you) can suddenly become a relevant player on the world stage just by sending out a nasty tweet at 2 am in the morning.