The language of diplomacy in the 21st century comes in all shapes and sizes, ranging from carefully parsed press releases to confrontational tweets to diplomatic doublespeak that only the author could possibly understand.
Diplomats from Western nations, particularly the United States, tend to be more cautious and less frank in their public statements compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world, especially the developing world. But as the world knows thanks to WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and the intelligence agencies that have bugged the phones of diplomats and world leaders, the gloves come off and diplomatic niceties are dropped in private communications and cables back to headquarters. Why the disparity between blunt private talk and vanilla public statements? And why are diplomats in some parts of the world seemingly more “undiplomatic” than others?
Not much more than a decade ago, diplomats could conduct an interview with a news outlet and safely assume that whatever they said would probably not reverberate far beyond the geographic scope of that media outlet. If they made a mistake, the fallout was manageable, and if they wanted to target different messages to different audiences, they could say one thing in one country and another thing someplace else, content in the knowledge that no one would probably be the wiser. But with the explosive growth of the internet, especially social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, those dynamics are no longer in play. So caution is the name of the game, much like it is for today’s elected politicians.
“In this information environment, what is said in Las Vegas, doesn’t stay in Las Vegas,” said P.J. Crowley, a professor at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at the George Washington University, who previously served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs from 2009 to 2011. “What you say over there can now be reported over here in a matter of minutes. It’s changed the nature of how governments communicate.”
Crowley said this new landscape has caused some governments to be more cautious because there isn’t a single information environment.
“It’s harder to deliver a single message that will resonate at home and abroad,” he said.
One rash statement, uttered anywhere in the world, can go viral in minutes, thanks in large part to Twitter, but that doesn’t mean that blunt, undiplomatic talk has gone the way of the typewriter. Leaders and diplomats from Ukraine and Russia have traded barbs for months; Israeli and Palestinian diplomats fling accusations back and forth in a not-so-friendly version of ping pong diplomacy; and every year at the U.N. General Assembly, a handful of world leaders makes headlines by denouncing the U.S. and/or Israel using language more appropriate for a barroom than the world’s preeminent intergovernmental organization.
Officials from smaller countries, particularly those in the developing world, have less layers of bureaucracy to filter their thoughts, and sometimes they have to resort to using blunt statements to get attention. For example, at a climate change forum in Copenhagen in 2009, Mohamed Nasheed, then president of the Maldives, encouraged protesters to hold world powers accountable for climate change and suggested that his country might disappear if dramatic steps weren’t taken to reverse climate change. “We refuse to be quiet,” he warned in an impassioned speech.
“If you’re a small country, you’re trying to get the attention of the larger powers,” explained Crowley. “The squeaky-wheel theory applies here. You try to jump up and down to see if you can get larger powers to pay attention to your concern.”
Some leaders from the Middle East and sub-Sahara Africa, like François Bozizé, the former president of the Central African Republic, for example, have even resorted to expressing full-blown fears that terrorists were operating with impunity within their borders to court aid and attention from Western powers. Christopher Paul, a senior social scientist at the Rand Corporation and the author of several books and articles on strategic communications, said that anything goes in the competition for attention and resources.
“The reality of the digital era is that there is only so much attention available, so anyone who is making pronouncements is competing for attention,” he said. “Even President Obama can have a hard time competing for attention.”
Colum Lynch, a veteran diplomatic correspondent who is currently a U.N. reporter at Foreign Policy, says there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to diplomatic communications. Lynch said that if you follow the tweets of diplomats like Gérard Araud, France’s permanent representative to the United Nations who recently became its ambassador in Washington, or Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s ambassador to the U.N., you’d find surprisingly candid commentary on even the most controversial issues.
“They are more willing to engage openly,” he said, referring to European diplomats like Araud and Lyall Grant compared to their American counterparts. “For example, Lyall Grant agreed to take a 20-question ‘stump the British ambassador’ quiz I put together. I think he got 18 out of 20 right — he cleaned house. Would an American diplomat agree to an unscripted quiz like that? I don’t think they would.”
The fact that private citizens can engage with diplomats like Araud and Lyall Grant on Twitter illustrates how social media is changing the nature of communications in the digital era. But Twitter and sites like it also raise the stakes for government officials because now if they slip up, their comments can ricochet across the world in moments. So has Twitter actually made some governments even more guarded in their communication strategies
“There is some truth to the notion that governments are becoming a little more cautious in what they say in public because anything they say now can have more reach in ways it might not have before,” Crowley said. “A source of power in the past has been the ability for governments to control the flow of information. But that has become a harder thing to do in the age of global communications and ubiquitous media.”
Paul said that government officials may be more reticent in part due to Twitter, but pointed out that social media has also given diplomats an incentive to practice and give more consideration to what they say. Lynch believes that Twitter has “opened things up,” enabling avenues of communication that would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago.
One point that nearly everyone agrees on is that the U.S. State Department is at the conservative end of the caution vs. candor spectrum of diplomatic communications. American diplomats routinely have to obtain clearances through multiple layers of bureaucracy before they utter anything of a substantive nature, and caution tends to be an ingrained part of the culture at Foggy Bottom. Crowley says this dynamic is at least partly explained by the fact that the United States carries so much responsibility as the world’s lone superpower.
“For the larger powers, there is no shortage of things you can do, but there is a limit to the resources you have at your disposal,” he said. “So you tend to take a more tempered response because you’re trying to figure out what’s the capacity to handle a crisis over here and if I deal with this crisis over here, what about that one over there? The more strident your response, the more you may be pushed to take ownership of that crisis and that’s something that larger powers are cautious about doing. That’s why some players will be louder and others will be more cautious in their responses.”
This dynamic also helps to explain why the United States has sometimes refrained from or been late in using words like “genocide” to describe atrocities in various parts of the world.
“If we stand up and use strong language and say something is wrong, then there is an expectation that us or our allies will do something about it,” Paul said. “Whereas a small country lacking powerful allies could use strong language but there isn’t the expectation that they are going to mobilize resources to solve the problem.”
Paul said that officials from large, important countries like Russia might also be willing to shoot from the hip more than Western countries because they aren’t as concerned about credibility as much as their counterparts in the West are.
“Credibility does not appear to be a priority for Russia given the large number of demonstrably fallacious statements that have recently come out of various official and unofficial Russian spokespersons,” he said.
Crowley noted that American caution could also be explained by our partisan political environment, where any message can be used for political gain by the other party. In the 2012 presidential election, for example, Republicans used tweets sent by the American Embassy in Cairo — which were meant to calm Egyptians who were angry about an anti-Islamic film — to attack President Obama for supposedly being soft on militant Islamists. And, of course, the United States isn’t the only country were partisan politics influence diplomatic communications. In many parts of the world, vilifying the U.S. is good politics.
The state-controlled media in North Korea recently referred to President Obama as a “wicked black monkey” (Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi once made a racist joke about Obama being “tanned” as well). Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, said in 2003 and again in 2012 that Israel controlled the United States and rules the world by proxy. And top officials in Venezuela, Iran and a host of other countries have made a habit of attacking American leaders and policies to score points at home.
While American diplomats might lead the world in caution and restraint when it comes to public statements, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and leaked recordings of phone calls at Foggy Bottom have shown us that they are much more candid and colorful in their private communications.
Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., reportedly told Araud, France’s representative, regarding potential airstrikes in Libya in 2011: “You’re not going to drag us into your shitty war.” (She later claimed credit for the campaign.) Russian intelligence services apparently bugged the phone of Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who was caught on tape in February saying “fuck the EU” while talking with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine about the European Union’s ability to mediate the Ukraine crisis, reinforcing the perception that America was brazenly meddling in that country’s internal affairs. (She later credited Russian intelligence for their tradecraft but didn’t take back what she said.) And even President Obama, caught unknowingly on an open mic during a 2012 conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, was heard rather bluntly promising that he’d have more “space” to negotiate on missile defense after he was re-elected.
“Secrets aren’t what they used to be,” said Crowley. “Something you say or write could have a much larger audience than you envisioned.”
Lynch said that leaks are a fact of life at the United Nations.
“There aren’t a lot of real secrets; people take for granted that what they are saying will be picked up by someone,” he told us. “After a revelation there might be a higher degree of sensitivity — people won’t want to talk on the phone for a bit — but then eventually things go back to the way it was before.”
Whether these incidents will cause American diplomats to become even more cautious and on-message remains to be seen. But is there a danger that if America’s diplomatic communiqués become too choreographed and dull, that the media and public will simply tune out?
“There is that danger that if everything is scripted and nothing more than talking points, the message loses credibility,” Paul said. “From a government perspective, it’s about aligning your actions and utterances so you’re being consistent. But there’s a range between being a robot that repeats talking points and a loose-cannon approach where everyone says whatever they want. Somewhere between those two points is where you want to be.”
About the Author
Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.