Jiaqiao Xiang | January 30, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
Social Media and The New Age of Diplomacy
With the advent of mass communications and the Internet in the modern era, social media has rapidly transformed not only our social lives, but also political relations. On a global stage, political leaders and diplomats are increasingly using social media platforms to signal intentions and engage foreign counterparts. In the words of communications scholar David Bollier, “the internet and other information technologies are no longer a peripheral force in the conduct of world affairs but a powerful engine for change.” Crucially, beyond signaling political intentions, social media can construct effective platforms for dialogue, cooperation, and diplomacy by facilitating new processes of cultivating state identity and interstate recognition.
Where opportunities for traditional face-to-face diplomacy are limited, social media can become instrumental in opening dialogue and developing trust between states. According to international relations theorist Constance Duncombe, social media reflects and frames state identity in terms of how a state wishes to be recognized on the international stage, and “shifts in representational patterns communicated through social media during high-level negotiations [therefore] allow realizations of political possibilities for change.” A key illustration of this was the role of Twitter in realizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known colloquially as the Iran nuclear deal. Since the severing of diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran in 1980, there have been unlikely openings for rapprochement and few opportunities for high-level diplomatic interactions. Under both former presidential administrations, attempts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program involved formulaic threats of military invasion and harsh economic sanctions, all amounting to little success. The success of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 was hence as surprising as it was, and the outcome may in significant part be attributed to Twitter. Crucially, according to Duncombe, “Twitter use by Iranian state representatives allowed for recognition framed through positive representations of both Iran and the United States, a significant shift from previous Iranian representation–recognition dynamics. This shift indicates that political possibilities for change were evident before the deal was implemented and despite recurrent tensions during the negotiations.” In other words, through Twitter, representatives on both sides were able to reconstruct narratives of state identity based on themes of positive recognition, and thus shift the terms of negotiations from a zero-sum game to mutual benefit.
The key takeaway here is that social media is a medium for state recognition; it allows states to represent themselves in performative and persuasive ways to cultivate state identity, but in a way that seeks the affirmation and recognition of others. Essentially, how a state represents itself and recognizes others takes place in an inter-subjective and fluid process facilitated by social media, and this process can legitimize or rule out foreign policy possibilities. Through the transcendence of social media beyond space and time limitations of traditional diplomacy, new opportunities for dialogue, mutual recognition, and unprecedented cooperation can be constructed by being attuned to dynamic representations of state identity.
Yet social media is a struggle for recognition from many audiences, both domestic and foreign. Drawing support from one can come at the expense of another. Platforms for instantaneous, global communication are a powerful but double-edged sword in constructing both helpful and damaging state narratives. We need not look further than the White House to observe how social media has been leveraged to construct certain domestic political rhetoric that is detrimental to foreign relationships. Under the Twitter diplomacy of President Donald Trump, heated and hostile exchanges with foreign dignitaries have played out on public platforms for the world to see. From bickering bitterly with former Mexican President Vicente Fox over the construction of a border wall, to trading declarations of nuclear warfare with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump has used social media platforms to advance unorganized foreign policy in often crass, tactless, and damaging ways. Indeed, through Trump, the possibility of social media’s role in creating deeper division, increased hostility, and reduced possibilities both for diplomacy and international accountability are illustrated most starkly. Rather than strengthen representations of foreign policy and state recognition, social media can de-legitimize both on an international stage.
This is especially true in the case of U.S.-China relations, where social media has seemingly advanced a zero-sum narrative around an urgent and antagonistic battle for economic dominance and geopolitical control. Biting, fiery exchanges on social media platforms are one aspect of this larger political play, in which two global powers have positioned themselves distinctly to the rest of the world. On Twitter, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has reportedly urged state representatives to adopt a “fighting spirit” against the United States over the trade war and ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Under this strategy, Chinese diplomat Lijian Zhao has employed a tactic from the Soviet playbook of “whataboutism,” or focusing on U.S. problems to deflect from China’s. On Twitter, Zhao has positioned the United States as “unjust,” “inhumane,” and “hypocritical,” painting issues of racial discrimination and gun violence as “chronic diseases deeply rooted in U.S. society” and implicating China’s higher moral standing. The overtly aggressive tactics of Zhao seem to be a far departure from conventional Chinese diplomatic practices as of a decade ago, and signal new ways the state has attempted to capture social media to project China’s international image in relation to the United States. On his end, President Trump has in return leveraged Twitter to coarsely criticize and flippantly berate China for its currency devaluation, its stance on North Korea, and its backing out of a bilateral trade deal. Social media, on the whole, has replaced carefully worded diplomatic press statements of foreign policy positions, and in many cases, seemingly for the worse.
The transformative power of social media in world politics has increasingly been recognized, but remains under examined. As this new medium fundamentally changes the ways in which state identities are shaped and foreign policy conducted, we would do well to scrutinize the effects of social media in creating or limiting opportunities for diplomacy and global cooperation. Regardless, social media has ushered in a new age of diplomacy, and it is here to stay. The key question we are left with is how we can best counter its detrimental effects while leveraging its strengths.
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