Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wakie, wakie everybody John Baird is about to tweet!

The rise of Twiplomacy: What Canada can learn from Hillary Clinton

U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton is showing the diplomatic world how to boost its influence, 140 characters at a time. But where are Canada’s tweets? Renee Filiatrault makes the case for Twitter as a perfect medium for a middle power.
While Hillary Clinton uses Twitter for serious diplomacy the blogosphere has had fun with this photo imagining what's she's writing at texts from hillaryclintontumbir.com (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)

In late 2005, I found myself in Afghanistan, working for the defence minister at the time as director of communications. I quickly became acquainted with the frustration of trying to communicate effectively through the noise of suicide bombs and high-profile attacks. I talked about it with the veteran diplomat Glyn Berry, whose response was simple: Communication matters, and you must keep trying.

He was killed shortly after that by a car bomb, and I would often recall his optimism, especially during my own posting years later as a public diplomacy officer in Kandahar. Countless people such as Berry are employed here in Canada and abroad, working on behalf of our country’s international interests. Their work still matters. And — even better — we now have a whole set of new tools to communicate that work. The trick is convincing those in charge that we should be using them.

Last week was a typical period for American diplomacy. On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad used the social network site Twitter to say “Today’s [Express Tribune] article saying U.S. is willing to cede Afghan territory to Haqqani network is categorically false.” By doing so, in fewer than 140 characters, the United States publicly shoved the notorious Haqqani insurgent network squarely back in its place on what NATO calls the “information battleground.” Tuesday, just as directly, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice tweeted “Assad has been willing to destroy entire communities to cling to power.” Rice also attached a map detailing numbers and locations of those fleeing internal violence in Syria.

The next day, acting Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller launched an initiative on Twitter to explore the use of open source technologies — including social networking — into the verification of arms control and non-proliferation treaties. Finally, on a much lighter note, the U.S. ambassador to NATO tweeted a photo of his hand in a cast with a joke that he is tweeting too much. He also received a question from a reporter and responded within the hour.

In short, there has been a steady stream of tweets from highly placed U.S. diplomats and it’s been happening for some time. Not only are they asking (and answering) tough questions, but they’re exploring new ideas and being surprisingly blunt.

Labelled “Twiplomacy,” this is part of what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls smart power: using the full range of new tools to protect U.S. interests and leverage influence abroad — including through public diplomacy and social media sites.

Clinton early on made it clear she expects innovative but tough-minded diplomacy to apply pressure and exert leverage in every way possible during her administration. During her nomination hearing, she explained that smart power includes working with military and aid partners as a core pillar of the development, diplomacy, defence trifecta — the 3D approach familiar to many Canadians.

But it takes it further by incorporating work with private, non-government actors and “using modern technologies for public outreach: empowering negotiators who can protect U.S. interests while understanding those of negotiating partners.” Clearly she has kept her word.

A report last month that studied world leaders on Twitter, by the Geneva-based firm Burson-Marsteller, illustrated how the social messaging service is closing the gap between world leaders and the rest of us.

Burson-Marsteller CEO Jeremy Galbraith said: “This study illustrates how Twitter is news to an ever-growing audience. On the other hand, it allows citizens direct access to their leaders.”

The report also pointed out some limitations. Many leaders have the tool but don’t use it. Clinton clearly wants her state department staff to use it. Every diplomat from the entry-level foreign service officer to ambassador must get training in social media. The state department now hosts almost 200 twitter feeds.

Foreign policy traditionalists fear that this new media approach is a threat to classic diplomacy, which is focused on relationship building. Those fears are unfounded. Clinton herself is the most-travelled secretary of state in history, so clearly she values the ‘face to face’ now more than ever.

The fact that she is incorporating every possible tool means that the U.S. Department of State is maximizing the benefits of an era of instant communication.

It is also something ideal for Canada to be doing.

Yet while a few innovative foreign service officers at Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department are engaging on Twitter, it is largely ad hoc. In other words, there is no clear expectation that it will be done, within a broader strategy. There should be. In many ways, Twiplomacy is made for Canada. Our history as a middle power has been built by leveraging our weight diplomatically, developmentally and militarily through niche capabilities. Optimizing our voice through strategic public diplomacy is in many ways “the Canadian way” — a new capability for the honest broker. It could have surprising leverage.

American arms control undersecretary Gottemoeller explained how arms control monitoring and social networking could intersect. “Today, any event, anywhere on the planet, could be broadcast globally in seconds. That means it is harder to hide things.

When it is harder to hide things, it is easier to be caught. The neighbourhood gaze is a powerful tool and it can help us make sure that countries are following the rules of arms control and treaties and agreements.”

While there are inevitable technical and legal barriers to prevent governments, for example, from extracting information without citizens’ knowledge, or to ensure citizens are protected from reproach, the neighbourhood gaze idea must be considered. Osama bin Laden proved that some of the biggest secrets are hiding in the cold light of day. In what diplomats call the “great game,” the benefit of using open-source information and technology to add to our outreach seems obvious.

We already have the training. If Afghanistan taught us anything, it is that the Taliban multiplied the effects of targeting high-profile targets via news networks — in some cases calling reporters directly during attacks. I witnessed this every day when I was based in Kandahar.

But on one good day, the Taliban spokesperson prematurely announced their list of targets beforehand, a mistake the media naturally exploited, removing the element of surprise.

The tactical advantage that can be gained is easy to see. But the lesson of situational awareness and timing should not be lost in the civilian world. Obviously, the stakes are not usually that high in a peaceful context. But whether dealing with enemy or ally, in an era of influence, knowing who and what information to pay attention to and what to ignore is crucial.

As Clinton herself says, “smart power requires reaching out to both friends and adversaries, to bolster old alliances and forge new ones.” The world of technology is giving us tools, and we should use them. If ambassadors are not able to do this, Canada’s valuable voice risks being lost in the noise. Kandahar cut our teeth and we now know better how to cut through the noise.

Minus the urgency of war, however, it will be in some ways more challenging and requires a push. New media requires bureaucracies to be something they are not (but war rooms tend to be): fast, brief and direct.

It also requires trust and delegated authority, which do not currently exist at Foreign Affairs. Saying what you mean also takes risk and leadership, particularly if you have the harder argument and no control over how it will be perceived by an already unconvinced audience.

But one-time diplomat and inventor Ben Franklin, whose printing presses expedited news services in his era the way Twitter does today (and welcomed by some with similar suspicion) said it like this, “As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence.”

Renee Filiatrault served as Senior Public Diplomacy Officer in Afghanistan with Task Force Kandahar from 2009-2010. Before that, she served two ministers of National Defence. She is a regular commenter on foreign and defence matters.


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