In Defence of Twitter Diplomacy

On January 6, David Carment (Carleton Univ, @cdnfp) wrote a comment piece for The Embassy (a Canadian weekly and on-line paper focused on Canada’s international relations) that made a case for “Why Twitter Diplomacy Won’t Lead to Better Foreign Policy“.

As I’ve been very interested in the use of social media for professional purposes, including engagement with stakeholders for foreign policy, I wrote a bit of a rebuttal to this piece.

My rebuttal was published on-line by The Embassy as “In Defence of Twitter Diplomacy” on January 9.

Below is the text of my rebuttal.

David Carment  draws on years of experience in teaching, analyzing and contributing to foreign policy in Canada.  He laments two only loosely related developments: The first is the absence of a foreign policy under the Harper government. He is well-positioned to lament the lack of engagement with academic expertise on the part of the current Canadian political leadership. His comments are timely and deserve wider attention and consideration.

The second development that Carment examines is the putative rise of Twitter diplomacy, or a diplomacy that incorporates social media as an (increasingly central) tool for policy-makers in informing decisions, but also in addressing different stakeholders at home and abroad directly. Here too, Carment decries the absence of engagement between different participants in policy-analysis. While he is right in lamenting the lack of a “conversation” between government policy-makers and experts and their students, it is hardly the technology that is to blame for that.

Advocates of an intensified use of social media as a policy-analysis and policy-making tool point to different aspects: social media as a site for information gathering, for information dissemination, and for engagement. The first two aspects are essentially unidirectional communication and while social media and the information available at our fingertips via the public internet may increase the amount of data available, there may be nothing transformative about that.

It is the engagement where the promise lies and where Carment sees this promise as unfulfilled. In the absence of social media, policy-analysts were limited to deep engagement with a limited number of actors and voices. This is the situation that Carment describes as characterizing his past experience with DFAIT. Particularly given NPSIA’s location in Ottawa and its networks into the federal government I imagine that his portrayal is accurate and was to mutual benefit. Close interactions offered policy-makers efficient and extensive access to deep policy-analysis, and it allowed policy-analysts and academics access to the questions that were occupying policy-makers minds and their students access to learning experiences.

Yet, this approach also had clear limitations. A small number of deep interactions necessarily limit the overall number of interactions.

By contrast, social media hold the promise of offering policy-makers the possibility of hearing many more different perspectives, and tapping into information and analysis that may have been exceedingly difficult and costly to locate in the deep-but-limited-engagement world.

Clearly, the judgment on whether the potential for wider, faster, and more varied engagement will lead to an overall better foreign policy depends on perspective and will have to be reserved for future analyses. From my perspective, there are two aspects that I have experienced (not unlike Carment but in a different context) that do suggest some benefits to a wider engagement.

I am not a foreign policy specialist and I live and work in British Columbia, which removes me from the halls of the Pearson Building in two significant ways.  Yet, I have expertise to contribute to the formulation of Canada’s foreign policy based on my understanding of specific countries, their regional context and their relations with Canada (Japan and Mongolia in my case) and on a particular academic perspective (as a sociologist focused on public policy and institutions). This expertise does not make me an obvious choice for regular interactions with foreign policy-planning experts or strategic thinkers. But when my expertise can be of use, these policy-makers will have a much easier time drawing on this expertise through social media.

By providing expertise in a publicly accessible manner (in my case, primarily through blogs of various formats and tweets that point to these blog contributions, though this accessibility is platform-agnostic and the tools will surely change over coming years) policy-makers have the opportunity to gather information on specific topics more efficiently (thus Carment’s and my DFATD followers on Twitter who are perhaps primarily monitoring rather than engaging), but also to know where to turn when the need for deeper expertise arises.

For me, as a provider of policy-analysis, social media offer the same information-gathering and communication opportunities, but they also lead to deeper, but specific engagement in areas of my specific expertise that would not have occurred in earlier periods.

The same arguments would apply even more to NGOs who address topics of occasional focus for policy-making. Their voices can be heard much more efficiently when policy-makers are able to scan them on an on-going basis and to draw on them directly, ideally engaging in deep conversations at that moment, when the time comes.

Carment is right, of course, that the contributions to improving foreign policy through such wider or more specific engagement presuppose a desire on the part of policy-makers to be informed. I see that desire clearly with DFATD officials and even with individual Conservative policy-makers. On the whole, however, the public impression that the government makes is very much in line with what Carment describes, namely of a lack of interest in subject-matter expertise. The absence of a broader conversation between the government and experts (or the public) thus is also likely to preclude the benefits of an intensified engagement that might come through social media.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
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