Are World Leaders Arriving at COP21 as King Diplomats?

NOTE: This blog first appeared on


In a fascinating article published in 2015, scholar Piki Ish-Shalom argued that world leaders have begun to take charge of the routine workings of diplomacy rather than limiting their involvement in diplomacy to times of crises. According to Ish-Shalom, world leaders are now King Diplomats.

King Diplomats have long since migrated to social media. Nowadays, national leaders often have a personal social media account which is separate from official profiles managed by foreign ministries. Such accounts may be used in order to converse with online audiences, frame government action and increase a nation’s visibility on the world stage through the mass appeal of the world leader. The Vatican state, for instance, has risen to diplomatic prominence in part due to the popularity of Pope Francis.

Of course the question that arises is can world leaders use social media to achieve diplomatic goals, be it during routine or during diplomatic summits such as the COP21. In order to answer this question, I decided to evaluate the extent to which world leaders are followed on twitter by four target audiences which influence international diplomacy: other world leaders, foreign ministries, embassies to the UN in New York and the press.

My first analysis examined the extent to which world leaders now follow one another on social media. Using a sample of the twitter accounts of 89 world leaders, I discovered that the average leader is followed by just 5 of his peers.  Moreover, I was able to analyse which world leaders are most popular among their peers. These may be seen in the table below.


As can be seen in the table, the world leader most followed by his peers is the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron followed by the US’s Barack Obama. I should note that this is the first time in three years’ of digital diplomacy research that another world leader has surpassed the US President in terms of popularity among other world leaders.  The above table also demonstrates a phenomenon I call social media mobility in which leaders from smaller nations may use social media to increase their online visibility. Leaders of the Lithuania, South Africa and Belgium are amongst the most followed by their peers out preforming leaders from nations with greater populations or higher GDP. The table also demonstrates the popularity of world leader from Latina and South America (Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) as well as the high diplomatic visibility of Pope Francis.  However, world leaders are not avid followers of one another.

Next I calculated the number of foreign ministries following the world leaders in my sample. Using a sample of 69 foreign ministries throughout the world, I found that the average world leader is followed by an average of 7 foreign ministries. The leaders most followed by foreign ministries are shown in the table below.


As can be seen in the table above, David Cameron and US President Obama are the two world leaders most followed by foreign ministries (MFAs). Yet as was the case in the previous analysis, Cameron out preforms Obama. In addition, this table also demonstrates a form of social media mobility as the leaders of Croatia, Lithuania and Rwanda out preform leaders from much larger countries. Two world leaders who attract many MFAs are Israel’s PM Netanyahu and President Rouhani of Iran. MFAs may follow these leaders given their influence on regional and global diplomacy. Finally, as was the case before, Pope Francis remains one of the most followed world leaders on social media.

My next analysis focused on mission to the UN in New York. Using a sample of 57 missions I found that the average world leader is followed by a mere 1.96 mission to the UN. This suggests that world leaders do not attract many followers from this major hub of diplomacy. World leaders who attract the most UN mission may be seen in the table below.


Interestingly, while Barack Obama is the most followed world leader in the category, David Cameron lags relatively far behind attracting only 7 UN missions as opposed to Obama’s 15 missions. In addition, this table demonstrates the rising diplomatic importance of Iran as President Rouhani is the third most followed leader by UN missions. Finally, this table again demonstrates social media mobility given the relatively high number of UN missions following the leaders of Botswana, Afghanistan, Croatia, Lithuanian and Rwanda.

Finally, I analysed the amount of news organizations (including radio, television, print, new agencies) following world leaders on twitter. This was achieved using a sample of 520 news organizations throughout the world. The average world leader is followed by 13 news organizations.  This figure suggests that world leaders are mostly followed by news organizations and not diplomatic institutions thus attesting to their role of King Diplomats. The most followed world leaders appear in the table below.


In this parameter, Barack Obama rules supreme attracting by far the largest number of news organizations. He is followed by Pope Francis again a testament to the Pope’s growing status as a Diplomatic Celebrity. Iran and Israel’s leaders also attract many organizations which is not surprising given the amount of news coverage these nations attract. What is surprising is the amount of organizations that follow Rwanda’s leader online and the number of Latin and South American countries to appear in the table (Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico).  In fact, leaders from S. America seem to dominate this table.

In summary, it appears that word leaders are indeed becoming King Diplomats. While they attract small numbers of diplomatic institutions, they are routinely followed by news organizations thus increasing their visibility and possible influence over diplomatic affairs. Moreover, world leaders from smaller nations (Rwanda, Greece) may use their media popularity in order to increase the diplomatic visibility of their nation.

For world summits like COP21, the high media attention paid to leaders ensures that issues like climate change are extensively reported in the news, as are the achievements and agreements reached during such summits. Yet the question remains are world leaders are also practical diplomats? Their lack of ability to attract large numbers of MFAs and missions to the UN suggests that even in the age of Kings, diplomatic institutions such as foreign ministries and embassies remain relevant for the day to day routine working of international diplomacy which are sure to begin once the leaders fly home, the dust settles and transnational agreements begin to be translated into policy.

Want to keep the conversation going? Join us for Israel’s First Digital Diplomacy Conference. More here

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