Ambassadors can serve as important digital diplomacy assets. Given their high profile, Ambassadors are often able to attract more social media followers than embassies. Additionally, given their extraordinary and plenipotentiary status as government representatives, their online comments soon find their way to media reports. Indeed, an Ambassadorial tweet can spark controversy, or add new opinions and perspectives to ongoing debates. The French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, is but one example of an Ambassador whose tweets are often picked up by newspapers such as the New York Times.
MFAs have recently been occupied with the question of what should be done once an Ambassador ends his term. Should his social media account be handed over to his replacement? Or should he keep his social media account and take his followers with him to his next posting?
Another interesting question is how to handle the social media accounts of politically appointed Ambassadors who leave their post, and the MFA simultaneously. During their term as Ambassadors, these political appointees may have gathered a large social media following consisting of other diplomats, MFAs, journalists and foreign populations. The question that follows is should these former Ambassadors hand over their account to the MFA once their term ends?
This question was not pertinent in past decades. Indeed retired US Ambassadors often ended their terms and returned to relative obscurity. While some went on to think tanks, or become political pundits on news channels, the majority no longer held much relevance to diplomacy. Yet that is not necessarily the case in today’s digitized diplomacy.
A Relevant Example
Imagine for a moment that a US Ambassador to the UK left office with his social media following intact. Upon returning to the US, the former Ambassador goes on a twitter rant blaming the UK government for mishandling the special relationship with the US and suggesting that the UK’s diplomacy is as anachronistic as the monarchy. These tweets, seen by a host of UK based journalists who follow the former Ambassador online, immediately become a viral news item. Members of the government express their outrage at the former Ambassador’s comments while members of the opposition ask the FCO to lodge a formal complaint with the US State Department. This news item is especially embarrassing for the British PM who is just about to depart for a summit with the US President.
In this way, former Ambassadors may not only remain part of international diplomacy, they might also complicate it. While the example mentioned above might seem unrealistic, it is quite similar to a recent event in Israel.
On January 28, 2017, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu published the tweet below, apparently supporting Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border.
In response, former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote a series of tweets suggesting that the PM was undermining bi-partisan support of Israel in the US. The former Ambassador further alleged that Netanyahu had tweeted his support of the wall as part of a quid pro quo deal with the new US President. Finally, the former Ambassador criticised the PM’s decision to partake in such a heated, domestic, debate.
The former Ambassador’s tweets, and apparent condemnation of the Israeli PM, immediately become part of the Israeli news cycle. Barak Ravid, diplomatic reporter for the Haaretz newspaper, included Shapiro’s tweets in his analysis of the tensions between Israel and Mexico following Netanyahu’s support for the wall. Other newspaper, such as the Jerusalem Post, also reported on Shapiro’s tweets.
The tweet also garnered attention from US news outlets and reporters. American journalists Laura Rozen immediately asked the former Ambassador to elaborate on his argument that Netanyahu’s tweet was planned or even requested by Trump.
Given the close ties between the US and Israel, and Israel’s strategic reliance on the US, the former Ambassador’s tweets may have caused many Israelis to doubt their PM’s support of the Mexico wall. Moreover, Shapiro’s tweets would have provided ample ammunition for the Israeli opposition looking to unseat the PM.
Last month, Ambassador Shapiro also voiced support for the idea of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. This too immediately garnered attention from Israeli journalists (see tweet below) and may have enraged or mobilized Palestinian diplomats looking to prevent the move.
While the case of former Ambassador Shapiro is fascinating, he is by no means the only US Ambassador to keep tweeting.
US Ambassadors & Digital Footprints
Another US Ambassador who is still tweeting is Keith Harper, former US Ambassador to the UN in Geneva. Although Harper now uses his personal account, his profile image is still that of the UN while his user name is @AmbHarper. In recent weeks, Harper has used his account to express his opinions on a range of diplomatic issues ranging from the WHO to the Crimea crisis. But harper has also tweeted about the Trump administration’s policies as can be seen below.
This is also the case with former Secretary of State John Kerry who is still using the .@JohnKerry account. The former Secretary, who is followed by 2.63 million people, recently also criticized the new administration.
Other US Ambassadors have taken a different approach- urging their twitter followers to migrate with them to a new account. Such was the case with former US Ambassadors to the UN Susan Rice and Samantha Power who both invited twitter followers to migrate with them, only to use their new account to continue commenting on US and foreign policy related issues.
While the journalists and diplomats following Ambassadors Harper, Power and Rice are well aware that these have left office, they may still rely on the Ambassadors’ comments when analysing the political situation in the US, drafting policy papers for their MFAs or reporting on the new administration. Thus, the digital footprints of former diplomats may be quite substantial. This footprint also suggests that in the digital age, former Ambassadors may still prove relevant to bi-lateral and even multi-lateral diplomacy.
Where to next?
Digitalization has brought with it many diplomatic opportunities and challenges and MFAs throughout the world are still creating new policies to adapt to the digital age. The increased digital footprint of former Ambassadors may also warrant new policies. This is especially true in light of the fact that Ambassadors are often encouraged to use personal accounts for digital diplomacy purposes as these offer followers a “behind the scene” look into diplomacy. Thus, Ambassadors may leave their post with a large digital diplomacy following. The role of former Ambassadors demonstrates that digitalization can simplify, but also complicate, the practice of diplomacy.