Is the Backstage of Diplomacy Disappearing?

20th Century Diplomacy

For most of the 20th Century, diplomacy was practiced behind iron curtains. While diplomats would often pose for photo opportunities, such photographs were taken before and after their meetings. The diplomatic deliberations themselves took place within the inner sanctums of great palaces or behind the closed doors of historic halls. It was thus possible to distinguish between the stage of diplomacy, the area in which diplomacy is depicted, and the backstage of diplomacy, the area in which diplomacy is practiced.

The invasion of communication technologies into the backstage of diplomacy began to occur during the 1960s. It was in this decade that television cameras first enabled viewers to see diplomacy in action. Consider for instance the televised broadcast of the diplomatic dual between Adlai Stevenson and Valeiran Zorin. Stevenson’s revelation of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba stunned both the diplomats at the UN, and the viewers of the evening news.

While the media’s intrusion into diplomacy’s backstage continued during the 1970s-1990s, it was always manipulated by diplomats. If they felt that the presence of cameras might aid their diplomatic efforts, cameras were allowed behind closed doors. If diplomats thought cameras might curtail diplomatic efforts, they were left outside the room. As such, the media and the television cameras became a tool for applying diplomatic pressure. Consider the video below in which James Baker openly attacks the Israeli delegation to the 1991 Madrid peace talks knowing full well that his rebuke would make its way to Washington, Jerusalem and other capitals within hours.

Two events at the end of the 1990’s tipped the balance of power against diplomats. The first was the surge in popularity of CNN during the first Gulf War. The birth of a global 24 hour news cycle that is always hungry for stories, drama and images meant that the media would invade, rather than sneak into, the backstage of diplomacy. The second was the birth of the Web and the global proliferation of ICTs.

21st Century Diplomacy

What began in the 1990s, came of age in the 2000s. Television cameras began to populate diplomatic meeting halls as the stage of diplomacy grew larger and larger. The question was no longer “will the UN deliberation be videotaped” but, rather, “can we get the cameras out?” To accommodate the narrowing of the backstage of diplomacy, and tame the media’s hunger, diplomats and world leaders provided television cameras with sneak peaks- orchestrated and spontaneous moments in which the iron curtains of diplomacy were lifted and the voyeur was allowed a glimpse at the inner working of negotiations.

Consider, for instance, the image below depicting a mediated dialogue between Israeli PM Ehud Barak, US President Bill Clinton and the Syrian Foreign minister. Taken in 1999, the image was orchestrated so that the media could witness diplomacy in the making, and report on it. Yet neither journalists nor cameras were allowed backstage, or within the actual negotiating room.


This is also the case with video below, depicting a friendly struggle between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat during the 2000 Camp David negations. Here the media is offered a spontaneous and surprising moment, one that can run for hours on CNN or CNBC.

As long as the media’s appetite could be curbed, so could diplomats maintain their backstage. However, the greatest challenge to diplomats came with the advent of social media and web 2.0 applications. The networked society is a sharing society. To be active on Facebook means to document your life and to document your life means sharing events, disappointments, ideas, feeling and thoughts. It means sharing private information and accepting transparency.

It is within this sharing society that diplomacy is now practiced and it is this sharing society that has caused diplomats to further life the iron curtains of diplomacy.

However, in order to maintain control over their exposure, diplomats have partly taken on the role of the media. Ambassadors, embassies and MFAs now live tweet and live Facebook from within diplomatic negotiations. They tweet images of world leaders, they Facebook comments made by other diplomats in the room and they publish videos of their addresses.

Consider for instance the tweets below, published during the Geneva 2 summit nearly three years ago. These tweets offered followers information on the parties in the room, the proposals being discussed and comments made by various diplomats.

By publishing such tweets, and providing a glimpse into the backstage of diplomacy, MFAs and diplomats were able to partake in the sharing society, while still limiting the exposure of diplomacy to the outside world. It was, to an extent, a compromise between diplomacy’s traditional need for secrecy and the modern need for transparency.

Today’s Diplomacy

Today, the backstage of diplomacy continuous to narrow. This is not simply because of the desire for transparency or the need for news content, but because every individual with a smartphone is a citizen journalist. As Philip Seib has argued, images taken on smartphones and shared online quickly circle the globe and are consumed in real-time by an ever growing eco-system of individuals, media outlets and organizations.

The ability of one man with a smartphone to narrow the backstage of diplomacy was perfectly captured last week when a guest at Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort captured crisis diplomacy in real time. The individual took photos of the US President and Japanese Prime Minister learning that North Korea had tested a ballistic missile. Unlike the revelation of Adli Stevenson’s ballistic missiles nearly five decades ago, the US and Japanese leaders had no idea that they were being documented, or that the pictures would so blatantly reveal that which diplomats prefer to hide- panic, confusion, stress and low tech diplomacy (notice that in one of the pictures the Japanese PM is reading a document while an aid uses a smartphone flashlight).

mar a lago.png

Images of the confusion soon spread online by both individuals and media outlets. Rather than showing resolve in the face of North Korean aggression, the leaders showed angst. This in itself would have an impact on the diplomatic measures taken against North Korea as both Japan and the US need to save face. Yet even more crucially, the leading story was not the North Korean test, but the willingness of Trump to practice diplomacy openly at his private resort.

Some have used the images to attack Donald Trump. Yet these images carry an important message to all diplomats at all levels. The age of smartphones and social media is the age of absolute transparency, and almost no privacy. The backstage of diplomacy is now so narrow, that it can only be found behind closed doors in which no participants have phones. Any public meeting is accessible to an unpredictable, volatile and connected global public.

Want to here more about the changing nature of Digital Diplomacy? Come join my talk on Feb 24 at the UN in NY. Deatils here

3 thoughts on “Is the Backstage of Diplomacy Disappearing?”

  1. Great piece. I find the last example re the NK missile test very interesting. Can we really call this one the ‘backstage of diplomacy’? Because ultimately the diplomacy (if we consider diplomacy to be communication) would take place behind closed doors. Is it not similar to George W. Bush’s reaction to the 9/11 while reading a children’s book – an intensely scrutinized moment concerning governance and leadership – but not necessarily diplomacy, which will ultimately be undertaken in secrecy?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think the analogy of stage/backstage is a useful one in general when talking about digital diplomacy given that so much social media content is theatre- leaders shaking hands, leaders greeting one another, the openining of a G7 meeting etc. Its also useful given that much of diplomacy is theatre such as summit diplomacy. The Bush example, like the Hollande example, could also be seen as a domestic image- a leader being told his nation is under attack.

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