The Digital Disruption of the Two Level Game

In 1988 Robert Putnam conceptualized diplomacy as a two level game. At the first level lies the world of domestic or national politics. At the second level lies the world of international politics. Putnam argued that these two levels continuously collide with one another. For instance, a government’s ability to negotiate treaties is limited given the need to ratify treaties in domestic parliaments. Such is the case in the US where Congress ratifies all international treaties. Another example is nations’ attempts to influence ratification of treaties in foreign countries. Such was the case when the Obama administration openly called on Israelis to support the Iran Nuclear Deal thereby limiting the Israeli government’s ability to derail the Iran nuclear agreement.

The week of January 29th began with another collision between the national and international in Israel. Notably, this collision took shape on Twitter demonstrating how Putnam’s two level game has been digitalized.

Introduction- A New Polish Bill

Earlier this month the Polish Parliament passed a new bill that would criminalize misrepresenting Poland’s role in the Holocaust. The bill would make it illegal to use phrases such as “Polish Death Camps” given that these were Nazi camps operated on conquered Polish territory. The bill would also outlaw attempts to depict Poles as taking an active part in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. According to the Polish government, Poland has unjustly been depicted as Hitler’s willing executioner, at best, and as Hitler’s willing accomplice, at worst.

The Polish bill in question is by no means the product of a new policy. Over the past few years Poland has invested growing resources in distancing itself from the atrocities of World War 2. Much of this activity takes place online and Polish Embassies use Twitter to correct journalists who miss-represent Poland’s past.

According to a senior commentator in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, the Netanyahu government knew for some time that the bill was to be introduced to Parliament and was even aware of its content. Moreover, the Netanyahu government decided not to comment on the bill, or oppose it publicly, given that Poland has taken to supporting Israel in multi-lateral forums. Indeed Israel now counts on Poland to support it both in the UN and, more strategically, in the EU.

Yet while the Netanyahu government may have decided not to comment on the Polish bill, Israeli politicians made no such pledge. In fact, it was a Tweet by an Israeli politician that led to the collision between the national and international levels of diplomacy.

Chapter 1- Lapid Takes to Twitter

In the morning of Sunday, January 27th, Israeli Member of Parliament (MP) Yair Lapid took to Twitter to comment on the new Polish bill. As can be seen in the Tweet below, Lapid used strong language arguing that Poland was attempting to deny its role in the Holocaust and alter history.

Yair Lapid is currently the front runner for the role of Prime Minister. According to all recent polls, Lapid is the most likely politician to replace Benjamin Netanyahu in the next elections. Subsequently, Lapid is a major political threat to Netanyahu and other high ranking MPs who also aspire to the Premiership.

Chapter 2- Poland Replies

Once published, Lapid’s Tweet failed to attract much attention. That changed once the Polish Embassy in Israeli decided to reply to Yair Lapid. Using a thread of Tweets, the Embassy blasted Lapid calling his claims unsubstantiated, arguing that such claims demonstrate the need for better education in Israel and that the aim of the Polish bill is to protect the truth, not distort it (see Tweets below).

Lapid immediately responded in kind describing the murder of his relatives by Poles (see Tweet below)

Already at this stage, a high ranking Israeli MP and the Polish Embassy were exchanging blows on Twitter in relation to a domestic Polish bill. This interaction begins to demonstrate how the two level game of domestic and international politics has been digitalized. Yet this collision would only grow more intense thanks to the media.

Chapter 3- the Media

The verbal exchange between Lapid and the Polish Embassy soon garnered media attention from every major news source in Israel including radio stations, newspapers, news websites and citizen journalists. Lapid’s dominance of the news cycle  brought about similar statements from other Israeli politicians, including those in government. One member of the Netanyahu coalition, the Minister of Education, Tweeted an instruction that all schools in Israel dedicate two hours to learning about the murder of Jews by other people during the Holocaust, including the Poles (see Tweet below).

Similarly, the Minister of Finance Tweeted that no one will be able to suppress the memory of the Holocaust while even Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister Tweeted that “many Poles took part in the atrocities of the Holocaust”. These Tweets may be viewed as an attempt to compete with Lapid’s growing popularity amid Israeli voters.

 

The virility and news dominance of Lapid and the Polish bill ultimately led the Prime Minister himself to comment on the issue, thus reversing his former policy. In an official Tweet, the PM labeled the Polish bill “baseless” and instructed Israel’s Ambassador to Poland to express the PM’s sentiment to Poland’s Prime Minister. Soon, however, the Polish Prime Minister had taken to Twitter as well stating that Auschwitz is a German name , not a Polish one, and that “Arbeit Macht Frei” is a German saying (see Tweets below) .

Once both Prime Ministers commented on the contentious new bill, so did the Israeli MFA.

Chapter 4: The Israeli MFA

The Israeli foreign ministry first commented on the Polish bill on Sunday afternoon. The MFA updated its followers that the Deputy Polish Ambassador had been summoned to the MFA in Jerusalem. Such a summoning is an official diplomatic actthrough which one country officially protests the policies of another. The MFA also stated that the bill’s phrasing, and timing, was unfortunate as it was passed in proximity to the international Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Next, the MFA advocated that the bill undergo revisions and that the Polish government enter into dialogue with the Israeli government. Later in the day, the MFA also stated that no one should educate families of Holocaust survivors, a possible reference to the Polish Embassy’s attempt to belittle Yair Lapid.

So it was that within one working day, domestic competitions between Israeli politicians, and competitive news cycles, led the Israeli government to adopt a new foreign policy and instigated a public altercation between the governments of Israel and Poland. Not only did the national and international levels collide with one another, yet they did so on Twitter which may be why these collisions occurred at such a fast pace. In other words, not only has the two level game been digitalized, but it has been digitally disrupted. Digital platforms, such as social media, increase the speed, visibility and intensity of collisions between the national and international levels.

Epilogue

Although Twitter brought about a public row between the Israeli and Polish governments, both governments also used Twitter to announce a de-escalation in tensions. The Polish Embassy in Israel Tweeted that the Israeli Ambassador would soon meet with a high ranking Polish official so as to discuss the new bill. In addition, the PM of Israel Tweeted that he and his Polish counterpart had agreed to open a dialogue through which the new bill would be discussed.

Interestingly, Twitter was not used to actually reduce tensions but only to denote this had occurred. Thus, while digital complicates diplomacy, back channel communication still facilitates diplomacy.