How do you solve a problem like Trump? A public diplomacy perspective

Last week US President Donald Trump was asked by a Fox News reporter “why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from an attack”. Responding to the question, Trump stated that “I’ve asked the same question” casting doubt on America’s resolve to stand by the newest member of the NATO alliance.

Trump’s statement sent shock waves throughout NATO, especially among its more vulnerable members such as the Baltic States: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The following day NATO officials were quick to assure reporters that the alliance’s mutual defence clause, known as article 5, was “unconditional and iron clad”.

It is hard to imagine that the statements of NATO officials calmed the nerves of Baltic leaders already agitated by Trump’s pleasant demeanour towards the Russian President at the Helsinki Summit. While Trump’s Montenegro comment was widely discussed in Eastern and Western Europe, it is hard to imagine that it made headlines in Trump’s heartland. The Dayton Daily News, published in Dayton Ohio, run one short article on the issue by the Associated Press. North Carolina’s Harled Sun and Missouri’s Kansas City Star both run an article consisting of only three paragraphs while the Omaha Star in Nebraska  ignored the issue entirely.

For the Baltic states and other smaller members of the NATO alliance the US is not merely an ally, it is their guarantor of safety. The military support of the United States is at the core of their defence polices. President Trump’s continued attacks on the NATO alliance, his apparent questioning of the mutual defence clause, his warm embrace of President Putin and his brutish behaviour towards NATO leaders all call into doubt his willingness to stand by these states.

The question that emerges is how can these states use diplomacy to strengthen their ties with the Trump administration and become a foreign policy priority for President Trump himself. The answer may lay with digital diplomacy.

Digital Outreach in Trumpland

One of the main benefits of using digital tools in public diplomacy is the ability to focus on very specific audiences. Such was the case with NATO’s Instagram account which was managed by its public diplomacy unit and was used to converse with European teens under the age of 18. Additionally, digital tools enhance one’s ability to map his reach among a specific audience. Free and paid software could have helped NATO geo-locate its Instagram followers throughout Europe. Finally, digital diplomacy offers on the ability to identify, map and contact influencers among a specific audience base. In the case of NATO’s Instagram account, European teenagers that attract thousands of followers.

Similarly, Baltic and small NATO states can use digital platforms to map Trump’s heartland and identify digital influencers among Trump supporters. Next, they may launch a digital public diplomacy campaign aimed at fostering online networks with Americans living in Trump’s heartland. By convincing these Americans that the fate of the Baltics and the fate of the US are intertwined, and demonstrating their commitment to the partnership with America, these states may be able to impact the President’s foreign policy priorities.

In this blog post, I sought to analyse the Twitter reach of Baltic Embassies in Trumpland. Newspapers have suggested that Trump’s most ardent fans can be found in 12 states: Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texans and Wisconsin.

Using the FollowerWonk website I analysed the geographic dispersal of the Twitter followers of two Baltic embassies: the Latvian and Estonian Embassies in Washington. I compared these with the geographic distribution of Twitter followers of the Israeli Embassy to Washington given that Israel has dedicated substantial public diplomacy resources to cultivating ties in Trumpland.

The images below depict the geographic dispersals of Twitter followers of all three Embassies. Each map includes three kinds of follower hubs: red hubs indicate a large follower base, yellow hubs a medium follower base and blue hubs a small follower base.

Latvia Followers in Trumpland

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Estonia Followers in Trumpland 

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Israel Followers in Trumpland 

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As can be seen in the images above, and the table below, the Latvian Embassy to Washington attracts the smallest number of followers in Trumpland. It has no followers in Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin and has only one medium follower hub in Texas. The Estonian Embassy fares a bit better with five medium hubs in Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. Finally, Israel has the most followers of all three Embassies with medium hubs in 7 states and a large hub in Texas.

Follower Hubs in Trumpland by State

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In addition, I analysed the 20 most influential followers of the Baltic Embassies. None of them originate from Trumpland.

Where to Next?

The results of this blog post are meant to offer food for thought. They are in no way definitive. Yet they do suggest that Baltic States and small members of NATO could use digital diplomacy to increase their reach among Trumpland Americans. Next, public diplomacy campaigns could be used to influence Americans’ perception of these countries. This could include a “shared values” campaign or “shared history” campaign or even an “economic promise” campaign where the financial ties between countries are brought to light.

Some might argue that not many Americans in Trumpland are on Twitter. Perhaps not. But Trumpland influencers including journalists, pundits, editors, talk radio hosts, activists and political commentators may be very active on Twitter given their own desire to follow the President online.

Through digital and public diplomacy, Baltic and NATO states may win over the hearts and minds of Trumpland and, subsequently, Trump himself.

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