Twitter and Diplomatic Signaling: The Case of Joe Biden

Two week ago, I analyzed the speed with which world leaders employed Twitter to congratulate Joe Biden on his election. Indeed, within two hours of CNN’s projection of a Biden victory, more than twenty world leaders tweeted at the President elect. These included the leaders of Germany, Canada, the UK, Norway, France, Sweden and the EU. This week I decided to analyze nations’ diplomatic signaling targeted at the Biden administration. In these tweets, diplomats and world leaders used Twitter to signal their intended policies opposite the US.

The first to do so were the foreign ministers of France and Germany, the de-facto leaders of the EU following Brexit. The tweet, shown below, summarized an op-ed published in the New York Times.

This tweet is an exemplar in the use of social media to narrate a foreign policy. With 280 characters, the tweet first hails back to the Cold War days of John F. Kennedy when Europe’s security relied mostly on the US and US-led institutions such as NATO. Yet this relationship will no longer characterize the transatlantic partnership. Europe has witnessed the ease with which one US administration can shake the foundations of Europe’s security doctrine. In response, Europe will take its own measures to defend itself, while decreasing its reliance on the US. Thus, Europe will strive towards a more ‘balanced’ transatlantic partnership. Yet there may be a more serious warning here aimed at Biden- the days of US hegemony over Europe are over, and America will have to find a new respect for the needs and independent policies of Europe.

The Belgian foreign minister struck a different tone, through an op-ed published in Politico. Co-written with her peers from the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the article is titled: The Case for Renewed Transatlantic Cooperation.

This tweet is somewhat more moderate than the last. It may even signal a division within Europe with some nations demanding greater independence and others longing for days past when America was the backbone of transatlantic ties. Indeed, the Belgian foreign minister makes clear that the US’s power stems not from the size of its Navy or the number of ICBMs at its disposal but its ability to advance shared goals by collaborating with allies, including European countries. Unlike France and Germany, who wish to reshape transatlantic relations, Belgium and its peers wish to re-set relations with America and revert to a pre-Trump mindset. The signal to Biden is clear- it’s time to make America European again.

Another, interesting tweet was published by Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif. Since Biden’s election, the Middle East has been abuzz with speculation on the President-elect’s willingness to rejoin the Iran Deal. Some pundits argue that Biden favors the original Iran Deal as it was part of the Obama administration’s legacy undone by Donald Trump. Others assert that Biden will refrain from beginning his tenure with a war. Still others suggest that Biden is ‘soft’ on Iran, much like Democrats are supposedly ‘soft’ on crime. Zarif’s tweet seems to signal compromise over antagonism.

Zarif’s tweet argues that the American people have spoken in favor of multilateralism and cooperation. Yet he reminds Biden that deeds matter most, no words. In other words, Biden’s immediate actions in the region will shape Iran’s policy towards the new American administration.

A direct rebuke of this signal was tweeted by the Prime Minister of Israel.

Here, as is always the case in diplomacy, the signal is in details. Netanyahu made his remarks at the memorial to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who was also the father of Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Ben Gurion believed that only a nuclear capability would deter Arab States from invading Israel. Netanyahu thus not only signaled Israel’s staunch opposition to the Iran Deal, but he reminded Biden that Israel had its own policy of dealing with Iran- nuclear deterrence. This tweet came in addition to reports of a first-ever meeting between Netanyahu and the Saudi Crown Prince, a signal indicating that there remains considerable opposition to the Iran Deal throughout the region.  

And yet, world leaders and foreign ministers were not the only ones sending signals across the Atlantic. Over the past two days, the Biden Administration has sent two powerful signals. The first was the appointment of John Kerry as Climate Envoy. The appointment of Kerry, an experienced and energized diplomat, was among the first to be announced. Here was a signal to US allies- we’re back in business. The days of climate denial and leaving climate accords is over. Climate change will be a key policy issue for the Biden-Harris administration.

The second signal was a summary of a phone call between Biden and the King of Jordan. Most important in this signal was the referral to the Palestinian people and the ‘two-state’ solution. This was not so much a signal to the Palestinians but to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu- the party is over.

This post demonstrates that digital diplomacy has advanced far beyond the publishing of selfies and press statements. Diplomats and world leaders now use platforms such as Twitter to communicate with one another, signal one another and begin to shape offline diplomatic relations with new administrations. As such, these platforms are now integral to the conduct of international relations and lie at the heart of daily diplomatic activities.

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