What Digital Diplomacy Adds to IR?

This post seeks to articulate how the study of digital diplomacy contributes to the study of international relations as a whole. To do so, it focuses on the image below. The picture depicts then US President Donald Trump holding a conference call between the leaders of Israel and Sudan, who agreed to normalize ties following US mediation. This singular image offers insight into what digital diplomacy scholars research is, and how such research advances the study of international relations.

1.       A more transparent diplomacy

This image is representative of a shift towards more transparent diplomacy. In the past, diplomats would hold well-orchestrated press briefings before entering negotiation rooms which were kept far from the public eye. Digitalization has changed that as the veil of diplomacy has been lifted. Ambassadors tweet from the UN Security Council Chamber; world leaders take Selfies with their peers while NATO ministerial meetings are live-streamed. The same is true of this image in which diplomatic negotiations of the highest order are done in public and for public consumption. And yet, diplomats have mastered the art of partial transparency. Secret negotiations remain discrete while the breakthroughs are Facebooked in real-time.

The question that follows is what does this teach us about international relations. First, that diplomacy is a social institution whose practices are shaped, among other, by societal processes. The digital society is one that practices constant self-transparency. Parents Instagram their kids first steps; couples tweet their engagements; friends YouTube vacations; professors tweet their publications while youngsters even Selfie visits to Holocaust memorial sites. This normative demand to lead an open life is tied directly to social media as users seek to summon the gaze of the once feared, and now beloved, Big Brother.

Yet in return, they expect greater transparency from their leaders, parties and governments. Individuals who fail to share their life online are branded as having something to hide. The same is true of governments and diplomats, who have traditionally shunned the limelight. Credibility therefore now also rests on some level of transparency with credibility being the key to a diplomat’s potential influence over others. Credibility is also crucial in international relations. For countries who lack credibility lack allies and influence. Those countries that are most transparent, or seem to be transparent are seen as the most credible. New Zealand under Jacinda Arden is an interesting case study.

2.       The Global is the Local

The picture depicted in this post deals with an international issue- the establishment of ties between two enemy states (or at least antagonistic states). Yet the picture was published for domestic purposes. Published just days ahead of the 2020 elections it depicted Trump, and his administrations, as peacemakers rather than war mongers. This phone call followed the historic Abraham accords where US mediation led to the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. In both cases, Trump claimed to have achieved more than all his predecessor, renewing peace and further contributing to Israel’s safety.

International relations scholarship has long since identified links between the national and international. Disputes at the national level can block agreement at the international levels. Similarly, harsh tactics at the international level can carry favor with national voters. This is especially true of American politics where Presidents are judged on their foreign policies as the US has a truly global policy. Obtaining foreign policy achievements ahead of elections is an effective way of swaying voters. What digitalization offers is the ability to better capture the dynamic between the national and the international given that digital diplomacy rests on images. In the Trump image, a US President surrounded by US flags is literally reaching out to the world (via a phone), promoting peace, ensuring American interests abroad and bolstering US allies such as Israel.

The relationship between the national and international has also been explored in other studies dealing with domestic digital diplomacy. Here, international achievements or accords are branded online like cans of Coca Cola. The purpose of such campaigns is to rally national support for contentious international achievements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal or climate accords. Social media offers diplomats the ability to tailor campaigns to specific publics thus facilitating congressional or parliamentary ratification. An important question here is- how do diplomats sell achievements? By appealing to reason or emotion? By discussing national interest or international responsibility? Through humor or fear?

3.       Diplomatic Signaling

Nations have traditionally signaled their intentions to one another. The mass mobilization of Austrian troops signaled its intention to wage war on Serbia. When the French were displeased with King Henry VIII, they assassinated his uncle in Italy. Nations can also signal a willingness to de-escalate tensions. Such was the case when President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev exchanged letters at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Israel has often taken to signaling its neighbors. In the press, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often praises Saudi leadership while just last week a historic summit did, and did not, take place between Netanyahu and the Saudi Crown Prince.

Digitalization offers new approaches to signaling as MFAs knowingly follow one another online. Consider the tweet below published during the 2014 Crimea Crisis.

The tweet clearly calls on Russia to de-escalate tensions in Crimea. But what is unique about the tweet is the reference to ‘other parts of Ukraine’. Until this tweet, such Russian activities were undisclosed.  The tweet also states that a referendum would hold no legal bearing. Yet the subtle signal in this tweet is the #G7 which officially announced that Russia had been expelled from the G8 and that the remaining G7 would not sit idly by and watch it consume Crimea. Which they did.

Trump’s image also sends a powerful signal. The world is run from Washington, not Beijing. It is in the Oval Office that peace is brokered and power is exercised halfway around the world. Moreover, Trump’s image in the oval office is an iconic one. An image depicted in newspapers throughout the 20th century as well as films and television shows. It thus signals that the 21st century will continue to be dominated by America. In other words, the news of America’s demise has thus been overly exaggerated.


As a field of study, digital diplomacy remains an oddity. Classic international relations scholars often fail to grasp what ‘digital’ adds to a well-established field. This post has demonstrated only three possible contributions. First, digital diplomacy captures the manner in which societal processes as a whole, and digitalization in particular, reshape diplomatic practices. Second, the digital realm enables scholars to identify case studies and test classic theories such as the relationships between the local and global (e.g., selling the Iran Deal) Third, that digital warrants further attention from scholars if they are to better understand the art of signaling. Can tweets be more easily misinterpreted due to their brevity? Or does the 280-character limit on Twitter make signals clearer and easier to interpret. The answer lies in learning the new language of diplomacy, that of hashtags and emoji, a language that some international relations scholars cannot yet speak.  

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