Image Management at the UN General Assembly: The Russian Case Study

It’s that time of the year again. A time of expectation and jubilation. A time of press junkets and photobombs. A time of pomp and circumstance and a time of high level negotiations. It’s the time of the UN’s annual General Assembly when leaders, foreign ministers and diplomats swarm to New York to redraw borders, renegotiate trade deals and renege on previous agreements. The UN General Assembly is also accompanied by a steady stream of tweets published by world leaders, diplomats and foreign ministries (MFAs). For states, the General Assembly offers a unique opportunity to shape their global image given that the General Assembly is a ‘media event’- it attracts media attention, political attention and public attention. Newscasts report on important statements made by leaders, activists offer real-time coverage of negotiations while social media users follow their national representatives as they stomp on the world’s stage.

This year the UN General Assembly is especially important as it represents a return to normalcy. In the wake of the Covid19 pandemic, physical diplomacy is back. World leaders and ministers are no longer boxed in Zoom cubicles. On the contrary, they rush from one room to the next eager to shake hands, exchange smiles, send non-verbal cues and read their counterpart’s body language.

The Russian MFA has been especially active on Twitter this General Assembly. An analysis of the MFA’s digital diplomacy suggests that Russia may be using the General Assembly in order to re-fashion its global image. A large number of MFA posts deal with Russia’s ardent support of the UN charter and the UN’s status as a global governance organization. This is somewhat surprising given Russia’s proclivity to invading other UN member states and disregarding international law. Yet an even greater number of tweets feature bi-lateral meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his counterparts. What is most striking about these tweets is their global orientation. Over the past week, Lavrov has met with officials from all four corners of the world including Cyprus, Bolivia, Thailand, Belize, Mali, Slovenia, Slovakia, Algeria, Cuba, Syria, Saudi Arabia, France and Japan.

Notably, the majority of these tweets are not informative. They simply state that Lavrov met with officials from another state discussing a wide array of regional and global issues. The importance of these tweets thus lies not in their content but in their volume and the images that accompany them, specifically, images of a smiling Lavrov warmly welcoming his global peers. These tweets may be used in order to demonstrate Russia’s global standing and its prestige as a global power. At a time when most newspapers are busy with tensions between the US and China, Russia seeks to remind the world that it too has a global outlook, that it too has global interests and that it too is a key strategic partner to any global initiative.

All roads to the Iran Nuclear Deal, the securing of journalists in Belarus and resolving Middle Eastern disputes pass through Moscow. Some of these tweets may be seen below.

However, what is most unique about the digital age is that during a bi-lateral meeting, both sides may use social media to narrate the same meeting in near-real time. At times, both narratives may complement one another. Other times, both narratives may contradict one another. Still other times, narratives may compete with one another. For instance, Russia and Saudi Arabia’s narratives complemented one another. According to the Russian MFA, Lavrov met with the Saudi Foreign Minister to discuss mutually beneficial relations. This vague statement did not go on to describe how such relations may be built, or whether there are obstacles to such relations. The Saudi narrative was similar in terms of vagueness and simply stated that both foreign ministers had met at the sidelines of the General Assembly. Both sides even used a similar image to convey the atmosphere in the meeting.

This was not the case with Lavrov’s meeting with the French Foreign Minister. According to the Russian MFA both sides met to discuss a ‘a broad range of bilateral issues related to the promotion of Russian-French ties’. Yet according to the French MFA the meeting was dedicated to global crises including the Libya, the situation in Afghanistan and the future of Ukraine, all crises in which Russian and French interests seem to clash. While the Russian MFA posted the obligatory image of smiling diplomats, the French MFA chose not to publish an image of the meeting. This is thus an example of contradictory narratives.

The same was true of the meeting between Lavrov and the EU’s foreign minister. The Russian MFA tweeted that “The officials discussed a wide range of current regional issues & reviewed the prospects for #RussiaEU relations”. Conversely, the EU’s foreign minister stated clearly that the two sides have ‘major’ disagreements but must work together to obtain shared goals. While the EU’s image conveyed an atmosphere of protocol, the Russian image again included smiles around the meeting room.

There was also one example of competing narratives. This was especially evident following a meeting by Lavrov and the UK’s foreign minister. The Russian MFA tweeted that Lavrov spoke about “spoke about #London’s unwillingness to have inter-state ties based on equality & mutual respect for each other’s interests”. The meeting was thus tense and the fault lay with UK policies. Yet according to the British foreign minister, while there are “differences” between both sides, the UK was willing to discuss mutual interests including Afghanistan and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Russia narrated the UK as undermining bi-lateral ties while the UK framed itself as looking to rebuild bi-lateral ties.

As this post suggests, global summits offer states the opportunity to reshape their global image, as well as their ties with other states. Yet social media is a competitive arena in which two or more actors may narrate the same event, at times complementing one another, while at other times contrasting one another. An important question is whether tweets from global summits can offer insight into the relations between states. If two state’s narratives complement, or align with one another, this could be an indication of amicable or even warm relations. Contradictory narratives may be indicative of growing tensions between states while competing narratives may be indicative of a crisis between two states. If this is the case, MFA tweets would emerge as more than just photo opportunities- tweets may have analytical value as they can be used to examine relations between states.  

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