Our Man On Twitter

Diplomacy used to be so straightforward. A British ambassador’s job was to cultivate close relations with the ruling elite of the country to which he (and in those days it always was a he) was posted, and then exploit those relationships to deliver outcomes for HMG. A private meeting with the relevant minister, perhaps a bit of polite horsetrading, some hinted threats or promises, and with luck an issue could be resolved quietly and quickly, and with little need to refer back to London for instructions. Meanwhile back in Whitehall, before the internet age, ambassadors to most countries had a near monopoly on the supply of detailed political news and judgments back to London, which gave the Foreign Office natural dominance of most foreign policy questions — it knew most, if not always best.

The internet revolution has changed all that. Today anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can, in principle, research and draft a policy paper on pretty well any detailed foreign policy question.  International relations are not just about what states think but what non-state groups, businesses and even the public think. Elites are not over, but are less powerful: even in the relatively less democratic countries where they still dominate there is greater transparency, making them sensitive to their own domestic public opinion and less able to sort things out in private with that charming British ambassador. 

So how then should British diplomats and the Foreign Office adapt to the digital revolution? Tom Fletcher was foreign policy adviser in No 10 under Blair, Brown and Cameron, after which he was ambassador to Lebanon from 2011 to 2015, when he became the leading Foreign Office user of Twitter and social media. He also led a recent review of the Foreign Office — “Future FCO” (which is, naturally, available online).

His book, Naked Diplomacy, is partially written in Twitterese (short sentences, fewer verbs than are generally considered necessary by Standpoint readers, slangy, very personal), regularly patronises his Foreign Office predecessors and the conventions of 50 years ago, and name-drops immodestly.  It is nevertheless an important one. The Fletcher thesis is that digital technology has caused tectonic shifts in communications and therefore in how societies work, leaving traditional diplomacy floundering. The balance of power is shifting from hierarchies to networks. As the UK’s military and economic power declines relatively, we must harness the tools of “soft power”. Diplomats need to become “digital interventionists” in order to influence the countries in which they work.  The old division between politicians who present policy in public, and civil servants who prepare it behind the scenes, must be blurred if the UK is to achieve anything at the pace of the digital world.

As ambassador to Lebanon, Fletcher practised what he now preaches, using social media relentlessly to promote British policy, and himself as the representative of that policy. It was modern stuff: taking questions from Twitter in real time during speeches, endless blogging, organising events like a “tweetup” — a meeting set up via Twitter — with the Lebanese prime minister, at which they both spent an hour online answering questions. Fletcher sent 10,000 tweets in his four years in Lebanon — that’s more than six a day. And it got through to the Lebanese people, and the wider Middle East — Fletcher and what he had to say became well-known in the region. The question is whether this is really the new model for British diplomacy.  Does it deliver new types of outcome in a new way, or is it just a cheaper, quicker and more direct way of doing PR than using old- fashioned press and broadcasting — an adjunct to conventional diplomacy rather than a replacement for it?

Much depends on the situation. Terrorist organisations and authoritarian states devote huge effort to putting their messages out on social media and the internet, bypassing news organisations. ISIS put out 40,000 tweets on the day it took Mosul in June 2014. We can’t cede the internet and social media to our opponents — we must fight back. Fletcher had regular arguments with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah on Twitter, arguments more likely to sway public opinion in the Middle East than if the messages had been delivered on diplomatic channels. It worked for Fletcher because he is clearly a great public communications practitioner, who spent more time working on communications than diplomacy during his time at Number 10. And it worked because of the lack of a strong government in Lebanon to take umbrage. The essence of tweeting is that you have to comment immediately — there is no time for consultation and clearance from London — and that inevitably risks mistakes, which London must tolerate.  A social media approach in Western Europe would have been less effective, and in countries like Russia, Pakistan or Turkey would have been riskier — as shown back in May when President Erdogan publicly criticised the British consul-general in Istanbul for his tweets from a closed trial of two Turkish journalists. 

And then there are the detailed negotiations that are too complex to summarise or comment usefully on in 140 characters.  Fletcher argues that the Iran nuclear deal happened faster because of Twitter, but the negotiations which led to it lasted for years, classic old-fashioned, tough, multilateral diplomatic work. Looking ahead, it’s hard to imagine social media playing much role in the UK’s Brexit negotiations, or our relationship with the next US administration.

As the world changes, seemingly ever more rapidly, the Foreign Office needs to decide where its future as an institution lies.  Should it be a state-funded advocacy organisation? A Rolls-Royce machine for servicing ministers? Or a pragmatic organisation that gets things done overseas, by whatever means are most appropriate? What sort of people should it recruit, train and develop as diplomats — people who can run essentially political campaigns, ruthlessly efficient bureaucrats who let their ministers do most of the public speaking, or generalists? How much of what it does should be outsourced to think-tanks and contractors? How about privatising the administration of the overseas platform (as our embassies are now known)? Tom Fletcher’s book has opened the debate with a broad attack on the methods and assumptions of the past, and some bold ideas for the digital future. Don’t be put off by his chutzpah or writing style: this is an important book.

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