AmericanOpinion

The diplomatic tweet

Think tanks and foreign services that shun social media are being left behind

By Rory Medcalf

The boundaries between journalism, intelligence, diplomacy and think tank analysis are dissolving at a rapid rate, thanks to the unstoppable advance of social media. It is not entirely an original thought—Daryl Copeland, the Canadian diplo-wonk and author of the book Guerrilla Diplomacy, has made a similar point recently (and on his blog, naturally). This process of creative destruction has a long way yet to play out, so its full implications are far from understood.

What is clear is that the job descriptions for hacks, spooks, diplomats and wonks are becoming less and less distinct, blurring at the edges into a spectrum of geopolitical knowledge makers and manipulators. Sure, there will always be important differences: for spies and journalists especially, the most precious information will always be what someone else does not want them to know.

But these vocations have always had more similarities than their more self-satisfied practitioners have been willing to admit. Now the barriers are breaking down, and when a crisis or event breaks across the 24-hour information cycle, pioneers from each profession find themselves turning to fast-placed, flexible social media—twitter, blogs, Facebook, YouTube—to help make and project succinct meaning in a world of noise. This is hardly surprising when more and more of the people and phenomena they are trying to track and interpret—from Middle Eastern social movements to Western political leaders—are using these same tools to influence and instantly define developments.

Assuming that today’s trailblazers will be tomorrow’s leaders, or at least its survivors, this raises fascinating questions about how the worlds and ways of newsroom, chancery and research institute will shift and blend. Journalists who cannot or will not navigate the blogosphere, diplomats who deem tweeting beneath their dignity, and intelligence analysts who imagine that only secrets can be true: all risk becoming the blacksmiths of the information age—heavy-handed, quaint and unviable. As for the universe of think tanks—those peculiar places of research, policy-shaping and advocacy that are neither bureaucracy nor university—it too is shifting. No self-respecting think tank now lacks a blog, YouTube channel or twitter feed.

Yet it’s true that this change is uneven and untidy—and meeting resistance. Sometimes that is with good reason. Quality control is at the heart of all purposeful jobs in the information age, and the winnowing of political knowledge and opinion on the internet is still in its infancy. All geopolitical information handlers need sources with credibility, accuracy and access: in a word, authority. And all the self-styled seers and pundits of the webocracy claim to possess it. Indeed, in the past few years, the traditional American-style think tank—with its grand and costly building, printed publications and payroll of experienced names—has found itself having to compete online with a motley horde of virtual start-ups.

On the web, literally anyone can tout expertise and find an audience somewhere. All it takes is just one entrepreneurial student, graduate or Gen Y-er fresh from a quick stint as a junior official, or better still a few such folk teaming up across special subjects and time zones. Add a slick-looking blog and some youthful stamina for round-the-clock tweeting, and these enterprising individuals can probably garner more online readers—if not necessarily of the influential type—than a complacent, be-Chesterfielded think tank of the more familiar kind. From great-power politics to military technology, counter-terrorism and economics, it is happening. It is a commendable, natural development, helping fill a gap when the amount of talent far outweighs the number of paid professional openings in the field of international relations, and when so many academics and experienced former officials fail to repay their training by helping society understand real-world policy problems.

And some of the new stuff is good and not just imitative of ‘real’ think tanks. Some of today’s young amateur foreign policy commentators may well become major voices in the future—and what they are doing now may yet prove a better grounding than garden-variety journalism or academia.

But no collection of fancy fonts, clever titles, pithy tweets or learned degrees can substitute for the old-fashioned thing called reputation. The best journalists, diplomats and analysts build a name over many years and more than a few intellectual hard knocks. Over time, they get known simply for doing better than most when it comes to making sense of the mysteries of news and statecraft. That takes staying power, which will be challenging for the new legions of self-anointed and, crucially, unpaid wonks. Nor can energy or eloquence substitute for experience.

Which is why it is so disappointing that some diplomatic services—repositories of all-too-quiet wisdom about how the world really works—remain so slow to engage with social media. My colleague Fergus Hanson of the Lowy Institute in Sydney has done some excellent work exploring best practice among foreign services in so-called e-diplomacy: the use of social media tools to collect, share and project information and policy messages. This might range from handling mass consular incidents to countering media misinformation and jihadist propaganda. He observes that the US State Department is one of a few doing well—its hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers in Indonesia the stuff of diplomatic legend. My own soundings suggest that nations as diverse as India and Finland are also moving ahead, for example with embassy Facebook pages and active twitter feeds. Yet some other supposedly enlightened nations, such as my own Australia, are inexplicably failing to resource this side of their diplomacy.

It is extraordinary that a confident democracy cannot give its own officials—at all levels—some intelligent discretion and incentive to employ the workaday information tools of the age. A 21st century foreign service that does not seriously use social media is a bit like a pre-1914 diplomatic network that kept its hands clean of newspapers and the telephone. Come to think of it, maybe that was part of the problem.