Tweeting after-hours: The U.N.’s undiplomatic blogging community
Nicholas Kay, Britain’s ambassador to Sudan, will document the country’s march toward its January independence referendum on a new blog that promises to “convey the drama and scale” of the likely breakup of Africa’s largest country. “I am a reluctant blogger,” Kay, a member of a growing cadre of blogging British diplomats, wrote in his ...
Nicholas Kay, Britain’s ambassador to Sudan, will document the country’s march toward its January independence referendum on a new blog that promises to “convey the drama and scale” of the likely breakup of Africa’s largest country.
“I am a reluctant blogger,” Kay, a member of a growing cadre of blogging British diplomats, wrote in his first post on November 10. “When people think of Sudan, they tend to think of suffering, violence and poverty. And sadly, based on most of the recent decades, that image is not far wrong. But I hope in this blog to share with you a slightly altered image.”
It’s yet to be seen whether her majesty’s blog will live up to its billing. In their short history, diplomatic blogs and tweets have too often served as little more than a modern delivery system for self-serving state propaganda, or old-fashioned press releases and policy statements that were once simply slapped up on a web page, or distributed by fax or email.
Still, the embrace of social media has produced some poignant unscripted revelations by far flung diplomats, elevating some diplomats from anonymity to minor internet celebrity, and in some cases, fueling diplomatic incidents that have left incautious bloggers with their careers in tatters.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department incorrectly announced via Twitter that U.S. Sudan envoy, Ret. Air Force Major Gen, J. Scott Gration, was planning to meet with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal. A correction soon followed. A former State Department official, Jared Cohen, roiled diplomatic sensitivities in Damascus and Washington by tweeting his impressions of Damascus, which included “the greatest frappacino ever,” an ATM machine that shortchanged a colleague, and a meeting with students complaining about state internet restrictions. “The trip to #Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibility on issues of #netfreedom,” he tweeted.
Perhaps nothing matches the diplomatic dust storm that followed a top U.N. official’s blog debut. Nearly five years, ago, Jan Pronk, a Dutch politician and diplomat who served as the U.N. Special Representative to Sudan from 2004 to 2006, wrote an extraordinarily candid account of political developments in Sudan on a personal blog he began writing without authorization from his political masters at U.N. headquarters. The government expelled him from the country in October, 2006, citing a blog post that had revealed Sudan’s military losses in a battle against Darfurian rebels in Umm Sidir and Karakaya. A week later, the Sudanese military defended its decisions, saying Pronk’s public musings constituted “a military threat that adversely affects the performance of the armed forces.”
Pronk’s blog reads like an impassioned diplomatic diary, a poignant collection of observations from a country in the midst of one of the world’s worst human rights crisis and an epic political transition. U.N. staffers assiduously read Pronk’s blog for its blunt criticism of the Sudanese government, which it accused of backing Chadian rebels and arming Arab militias. “Nobody in the guerilla movement is clean,” Pronk wrote. Although, the blog was known to upset top officials in New York, the U.N. did not demand its removal. The final straw for Sudanese authorities was a typically undiplomatic post describing Sudanese military setbacks in fighting with rebels, information that is considered highly sensitive in times of military combat.
“The losses seem to have been very high. Reports speak about hundreds of casualties in each of the two battles with many wounded and many taken as prisoner,” Pronk wrote. “The morale in the Government army in North Darfur has gone down. Some generals have been sacked; soldiers have refused to fight.”
2010 has seen the launch of scores of new Twitter feeds, including one from Susan E. Rice. Rice takes a cautious approach, using short tweets to highlight the day’s business, or an occasional personal observation. “My first exposure to the #UN was as a young girl, carrying my Halloween @UNICEF box & candybag while trick-or-treating,” she tweeted on Halloween. P.J. Crowley has taken a somewhat more whimsical approach, using his twitter account to take a job at the Iranian leadership. After Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki invited the U.N. permanent five members to a dinner at Iran’s Fifth Avenue townhouse, Crowley wrote: “Iran’s Foreign Minister invited U.N. Security Council to dinner, served leftovers, unfortunately he said nothing new,” he tweeted in May.
Some foreign diplomats, including Turkey’s and Pakistan’s ambassadors to the United States, have found Twitter a useful soap box from which to highlight commercial deals, or to draw attention to favorable news coverage. “Two cab designs from Turkey are shortlisted in the race to be the New York’s new yellow taxi,” Turkey’s U.S. envoy, Namik Tan, tweeted last week. “Congratulations!”
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., has used Twitter assiduously to counter criticism of Pakistan in the U.S. Last week, he sought to assure U.S. law makers that Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws — which carry the death penalty — are not that bad: “No one has been executed in Pakistan since election of democratic govt, incl for blasphemy. Parliament reviewing existing laws.” But he has also offers a mix of eclectic observations and non sequitors — “”Bigotry is the sacred disease”-Heraclitus(and most bigots do not realize the are bigoted!)” — that have made him relatively popular in diplomatic Twitter circles with nearly 2000 followers. “Bye for now, folks. Have arrived at my destination for afternoon,” he recently wrotr. “Must clear throat and speak, leaving twitterverse behind.”
Some diplomats have been elevated to minor celebrities in the Twitterverse. Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dimitri Rogozin, had developed a following of more than 11,000 followers on his account because of his frank, deeply undiplomatic tweets. En route to the NATO summit on Friday, Rogozin tweeted: “Today I’m flying out to Lisbon with my colleagues-ambassadors and the Sec Gen [Anders Fogh Rasmussen] on board. [They’re] up to great deeds!” Shortly he followed up with a historical footnote. “BTW, the phrase ‘Wake up, You’re up to great deeds!’ was pronounced by adjutant of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28.06.1914.” And then: “Gavrilo Princip was already waiting for them outside.” Princip of course, was the Bosnian Serb nationalist who assassinated the Austrian royal, firing the shot that started World War I.
For most diplomats it’s still a period of experimentation, testing the limits of real time engagement with the public in a field that is accustomed to working in confidentiality. Some French and British diplomats have skillfully engaged the medium, flagging reporters on stories worth covering or challenging a colleagues analysis of an issue. In the run up to U.N. nuclear conference, France stepped up its online strategy in an effort to blunt criticism that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to endorse President Obama’s call for world without nuclear weapons. French diplomats engaged journalists and non-proliferation advocates on Twitter in an effort to make the case that they deserve more credit for disarmament. France also made its top negotiator, Eric Danon, available to online bloggers like Page Van der Linden.
Still, most foreign services, including in the developed world, are living in the social media pleistocene age. Michael Calcott, Director General of the Canadian Foreign Services Institute, is trying to bring senior foreign-service managers “into the 21st Century” with a course called Social Media for Dinosaurs.
“The Canadian government is responding extremely slowly to this I think like most governments,” he said in an interview with E-Dipomacy. “But employees of the department and other departments have already seized on social networking and social media. The government in fact is trying to play catch up.”
“You encounter a generation, not all, but I would say certainly most, of senior managers who have no concept of what social networking is; its reach, its power or how, in fact, it’s part of everyday life for people these days,” he said.
John Duncan, Britain’s Geneva-based ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament, is one of the first British diplomats to embrace blogging and tweeting, starting a blog in 2007 on the advice of his embassy’s interns. Duncan has since sought to help promote the use of Twitter in the British Foreign service, citing its ability to offer a quick snapshot of British policy to colleagues or its power to engage and influence opinion makers
“When it goes wrong it can be quite spectacular,” he said, recalling Pronk’s experience in Sudan. “We need to have a fair bit of caution about how we do this.” Duncan said that he was thrilled to hear that his colleague, Nicholas Kay, had taken to blogging at such a crucial time in Sudan’s history.”He’s a first class diplomat and a very concise communicator,” he said. “Hopefully he will not fall into the trap of an injudicious comment.”
Follow me on Twiter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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