A casual bystander might conclude it to be typical procedure for national leaders to make public statements via the media, bypassing typical foreign relations channels.
This must be the case because two foreign presidents this month pushed out their agendas by way of public diplomacy rather than direct talks with other governments.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted a question to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday and received a response hinting at signs of change in the future.
Rouhani’s exchange with Dorsey comes on the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to criticize U.S. foreign policy via the unorthodox approach of placing an op-ed in the New York Times. We’ve already witnessed new forms of communication bringing domestic political candidates into more direct contact with voters.
Are we starting to see the same thing happening with state diplomacy?
Diplomacy Will Be Televised
When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed President Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons, conventional ways of handling the crisis became ineffective. Obama tried to enforce his proposition by campaigning for his plan to strike Assad’s military bases. His efforts were ultimately useless.
Not many in the U.S. had confidence Obama’s plan was actually a good idea. When Obama attempted to seek U.N. approval for a military strike on Syria, Russia vetoed his proposal. When Obama sought authorization from Congress, most lawmakers believed Obama’s plan had only a 50 percent chance of being passed. Even Britain’s parliament refused to support a U.S. resolution.
Negotiations finally coalesced when a reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry how Assad might avoid a U.S. military strike. In response, Kerry stated the Syrian President could turn over his chemical weapons in a week’s time. Shortly after, Russia made a move that was the decisive factor to Syria’s chemical weapons problem. When Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Assad to hand over the chemical weapons to the U.N., the solution to the situation was in plain sight.
When Putin decided to engage Syria to give up the chemical weapons, he was making a public relations move portraying him as a cunning, logical state leader. He not only painted Obama as weak and indecisive, he also gave Assad the opportunity to prove himself a rational being.
Of course, this was a state-to-state diplomatic move, but the moves were made in public and not behind the doors of government offices. When Putin suggested his solution to the chemical weapons problem, the comments were delivered to the public through a statement given by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem:
“Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people,” al-Moallem said.
Two days later Putin wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” which quickly caught the public’s attention because of it’s scathing message to the United States.
Putin emphasized the U.N. founders’ imperative to always reach consensus when deciding on actions involving war and peace (which is something Obama was certainly not doing when he was pushing for a military strike on Syria’s military bases). He scolded the U.S. for acting alone in its military campaign against Russia, stating the international community does not want the U.N. to become the League of Nations.
Instead of speaking with Obama in private about these matters, Putin made the decision to embarrass the U.S. in a public forum. It seems Putin’s intentions were to inform the world that he is a rational state leader who can offer logical solutions, but also that he abides by U.N. laws, implying the U.S. does not.
His aim was to turn the tides of the conflict. With globalization and the popularity of social media, citizens of the world are more tuned in to domestic and international affairs than ever before, an arena previously occupied by high-level government only. For example, the spread of the Arab Spring has long been credited to the power of Twitter.
When Kerry answered that reporter’s question, he opened a gateway for Putin to quickly enter. Putin knew the world would read his article and hoped it would ruin Obama’s credibility.
Instead of proposing a chemical weapons solution directly to Assad and Obama in a private meeting, something to which state leaders should be accustomed, Putin staged his entry into the international spotlight by taking advantage of the world’s attention and the mainstream media, held captive by the Syrian conflict. This was a strategic move rerouting public diplomacy to gain more power in the international community.
Putin knows the power of the 24-hour news cycle. His direct engagement with American citizens has changed the game of politics. And other national leaders like Rouhani seem to be catching on.