In The Media

Why Twitter diplomacy won't lead to better foreign policy 

by David Carment

January 6, 2014

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Several of my colleagues at universities scattered across Quebec have been contemplating the title of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal's forthcoming special all-French review of Stephen Harper’s foreign policy.

In our conversations about the main themes we wanted to project, I suggested we call the review the “dead parrot” issue, with the underlying assumption that Canadian foreign policy is pretty much dead, and—to paraphrase John Cleese in the famous Monty Python skit—if it weren’t nailed to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies.

Needless to say, my Anglo sense of humour didn’t quite make the mark with my Francophone colleagues, and so I have decided to reserve the title for our subsequent all-English review of Harper’s foreign policy to be released later this year.

My observation that Canadian foreign policy is indeed dead is perhaps an exaggeration, but for many of us who have toiled in the international affairs trenches for decades, the past few years are an unprecedented low point.

There was a time—indeed a period of almost 15 uninterrupted years—where I, my colleagues across Canada and our students enjoyed extraordinary access to foreign affairs headquarters in Ottawa, where we consulted and listened to our prestigious diplomatic corps on virtually every topic that mattered to Canada. They took us seriously and we them.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I could structure my class around an issue of interest to the department of foreign affairs, have my students prepare briefs for the policy branch and present these memos to desk officers who addressed each and every point the students had carefully researched over the course of several months.

There was a time when academic experts were consulted on foreign policy reviews and our research was taken seriously in policy planning.

There was a time when I could engage my students in a multi-week Internet-based international negotiation simulation competing against universities around the world from the United States, Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa. Each year I would have my class play Canada in that simulation and each year, so motivated and proud were my students, they would outshine everyone else in the game.

I would cap the class by organizing a visit to foreign affairs headquarters, where my students would receive an entire day’s briefing on seminal issues such as Canada-US relations, the environment, international law, security and human rights.

When DFAIT stopped extending their invitation to the Pearson building they lost me and my students. We would have to look elsewhere for inspiration and motivation. I was at pains to explain to my students, all of whom sought a career in the public service, why things had changed.

Of course, the erasure of public consultation, the downgrading of academic engagement, the shuttering of programs, the cutting of grants and the loss of funding to special initiatives were all part of the explanations I gave. Penny wise, pound foolish noted others, with multiplier effects generated through small grants now all but squandered.

Besides, it was argued more cynically, most students are not keen supporters of the current government and therefore the political gains in engaging students is limited. For those reading who believe that I and my students are a handful of a privileged few and therefore expendable, they might have a point. But the DFATD of old never discriminated; its doors were open to everyone.

True, the school where I teach has held a virtual monopoly on supplying the best and brightest to the public service and many of our students have gone on to positions of influence and power in the department. I and my colleagues have enjoyed close working relations with its staff and I have personally worked with the policy branch as a Cadieux Fellow. Adapt and move on, say the critics, and so we have.

Today, Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs no longer enjoys its monopoly, as schools of international affairs have popped up across the country each with their own capabilities and interests. I have no idea how these other schools engage the department in its current form or how they consult with and influence the policy process. But I do know we are not alone in our experiences, as academe has become decidedly less relevant to foreign policy decision making from inputs to outputs.

It’s all part of a general decline in the engagement of civil society and public policy, which formally is the route by which civil society helps shape foreign policy choices, through accountable and open consultative mechanisms.

If you believe, like I do, that foreign policy is too important to be left in the hands of politicians, some of whom are grossly uninformed and poorly researched, then you must conclude a closing down and a circling the wagons approach to public engagement, is both counterproductive and potentially destructive.

The result is what we academics call premature closure, or what policy makers call a failure in due diligence; basically an unwillingness to consider all of the potential options, the risk and the consequences of a particular course of action. In this newspaper and elsewhere, I have addressed the reasons why a foreign policy that is not open to public scrutiny lacks both accountability and legitimacy.

Critics may well suggest that our foreign policy is ok as is. After all, politicians are elected to represent the dominant public interest. Those politicians who are fearful of contrarian views, public debate and full citizen engagement are within their right to quash dissent. Or so the argument goes.

Others might suggest that public diplomacy has moved on; what with Twitter, Facebook and social media being the new and better way of engaging Canadians. Such new diplomacy thinking has its enablers. When it comes to new media, such as Twitter, DFATD staff will tell you they are listening, and I can certainly attest that a number of my very few followers come from the department. But engaging these staffers in a conversation or debate has proven near impossible.

That is because they aren’t listening—only monitoring or selling. Listening is an essential part of having a conversation; where each side not only hears the other but understands the other and modifies their own views accordingly.

Twitter diplomacy is not a conversation, and it certainly is not a substitute for proper engagement where the exchange of ideas is done openly and constructively. Further a thousand voices all sending their own unique message, results only in a cacophony of confusing and incoherent viewpoints which policy makers are bound to ignore.

But there are other problems as well. Blogs and Twitter diplomacy are no substitutes for a coherent and structured engagement of academe that is fully respectful of the research process and the evidence upon which it is based.

Being a clearing house of information does not make a website a think tank, though some would have you believe that is the case. Such hubs and portals are not the future of foreign policy. Far from it; they are merely a cost effective—read cheap—way of sharing opinion.

The mainstream media has come to realize this as well. Investigative journalism costs money—indeed the decline of mainstream journalism can be largely attributed to a winding down of real, investigative capabilities. For my money I’d like to see more e-diplomacy space for students who are as well informed and better researched as any of the experts who seem compelled to have opinions on everything.

My personal view is the prospects for meaningful change are not good. We are too immature a nation to handle genuine debate and our leaders seem to be uninterested in public diplomacy. Perhaps, like children, its because we can’t handle some basic truths, nor are we intellectually prepared to debate them.

If it is the case that our foreign policy decision-making must be immunized against outside influences, then that says a lot about our lack of confidence we as a people have in our core institutions . It says a lot about how far we are from being the best we can be.

I for one will continue to pine for the fjords.

David Carment is the editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and a professor of international affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

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