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Blog Post | Diplomatic Transparency and the Emergence of Post-Reality

Author: Ilan Manor

In 2016, ‘The Economist’ magazine employed the term ‘post-truth’ to characterize contemporary politics. The magazine asserted that the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US Presidential elections and the rise of populism were all marked by politicians’ frequent use of half-truth, lies and fabrications. What was remarkable about 2016 was not that politicians lied; but that they no longer cared if they were caught lying. Narratives had thus supplanted truth as the basis of political communication.

Narratives have always played an important role in diplomacy. At the national level, diplomats use historical narratives to help citizens make sense of a chaotic present. Such was the case in 2014 when the Israeli MFA (foreign ministry) employed the narrative of ‘David versus Goliath' to help Israelis make sense of the Gaza War. At the international level, diplomats use narratives to explain their policies to foreign populations. The UK, for example, has narrated the Syrian Civil War as a humanitarian catastrophe that demands immediate action from the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

The narratives employed by two states to explain the same global event often conflict. This is because diplomats employ narratives strategically. By helping foreign populations understand a global event, diplomats seek to rally support for their nation’s policies while preventing an adversary from doing the same. For instance, once the Iran Nuclear Accord had been signed, all signatories narrated the Accord in a different way. According to Iran, the Accord signified the West’s recognition that Iran was an important regional actor whose interests must be respected. According to the Obama administration, the Accord was testament to America’s commitment to peacefully resolve conflicts with the Muslim world.

However, diplomats have traditionally abandoned their narratives when entering the negotiating room. It is within closed confines, and far from the media’s limelight, that diplomats may come to agree on a shared definition of reality and, more importantly, search for ways to address this reality. For instance, prior to the 1993 Oslo Accord, Israel vowed never to negotiate with the PLO, while the PLO refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Yet far from the public gaze, Israeli and Palestinian leaders were able to agree that Israel had a right to exist and that the Palestinians had a right to form their own nation. An important question is how can diplomats come to agree on a shared reality when they are televised 24 hours a day?

Is Transparent Diplomacy Confounding Diplomacy?

Recent years have seen the increased transparency of diplomatic processes. An institution that was once shrouded in an aura of discretion and secrecy has flung open the doors to its inner sanctums. This is most evident in the live streaming of deliberation from UN forums, including the Security Council. Even when debates are not televised they are live-tweeted by UN Ambassadors or lower ranking diplomats. The increased transparency of diplomacy is not an act of benevolence but of necessity. Citizens around the world have demanded that their governments become more transparent and MFAs are no exception.

And yet it is possible that transparent diplomacy is confounding the practice of diplomacy. The main reason being that when televised, diplomats must promote their nations’ narratives. No American diplomat can appear on camera stating that Crimea is part of Russia as the US narrative asserts that Crimea is occupied Ukrainian territory. Similarly, no Russian diplomat can be quoted on Twitter as saying that the Assad has used chemical weapons in Syria, as Russia argues that such allegations are false. In other words, transparent diplomacy forces diplomats to re-iterate national narratives while preventing them from agreeing on a shared definition of reality. It is only after diplomats have defined a shared reality that they can take measures to solve real-world problems.

What we are now witnessing in the realm of diplomacy is, thus, not Post-Truth but Post-Reality. According to Russian diplomats there is a place called the Republic of Crimea. It has borders, citizens and a parliament. According to US and British diplomats there is no such place. It does not exist. Similarly, according to Russian diplomats, Aleppo has been freed from Jihadi terrorists. According to French diplomats, Aleppo has been reduced to rubble. It is a city populated only by ghosts. For more than five years, diplomats have been unable to agree on what is occurring in Crimea and Syria partly because their deliberations are all broadcast in near-real time. In this way, transparency has fragmented diplomats’ reality to millions of atoms that can no longer form a cohesive whole.

Transparent Diplomacy and the Challenges that Lay Ahead

In the coming decade, diplomats will increasingly be called upon to resolve international crises. Crucially, crises are likely to become more frequent and more complex. Globalization, economic interdependence and the transition towards a hetero-polar world all breed conflicts as nations adopt expansionist foreign policies -  evident in Russia’s actions in the Middle East or China’s military buildup in the South China Sea. Moreover, the number of actors involved in crises is likely to grow. This is evident in the Syrian Civil War whose resolution must take into account the interests of Syria, Russia, the US, Iran and even Turkey. Yet diplomats will be unable to resolve these crises under conditions of Post-Reality.   

The question that follows is whether diplomacy should retreat back into the shadows? One possible answer lays in the negotiations that preceded the Iran Nuclear Accord. While journalists covered these negotiations, they were never actually allowed into the negotiating room. Participating diplomats disseminated images of the negotiations while publishing agreed-upon press releases. Yet once a deal had been struck, diplomats published the Iran Nuclear Accord in full, allowing online and offline publics the opportunity to review the Accord and discuss its limitations. In this way, diplomats were able to strike a balance between diplomacy’s need for discretion, and the public demand for transparent governance. Multi-lateral forums such as the UN should follow suite thus ending the paralysis now felt in the UN Security Council.

Ilan Manor recently obtained a PhD at The University of Oxford. His most recent contributions to the Hague Journal of Diplomacy may be found here.

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