Jul 26, 20185m read
Donald Trump and the Future of Twitter Diplomacy
By Derek Willie
There’s no quiet after Donald Trump’s Twitter storms. With every strike of digital lightning comes a firestorm of controversy—flurries of gushing praise and fierce criticism unleashed all at once, expertly stoking the flames of political rivalry and ideological warfare.
Sunday night was no exception. As much of the East Coast was battered with rainstorms and a few claps of thunder, Trump provided perhaps the biggest weather event of the evening, tweeting at Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, the following message in all-caps:
“NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
Without surprise, the President’s tweet elicited a number of responses, spanning from Democrats’ angry invectives to Republicans’ equally fervid applause, borne like libations to Zeus. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the 2016 Presidential candidate who many expect will challenge Trump in 2020, responded with a tweet of his own, asking if “anyone really believe[d] Trump is concerned with human rights in Iran, when he’s had only kind things to say about authoritarians around the world…?” Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) essentially coronated Trump in conservative circles by comparing him to Ronald Reagan: “I am so pleased that President Trump is letting the Iranian President know there’s a new sheriff in town… The Trump doctrine when it comes to Iran is the Reagan doctrine when it came to the Soviet Union.”
“What could be a more impulsive—and dangerous—way of talking to a foreign adversary, and of all things, about the prospect of nuclear war?”
Of course, it’s no wonder that Sen. Graham—a veteran critic of the Iranian regime and Barack Obama’s Iran policy—lauded the President for his tweet. Not only did Trump offer an emphatic rebuke of Rouhani, and by extension Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, he implicitly threatened military action against Iran—something Graham seemed to endorse in the same interview. “President Trump’s tweet says there’s a new sheriff in town,” Graham reiterated. “We’re going to bring this regime down by helping the Iranian people. Regime change is the only way to save the mid-east from just perpetual conflict. This regime needs to go.” More interesting though, is that while Sens. Sanders and Graham responded to the content of the President’s tweet, they left untouched the subject of its medium.
Once a talking point frequently deployed by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, Trump’s erratic, often late-night Twitter presence seems to have become less a bizarre irruption of social media into politics and more a convention of political communication—even in matters of foreign policy. A little less than a year ago, Trump unleashed a nor’easter of tweets directed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in which he warned that if North Korea’s foreign minister “echoe[d] thoughts of Little Rocket Man,” aka Kim, the country “won’t be around much longer.” More absurdly, he bragged in January of 2018 that he had a “much bigger and more powerful” nuclear button than Kim. What could be a more impulsive—and dangerous—way of talking to a foreign adversary, and of all things, about the prospect of nuclear war?
“Is what Lindsey Graham calls ‘the Trump doctrine’ also the Twitter doctrine—and will it inflect the foreign policy strategies of future presidents?”
Yet just a few months later, President Trump was beginning negotiations with Kim, culminating in an historic summit between the two nations in Singapore. Relations with North Korea have arguably never been better, and though the reasons behind Trump’s meeting with Kim are certainly more complex and multifaceted than the explosive style of Trump’s tweets, it’s nearly impossible to claim that they substantially hurt relations between the U.S. and North Korea—let alone precipitated any kind of nuclear aggression on the part of the latter. Which, to the dismay of Democrats, begs the questions: Has Trump set a new paradigm for diplomacy between the U.S. and its adversaries? Is what Lindsey Graham calls “the Trump doctrine” also the Twitter doctrine—and will it inflect the foreign policy strategies of future presidents?
Perhaps the answers to these questions will come partly in the denouement of Trump’s Iran gambit. Experts on the Iranian regime are already betting that Trump’s stratagem—apparently analogous to the one he used to bring North Korea to the bargaining table—won’t have as much sway on Rouhani and the Ayatollah. That’s also not to mention the resistance the President would likely face from those in his own party, who’ve shown little interest in negotiating with leaders whom Sen. Graham once labeled “religious Nazis.” Even less certain, however, is whether Trump’s outburst represents a legitimate, though convoluted, effort to engage the Iranian regime in some kind of diplomatic negotiation, or, as some have suggested, a ploy to distract the American media from what many perceived to be a fumble in his recent dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“…if Trump’s tweet to Iran—and the reactions that ensued—show us anything, it’s that the current President has consecrated Twitter as the pressroom of the social media epoch—with implications yet to be foreseen.”
“COLOR US UNIMPRESSED,” tweeted Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, in a targeted response to Trump’s threat. “The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them—albeit more civilized ones—for 40 yrs. We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl [sic] our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries.”
“BE CAUTIOUS!”” Zarif advised, punctuating his tweet with more of the all-caps typography for which President Trump has now become famous. Given the President’s Twitter history, the tone of his next retort is likely to be anything but. Regardless, if Trump’s tweet to Iran—and the reactions that ensued—show us anything, it’s that the current President has consecrated Twitter as the pressroom of the social media epoch—with implications yet to be foreseen.