Since Joe Biden’s election victory, the British government has made efforts to woo the new administration. This was evident at the latest G7 summit, where Boris Jonson stated that the US is ‘unreservedly back’ as leader of the free world. Given Boris Johnson’s past comments about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Britain has had to try harder than other European countries to establish good relations with Biden.

But does the problem run deeper than Boris Johnson?

Social media builds bridges

A recent report by Policy Exchange, (written by Ben Judah) suggests that British diplomacy in Washington needs an overhaul. It recommends that the government engage more with Congress and invest in think tanks. One suggestion that caught my eye was that British diplomats and politicians should make better use of social media, and be more willing to challenge people who make inaccurate claims about the UK. The report argues that British diplomats appear stuffy and unapproachable, which is not suitable for the modern era.

I think there is some truth in this. One politician who effectively uses Instagram and Twitter is the International Trade Secretary Liz Truss. When she visited Australia and New Zealand, Truss did not hesitate to use the trip for photo-ops. She took photos she knew were likely to be widely shared on social media. This is reported to have irritated her officials.

Truss has arguably been rather successful in her job. She has signed numerous agreements with non-EU countries, including Canada and Japan. It has rightly been pointed out that these are just ‘roll-over’ deals (meaning that they are agreements that the UK already had as part of the European Union). But it is still an achievement on her part.

The Trade Secretary’s success may be partly because of, not despite, her use of social media. The report argues that British diplomats should use Twitter to engage with high-profile American celebrities and influencers to challenge misinformation about the UK, stating that: ‘there is no reason why they cannot create an attractive persona by deploying culture and humour as well as truth in defending their country and its interests’.

The report also cites the controversial former French ambassador to the US, Gerard Araud, as an example of a diplomat who used social media to make his case. Araud said: ‘My decision was not to have an account that simply repeated what was being said on the official embassy twitter … but to develop an idiosyncratic one with French taste and a persona and authentic touch that would work well online’.

Actions speak louder than words

But there are issues with this. Firstly, some of Britain’s problems in Washington run deeper than clumsy, out-of-date diplomacy. The report cites Northern Ireland (in relation to Brexit), as an example of British diplomacy failing. But this has always been a source of tension. The US has a large Irish-American community and a powerful Irish lobby. John Major was left incandescent after Bill Clinton granted Gerry Adams a US visa. Moreover, the government’s recent threat to break international law, which would have jeopardised the Good Friday Agreement, has done little to improve Britain’s standing in America. The problem is the governments’ actions themselves, not just the way they are presented.

The report does note that social media is not a magic solution, and it makes other interesting policy suggestions.
What is more, using social media in the way it suggests has risks as well as benefits. For example, Araud caused a great deal of offence when he tweeted: ‘we should remember that the US refused to side with France and the UK to confront the fascist powers in the ’30s’ — on Pearl Harbour Day. Furthermore, one of the more positive qualities people attribute to the British is courtesy, and it would be wrong to jeopardise that by being needlessly aggressive.

Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, uses Twitter politely but effectively. He has 57,000 followers. Recently, he has become known for being particularly vocal about China. Tugendhat’s example shows that politicians in important foreign policy positions can use modern technology to make their voices heard without being unnecessarily antagonistic. It’s a matter of fine-tuning behaviour and voice, but once you get it right, great results can follow.

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