Modi’s Twitter Diplomacy

by Michelle Bovée 

In the post-Obama selfie world, politicians on Twitter are hardly shocking.  Many international leaders have verified Twitter accounts (presumably run by fresh-faced graduates) to share pictures, upcoming speaking engagements, and political platforms.  Newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though, has taken Twitter one step further: he’s conducting diplomacy in 140 characters or less.

Modi took to Twitter in the days after his victory to publicly respond to the congratulatory phone calls he received from world leaders, and foreign policy wonks were quick to note that Modi’s tweets were not exactly going out randomly.  Canadian PM Stephen Harper was the first to receive a mention; it’s worth noting that Canada has been a country partner for Modi’s flagship investor summit, Vibrant Gujarat, for the last 3 years.  Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, was also among the first to get a shout-out, and a number of Japanese companies have established factories in Gujarat, meaning Japan could be a valuable partner in India’s Look East policy.  In what many have called a snub, Modi waited almost 2 days to mention President Obama, potentially because Modi may still be bitter over being denied a US visa due to his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

It’s unlikely that Twitter diplomacy will ever replace proper diplomacy.  One can’t easily imagine President Obama tweeting, “@Rami @Netanyahu why are u still fighting?  #GetOverItAlready” or the Chinese government sending out “Whoops about the cyberattack everyone #SorryNotSorry.”  No, true diplomacy will continue along the secretive backchannels used for generations; how could a group of leaders negotiate a treaty or end a war two sentences at a time with the entire world watching, robotically refreshing Twitter?  World leaders trading platitudes over social media, though, could certainly become a new trend in foreign policy; a form of soft power where leaders demonstrate their charisma and sense of humor, like Hillary Clinton did in 2012, by chatting amicably over Twitter or offering gentle policy critiques.

One can’t easily imagine President Obama tweeting, “@Rami @Netanyahu why are u still fighting?  #GetOverItAlready” or the Chinese government sending out “Whoops about the cyberattack everyone #SorryNotSorry.”

Modi’s tweets to international leaders are not insignificant, though.  His Twitter account is a living document offering insight into his foreign policy, for those who care to parse it—and many do, judging by the sheer number of articles published to date.  Given India’s foreign policy history, characterized by continuity and stasis, the Prime Minister’s attempts to actively reach out is a refreshing change of pace.

As an increasing number of political leaders like Modi take to Twitter, though, they would do well to remember that no matter what the European Court of Justice rules, there is no true “right to be forgotten.”  Tweets can be deleted, articles can be made difficult to access, but a record will always exist in some form.  This could be good for scholars and pundits who can go back and further analyze Modi’s early tweets if he does indeed tighten relations with Canada and Japan, but they can also continue to bring up his two-day-late response to Obama if the two attempt to make amends.  The tweets will always be available for over-analysis in a 24-hour news cycle, any little detail or mistake cause for speculation on future foreign relations.  Modi, and any other leaders considering taking to Twitter, will have to be cautious about how much he is willing to reveal over social media, or risk the media misinterpreting his Tweets and making assumptions about his foreign policy goals.