Back in what might be called the early days of modern diplomacy, when a head of government or foreign minister wanted to say something important to their opposite number in a far-off country, they wrote a letter. The letter was sealed, placed in a diplomatic pouch and sent by steamship to the embassy of the sender’s country for personal delivery to the recipient.
During the Second World War, when Winston Churchill had something important to communicate to Franklin Roosevelt, he sent a coded message via undersea cable to its North American terminus in Cape Breton. There it was received and relayed to Washington by a Canadian National telegrapher named Fred MacDonald – who, by way of historical footnote, was the father of the future Conservative MP and foreign minister, Flora MacDonald.
Years later, Flora found herself responsible for the safety of six Americans who sought refuge after their embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant supporters of Iran’s new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Plans for the CIA-assisted rescue of the six “houseguests” – in what became known as the “Canadian Caper” – were exchanged by coded telex messages between Ottawa and the Canadian embassy in Tehran.
Special coding equipment was smuggled into Tehran for the “exfiltration” operation. Once the Americans were safely on their way home and a final telex had been sent to Ottawa, the equipment was destroyed with a sledgehammer and the embassy was shuttered.
Whether by letter, cable or telex, diplomatic communication in earlier times was largely confidential and, equally important, it allowed time for everyone involved to think through a situation and to reflect on the implications of their words.
That was then. This is now. Diplomacy has moved into a high-speed lane that allows precious little time for thought or reflection, as we have seen in the current fuss or crisis (depending one’s point of view) between Canada and Saudi Arabia.
“Now” – to be arbitrary about it – began in March 2006 when Jack Dorsey, an undergraduate at New York University, and three pals came up with a bright idea. It was to create a web-based messaging system. They called it “Twitter,” meaning “a short burst of inconsequential information,” according to its creators.
Spreading like wildfire among computer-savvy youth, then into the mainstream, Twitter made a fortune for its creators. Jack Dorsey today has a net worth of $5.1-billion, according to Forbes. It also attracted instant critics. In 2008, just two years after its inception, journalist Clive Thompson, writing in the New York Times Magazine, described Twitter as "a new, supermetabolic extreme – the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.”
Please don’t tell that to Donald Trump. He may not read much of anything, but he is fascinated by the twitterverse (or twittersphere) and he knows how to use its speed to mobilize his base. He seizes an issue, beats it into the ground, then pivots and heads off in an entirely different direction.
In international relations, Trump uses his tweets to keep other leaders off balance. They don’t know from one moment to the next what the president really means or wants. Justin Trudeau may be the cat’s pajamas one moment, only be “very dishonest and weak” in the next tweet.
Trudeau is an active tweeter, too, as are many of his minsters. But he must wish someone in foreign affairs had taken the time to reflect on how a tweet calling on Saudi Arabia to “immediately” release human rights protesters would be received by that country’s notoriously thin-skinned Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador, wrote in the Globe and Mail, “Insecure regimes, as with insecure people, react badly to highly directive words such as ‘immediately.’”
Badly and instantly, when they use Twitter. Chances are, the Saudi affair will blow over, if everyone involved can stay off Twitter long enough to let it go away.