Why do international actors take negotiations into the public realm, and how do they do it?

These are two core questions investigated in a new article by NUPI Senior Research Fellow Øyvind Svendsen. 

‘International negotiations normally took place behind closed doors, out of the public eye. We got to see the results only when the parties had reached agreement. However, in today’s age of digitalization, all this has changed’, Svendsen explains.  

The NUPI researcher has examined this in his article ‘Theorizing Public Performances for International Negotiations’, recently published in the prestigious International Studies Quarterly, available  on the journal’s web page (open access). 

‘The negotiating parties now use the social media to communicate with the public while the talks are still ongoing. In this way, the information flow between the negotiating parties and the public become an organic part of the negotiations. And this might affect the trust between those who are trying to negotiate’, he explains. 

Brexit negotiations on Twitter

In his article, Svendsen constructs a theory which can be used to explain how international negotiations become publicly available in our increasingly digitalized era. For illustration, he shows how the final phase of the Brexit negotiations took place largely also on Twitter.

Svendsen focuses on how four of the most prominent figures involved in the negotiations acted on Twitter in the final phase of the Brexit negotiation, in September and October 2019. 

He has analysed the Twitter posts from, on the UK side, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Steve Barclay, who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. From the EU side, Svendsen has examined the tweets posted by Donald Tusk, then President of the European Council, and Michel Barnier, who served as the European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom.

‘Obsessed by getting support for the agreement at home’

The tweets of parties involved in negotiations such as Brexit have aims. The actors use them to communicate and lend credibility to their own demands vis-a-vis their counterpart. The tweets are also used to signal viewpoints to the home audience, as former Prime Minister Boris Johnson did through tweets like the one quoted below, posted in October 2019, when the Brexit deadline was approaching: “I want to #GetBrexitDone so we can lead this country forward and invest in our NHS, schools and police”.

Svendsen goes on to explain: ‘One main challenge, as I show in my article, is that in Twitter diplomacy you reach both your home audience and your counterpart simultaneously. In the final phase of the Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson was obsessed with gaining home support. To this end, he reiterated the slogan #getbrexitdone. This proved successful towards a home public weary of the many Brexit delays.’ 

However, this strategy wasn’t equally successful towards the actors in Brussels. 

‘They replied: “But what kind of Brexit do you want?” Tusk appeared quite angry and tried to make fun of Johnson. By contrast, Barnier and to some degree Barclay remained more matter-of-fact and pragmatic. So, on the whole, Johnson had an effective national strategy for selling his message, whereas Barnier and Barclay were successful in using diplomatic skills on Twitter.’

Pros and cons

Using the social media in this way has some clear advantages:

‘With the social media, you can reach your audience quickly – both your home public and other diplomats and politicians. Moreover, you can disseminate a message and seek legitimization for ones point of view in a negotiation. The social media can also be used to ‘lock’ the opponent: If you go public with certain points in the negotiations – for example, expectations or promises – that can make it harder for your counterpart not to accommodate these,’ says Svendsen. 

On the other hand, using the social media is not entirely risk-free.

‘The digital presence expected of diplomats and politicians necessarily affects their day-to-day work. And surely there’s a risk of misunderstanding when so much information is spread quickly and often in a compressed format like Twitter, where it’s difficult to present long chains of reasoning’, he says, adding:

‘In fact, I think diplomats strive to protect the traditional methods of negotiations as much as possible. They don’t sit around the negotiations table, smartphones in their hands to tweet everything that’s being said. What we see are more or less successful attempts to use the social media strategically.’

Several challenges emerge when international negotiations become increasingly digitalized and public to such a degree, according to Svendsen, who adds ‘There’s also a democracy side to this. If it means that the public gains more insight into ongoing negotiations, it’s also easier to hold the negotiating actors responsible.’

Warns against dismissing Twitter posts

In his article, Svendsen warns against dismissing Twitter posts from negotiations parties as what experts refers to as ‘cheap talk’, meaning moves that have no effect on the final result.

‘Many will say that the actors in international relations are fully rational and able to separate “talk” on Twitter on one side from negotiations on the other. I don’t think it’s that easy. We saw this in Brexit, for example, as relations between the UK and the EU gradually worsened. I don’t think this was due solely to what went on in the closed negotiations: the public arguments between the parties and how they spoke of each other also played a role here. So we can say that tweets aren’t “cheap”, but come at a cost, helping to shape the framework within which international negotiations take place.’