Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Foreign Diplomacy and the Semantics of Nuclear War in Digital Communication

By Lydia ZhengPublished November 2, 2017

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Written by Lydia Zheng, 11/02/2017 The globalization of technology has undoubtedly brought a host of benefits to the world at large. In the era of digital communication, it also makes it easier than ever for foreign leaders and dignitaries to communicate; for the Trump presidency, this may only complicate the international relations of the United States.


Written by Lydia Zheng, 11/02/2017

The globalization of technology has undoubtedly brought a host of benefits to the world at large. In the era of digital communication, it also makes it easier than ever for foreign leaders and dignitaries to communicate; for the Trump presidency, this may only complicate the international relations of the United States. 




With over 36,000 tweets and 40 million followers, President Trump's Twitter account is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. In an era where the president's tweets are now the equivalent of official press releases, announcements, and policy briefs, Trump has taken to the social media platform to criticize our closest allies—as well as our enemies. He strained relations with Great Britain when he tweeted attacks against the mayor of London after terrorist attacks in June. He led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to question the reliability of the United States as an ally after his Twitter tirade against European trade policy. And more recently, he drew the ire of North Korean foreign minister and Dictator Kim Jong Un himself in an increasingly violent series of tweets, managing to insult ally South Korea in the process. President Trump's uncontrolled usage of Twitter is a danger to the United States.
 
The foreign relations of the United States have undoubtedly been strained since the election of President Trump, and they grow increasingly precarious with each tweet he posts. And although it is important to consider how this reflects upon the soft power of the United States, or its ability to lead by example, the most pressing issue at hand is that North Korea has interpreted these insults as words of war. Most recently, threatening to strike the U.S. territory of Guam if Trump did not cease his inflammatory remarks. Trump, in turn, mysteriously tweeted in the midst of negotiations between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Kim Jong Un that "Agreements made [with North Korea] […] hasn't worked…only one thing will work!" The conflict between President Trump and Kim Jong Un has escalated, as both leaders shift between insulting each other through speeches and news conferences in real life, and insulting each other in the digital world. Notably, President Trump called Kim Jong Un "Little Rocket Man", and Kim Jong Un responded by calling Trump a "dotard."
 
In this way, the President's tweets are no longer just the equivalent of official statements in the eyes of the public. Now, they effectively also act as declarations, or intents, of war. Allies are losing faith in the United States, while other countries (notably Iran) have become increasingly aggravated as Trump takes to slandering them on Twitter. At best, Trump's tweets are straining relations with even the United States' closest allies. At worst, they are drawing the entire country into a very real threat of nuclear war. North Korea conducted its sixth missile test last month, which is thought to have involved a hydrogen bomb. Meanwhile, US attack submarines, aircraft carriers, and guided-missile destroyers have been shifted towards the border of North Korea, and the US has begun conducting joint naval drills with the South Korean army, perceived by North Korea as preparation for nuclear war. And according to North Korea's deputy UN ambassador, tensions on the peninsula are so great that "a nuclear war may break out any moment."
 
It could, and can, be argued that regardless of the President's incessant usage of Twitter, the country could be at threat of nuclear war anyway due to his inflammatory remarks outside the digital realm. However, constant access to Twitter, and the ability to tweet at a whim has undeniably both exacerbated and heightened the pace of escalation towards nuclear war. Even if nuclear war itself is unlikely, the post-WWII American-led world order has most likely come to an end. The global financial elite have already started referring to China as "the leader of the free world," the British parliament has deemed President Trump unfit to address the House of Commons, Israeli intelligence officials have expressed reluctance to share the full extent of their information with President Trump, and senior members of Australia's Labor government have coined the term "normal Trump tantrum" to describe President Trump's heated conversations with even the friendliest of nations.
 
While many appreciate President Trump's Twitter account as a way for him to communicate and connect with ordinary people, especially since the Presidency has historically been seen as a relatively insulated political office, However, digital communication must be a two-way street. The Trump administration is currently fighting a suit against several users who were blocked from viewing the President's Twitter. They allege that being unable to view or engage with the President's tweets to participate in discussions is a violation of their First Amendment rights. In this way, the President has effectively chosen to only engage in communication with ordinary people who he directly agrees with. Digital communication is a gift of the 21st century, but cannot be used as a substitute for substantive policy or a way for President Trump to initiate conflict with world leaders, especially if . If the integrity of the United States is to remain intact, advisors should seriously consider hiring a social media manager to oversee President Trump's tweets. Or at least take his phone away during the hours of 12 AM to 7 AM.