When negotiations over the future of Iran's nuclear program broke down last week, the question of why they did loomed in everyone's mind. In response, Secretary of State Kerry offered some weak explanation that Iranian negotiators had to get approval from higher ups back at home. Kerry's comments were a deflection from blaming the French for putting the kibosh on the agreement. Rather than deflecting from the French, Senator John McCain, in a rare move for a conservative Republican, complimented the French for their bravery in stopping the agreement, proclaiming, "Vive la France!" (Brings back images of the Maginot Line.)
In response to Kerry and McCain's efforts to "spin" the collapse of the talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to Twitter in order to place the blame squarely on the U.S. for gutting the text of the agreement in the last few hours. With this, the negotiations took a very public turn.
Public diplomacy, not the kind where embassies engage the people of the host country, but the conduct of negotiations between countries on social media, is a brave new world for international relations. The notion of moving negotiations out of backrooms and into the sunlight is intriguing, to say the least. In previous installments of this column, I raised the argument that allowing the terrorists behind the mall siege in Kenya to use Twitter unfettered, instead of shutting them down, would have given us more intelligence for taking them down. Can sunshine on diplomatic negotiations also have positive effects?
Backroom deals are inherently suspect because of the secrecy that surrounds them. We never quite know what concessions are being made to get to consensus. Would live tweeting the talks create more public confidence? Would it lead to better, more sustainable treaties?
The current example of the Iran nuclear talks is not a good example of a public negotiation. Twitter was only used after the fact, and then as a dig to cast blame for failure. But if the whole process was publicly chronicled, would the participants in the negotiations be held accountable? It is entirely possible that a public eye would keep all parties on track and honest.
What would public negotiations look like? Perhaps we would have a neutral third party provide a live tweet stream from the negotiations. That timeline would be complemented by tweets from the negotiating parties. And by tying all these tweets together with a common hashtag, the public would be able to chime in with their opinion, without forcing themselves into the core dialogue of the negotiating parties.
I suspect that moving forward, social media will play a growing role in negotiations regardless. But left unstructured, it is likely to be ad hoc and perhaps disruptive. Creating a more defined role for social media in international talks would go a long way towards insuring that it serves a positive role in them.