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FaceTime vs. face time: Diplomacy in the age of technology

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Between Twitter and FaceTime, Facebook and Vine, it’s easier than ever for world leaders to communicate virtually. But Marcus Holmes, assistant professor of government at William & Mary, believes that might not always be the best option.  

“People have been traveling the globe to meet with one another for centuries,” said Holmes. “You can go back to the 14th century and see leaders traveling great distances at great costs – sometimes putting their own lives at risk – in order to do this. The question is why, now, when we have all this technology? Why get in a high-emissions aircraft to go negotiate a climate change deal when you can just get online and talk over FaceTime?”

The simple answer is science. Psychological evidence indicates that face-to-face interactions elicit deeper relationships and deeper understandings of both friends and adversaries, said Holmes. He’s been researching the topic as it relates to international diplomacy for years, the findings of which are compiled into a forthcoming book called Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations.Marcus Holmes (Photo by Kate Hoving)

“Face-to-face diplomacy is really useful when it comes to understanding your counterpart,” said Holmes. “There’s a lot of evidence in psychology and neuroscience that suggests that when you’re in a face-to-face encounter with somebody you’re better able to understand their intentions, to build empathy and to build trust … It’s really hard to replicate that through other means.” 

As travel records prove, politicians, diplomats and world leaders agree. The past five secretaries of state have been the most traveled of any of their predecessors; John Kerry leads the pack with an estimated 1.06 million travel miles. Barack Obama was also the most well traveled president in U.S. history, embarking on 31 foreign trips since assuming office in 2009. 

The trips are costly, but as history suggests, immensely successful, resulting in numerous treaties, agreements and the endings of wars. One of the most notable examples of meaningful face-to-face interactions among leaders, said Holmes, is the series of summits between Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which eased Soviet suspicions of an impending American attack and ultimately resulted in the end of the Cold War. 

“This was a moment where the world was in crisis – we almost got into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union,” said Holmes. “In that moment, I think that’s the sort of intuition that leaders have – that there’s no better way to communicate with your counterpart than in a face-to-face setting.”  

How two leaders on the verge of war might come to understand and empathize with each other could be the work of specific architecture in the brain, the mirroring system, which is used to facilitate social interaction, said Holmes. According to some neuroscientists, the mirroring system helps us to develop speech and recognize facial expressions as babies – by mimicking our parents – but they might also be used for more sophisticated levels of understanding one another later on. 

“Microexpressions are facial expressions that happen very quickly – within milliseconds,” said Holmes. “And they’re hard to pick up on at a conscious level … but the brain is able to process them. These can give you clues as to whether someone is being sincere or if they’re kind of shielding something or being a little bit deceptive. That’s valuable information if you’re a leader or a diplomat.” 

The role of social media

As important as face-to-face diplomacy is, there’s growing evidence that also suggests politicians shouldn’t delete their Twitter accounts just yet. Holmes and his team in the Political Psychology and International Relations lab also research the usefulness of digital diplomacy, what he defines as “using any type of digital tool to effectively manage change in the international system.” 

“Digital diplomacy includes projection – getting on social media and tweeting things out for the world to see – but it’s also listening,” said Holmes. “It’s using social media and other tools to get a handle on what’s going on internationally. That might mean listening in on what other leaders are projecting or using data from Twitter to figure out what’s trending or what emotions are being expressed.”

Some of the most successful forms of projection include heads of state using social media to communicate quickly and effectively following an emergency. Great examples of this, said Holmes, are seen following natural disasters, such as the earthquakes in Nepal, Haiti and Myanmar.

“What India did was very interesting,” said Holmes. “They had a Twitter account set up almost immediately that was devoted to earthquake-related communication – everything from emergency information to different contacts to designated points to meet up with loved ones. This was an example of a big shock to the system where digital diplomacy was used to communicate with domestic and international audiences effectively.”

Among foreign ministries, digital diplomacy is being more and more encouraged on a day-to-day basis, too. Many leaders around the world make use of things like Twitter to share information, analysis and personal thoughts regularly – a reality the U.S. has come to know well under the current administration. One thing Holmes points out that politicians will have to remember is the ambiguity of messages delivered through social media.

“Sometimes when President Trump tweets about North Korea there’s a lot of confusion about what’s going on,” said Holmes. “Is he signaling his resolve, or does he really intend to take some type of military strike? The truth of the matter is we just don’t know. My argument in how to proceed with the Asia situation is that face-to-face diplomacy needs to be a part of it.” 

The Future of Diplomacy

Moving forward in the age of technology, Holmes views face-to-face and digital diplomacy as a support system for each other, with digital diplomacy paving the way for more intimate discussions. 

As a continuation of his research on face-to-face diplomacy, he’ll also be looking deeper into what makes relationships such as that between Reagan and Gorbachev so successful, and how future leaders can deduce in advance who they should and shouldn’t engage with in matters of diplomacy. 

“I think there’s something more profound and subtle to personal relationships and diplomacy, similar to dating or other types of relationships,” said Holmes. “People do hit it off and they do find chemistry with one another, and this chemistry is important for predicting how the relationship with other states are going to be moving forward. So in my next book what we’re trying to do is predict when political leaders will hit it off. Can we come up with a model of who’s going to have chemistry and who won’t before they get in a room together to negotiate? Basically it’s about figuring out what the essence of personal chemistry is in diplomacy.”