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Twitter-Mob Diplomacy, 3/3
Foreign policy is being decided in a new way
Consider the mob. It is a loose-type association. The mob will tar and feather, burn at the stake, string up by the neck, and otherwise murder. But dissect this association, pull it apart, investigate its individual components. Each person, very often, is a God-fearing, home-loving, wouldn’t-kill-a-fly type of individual. . .
These persons, when in mob association, and maybe at the instigation of a demented leader, remove the self-disciplines which guide them in individual action; thus the evil that is in each person is released, for there is some evil in all of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an abstraction which, without persons, is what the mob is.
I speculate that we are witnessing a new phenomenon in the construction of foreign policy. We are seeing the elites manipulated by the mass public, rather than the other way around.
In the past, elites might have dragged the country into foreign interventions that the public would have been reluctant to undertake . But in the case of the Ukraine invasion, I sense that in the absence of public pressure the elites would have done less than what they are now doing.
It used to be that a foreign intervention, such as the U.S. wars in Iraq, was designed by a cadre of elites and then sold to the public. Richard Hanania points out that foreign policy is not conducted by a unitary actor. It emerges from the competing interests of various elites, and consequently it may be irrational or incoherent. But the relationship between elites and the mass public in most models, including Hanania’s, is top-down. The public is manipulated by elite propaganda.
I submit that in the present Ukraine crisis, the propaganda is emerging bottom-up. You may argue, with justification, that some of the propaganda is generated by Ukraine’s leaders, who are playing the social media game exceedingly well. But that is nonetheless consistent with my thesis, which is that American and European elites are not the dominant influence on public opinion at present.
As I see it, the elites in the United States and Europe are not out in front of the public on Ukraine Instead, public opinion is forming on social media, and the mob is demanding of elites that they do more to help the resistance in Ukraine, to punish Vladimir Putin in particular, and to punish Russians in general.
Anti-Russian feeling is somewhat indiscriminate. Most of us believe that the decision to invade Ukraine was made by one autocratic leader. Yet the public wants to see Russian athletes, musicians, and ordinary citizens punished.
I understand that people want to be free to boycott Russian commerce if they choose. But what if restraint turns out to be wiser? Will social media ever promote nuanced approaches, or carefully targeted actions?
Beyond official economic sanctions, many American companies are feeling a need to sever ties with Russia. We are punishing many innocent individuals and businesses because of their nationality. But is anyone trying to calculate whether this private sector disengagement will do much to loosen Mr. Putin’s grip on Russia or change his behavior in Ukraine?
In the absence of public pressure, the governments of the U.S. and Europe would have taken steps against Russia. Perhaps their choices would have been wise, perhaps not. At the margin, is the Twitter mob conducting better diplomacy?
Even if you think that the Twitter mob has been a constructive force thus far, I suspect that, going forward, Twitter-mob diplomacy is not going to be pretty. It will unleash forces that are irrational and dangerous.
For example, it is not far-fetched to imagine a Twitter mob descending on Israel. Individuals and companies could be pressured into cutting off Israelis from commerce and travel.
There is widespread irrational hostility toward Israel. I do not think that this comes primarily from anti-semitism or Jew-hatred. Instead, in the simplistic, moral dyad framing (see my discussion of The Mind Club), Israel is perceived as having agency with no feelings, and Palestinians are perceived as having feelings with no agency. There are those who see Israel as Derek Chauvin and the Palestinians as George Floyd. These people would like to see Israel assigned pariah status on par with Russia.
But not all situations are as morally clear as the mob sees them to be. Sometimes, instead of relying on a black-and-white narrative, it is appropriate to acknowledge ambiguity. The right approach could be to compromise, negotiate, or exercise patience.
“Cancel culture” does not give its targets a fair trial. I fear a scenario in which punishment of individuals, corporations, and countries is meted out by extrajudicial vigilantes. The Twitter mob will decide guilt or innocence. The Twitter mob will determine sentencing.
My point here is not to defend Russia. It is certainly not to sympathize with Mr. Putin. But there is something to be said for sticking with institutional processes to determine with whom our citizens and corporations can do business. Formal procedures and legal controls on the sanctions process can provide useful guardrails.
Even if you agree with the social media mob today, at some point you may wish for more traditional diplomacy. Some day, when the mob comes after you, or it comes after someone with whom you sympathize, what recourse will you have? If we desire anything resembling rule of law in human affairs, then I believe it requires due process, not mob justice.