The problem with armchair diplomacy and social media

Technology has democratized soft power and turned TikTok users into modern-day diplomats. Now everyone from the Oval Office to the streets of Cairo can influence public policy and diplomacy.

We’re seeing this game in Ukraine right now, which in many ways is the first truly global war. Early on, when the US was still debating whether and how to send aid to Ukraine, Americans watched from their sofas as homes and businesses were razed to the ground and lives destroyed. They didn’t wait for Congress to get its act together; Instead, they booked Airbnbs in Ukraine to financially support small business owners and put money in the hands of people who needed it.

Never before has it been possible for people to bypass the government to provide direct aid to another nation in need. This fundamentally changes the context in which foreign diplomacy is conducted; the average citizen can now shape the US response to international crises from their phone.

The age of armchair diplomacy is here. Young people are particularly well positioned to take on this new responsibility. But with no barriers to entry, how do we ensure these conversations are effective and informed?

How do we master the art of dialogue?

While powerful, I contend that digital platforms are not enough to build bridges of cultural understanding. In the same way digital art differs from a painted canvas, online interactions, while valuable, have different characteristics and qualities that create a different lens through which to look at the world.

This lens often consists of audio clips, video clips, news articles, and viral social media posts. It’s not an in-depth, long conversation that challenges our global perspective. Whether you blame algorithms, Gen Z, or the very nature of technology itself, there’s no denying that parasocial relationships and 280-character posts fail to capture the depth and complexity of political arguments and foreign affairs.

In diplomacy, physical interaction is still king. Fortunately, young leaders still play an important role in the physical landscape.

The Shafik Gabr Foundation fellowship program, East-West: The Art of Dialogue, provides a powerful framework through which to view the role of young people in world affairs. Each year, this program brings together 10 Americans and 10 Egyptians, ages 24-35, to spend time in each other’s countries, engage in intense discussions, and engage in rich cultural exchanges.

As a Gabr Scholar 2022 I have gained invaluable first-hand experience living with and learning from the Egyptian Scholars in a way I never could have done through articles and videos. It’s one thing to read about the Arab Spring. It’s quite another thing to sit in Cairo and hear someone’s story about the Tahrir Square protests.

We talked to each other, questioned and learned from each other. Even on particularly contentious issues such as freedom of speech and democracy, we listened to each other. We got to know the cultural and political framework that shaped our respective worldviews.

We had political debates while enjoying a bowl of koshari and emerged strengthened. Then we came back to our homelands with the knowledge and connections necessary to make real change happen. Now, when it comes to US-Egyptian relations, we need not ask what the Egyptians think; we can call them and ask.

Not everyone will have the opportunity for international travel, but we all have access to the global political landscape on our hands. It is up to us to use this power responsibly by understanding the limitations of online platforms and going beyond our own cultural understanding by crossing, building and repairing bridges of understanding.

As Thomas Friedman says, the world is flat and globalization offers a new, decentralized method of connecting people.

Use your armchair diplomacy wisely.

• Harley Adsit is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Director of Communications in the House of Representatives. She is a 2022 Gabr Fellow and is from Norfolk, Virginia.