Is @UN Really Catching up With Reality?

The recent informal dialogues in the United Nations General Assembly for those aspiring to be the next secretary-general were unprecedented. Webcast to the world, the more than 18 hours of questions and answers opened up a process that once took place solely behind closed doors.

It was also something of a coming of age for social media at the UN, with questions submitted via Twitter to candidates using the #NextSG hashtag. But what does this tell us about the state of digital diplomacy at the UN? Is it actually changing the way the organization works?

It was novel to see Twitter take the stage in a forum more known for long-winded statements. The United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Matthew Rycroft (@MatthewRycroft1), read questions from his mobile device that had been submitted from civil society and members of the public. They were short and to the point.

British student Chris Lauder (@Lauderish), asked of Serbia’s former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic (@Vuk4UNSG):

And violent extremism researcher Naureen Chowdhury-Fink (@NaureenCFink) inquired of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria (@IrinaBokova):

This makes for progress at the UN, where having civil society in the room is still a contested idea. Many are too eager to remind NGOs that this is, after all, an organization of member states.

“Some of my colleagues at the UN seemed shocked at the notion of an ordinary person with a smart phone having a say at public hearings on the biggest world stage,” Rycroft wrote at the end of the week. “But this isn’t radical. It’s the UN catching up with reality.”

But informal dialogues showed that the candidates want to say as little as possible and risk offending no influential member states as they campaign for the UN’s top job. They are not trying to use social media to make arguments, something the incumbent is judged by many to have done poorly.

Moving beyond PR to persuasion is #DigitalDiplomacy, as the Lowy Institute think tank’s Danielle Cave has observed:

“It is one thing to allow embassies, ambassadors … to open up Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts and to use these to post announcements…it is an entirely different thing to allow the diplomats using these accounts to project, advocate for and defend…policy positions. The first is public relations and the second is digital diplomacy.”

Pushed by civil society to open up the process, Rycroft led the way with five questions to candidates sourced from his social media feeds. More than just the messenger, the UK Mission (@UKUN_NewYork) is conducting a concerted social media campaign of its own to convince us that the British government really is committed to transparency in the secretary-general selection process, when many believe they are just as happy as the Russians that their Security Council veto gives them an outsized role on the opaque job selection panel.

Having a Twitter account now feels like another box to tick to be eligible for this office. UN Development Programme Administrator and New Zealand candidate Helen Clark (@HelenClarkUNDP) opened up a parallel account (@Helen4SG) to give her some freedom to speak with two tongues. Bokova, meanwhile, has not yet separated her dual identities as an active international civil servant and candidate, which restricts what she can say.

Montenegrin candidate Igor Lukšić (@I_Luksic), Croatian Vesna Pusić (@vpusic), and Slovenian Danilo Türk (@_DaniloTurk) came to race from being politicians and with pre-existing accounts. Moldovan Natalia Gherman (@Natalia_Gherman) joined Twitter just this week. Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, who has pledged to rid the UN of acronyms, has no account. Macedonia’s Srgjan Kerim also has no Twitter presence.

When Rycroft asked Clark how she would use social media as secretary-general she did not have time to give a proper answer and that highlighted another shortcoming of this “transparent” process. It was rushed and simplified. Bombarded by volleys of questions from member states, candidates skated through their replies or just did not answer them. There was rarely any follow-up.

Guterres and Clark made the case that communication skills were an important prerequisite for the job. It is apt, then, that when the latter spoke about Twitter it was in a sentence that had less than 140 characters: “I did see a tweet from the member of the public that my greatest fear is that Helen Clark will stop doing her own tweets if she becomes SG.” It made for a cute quote, but does Twitter really matter in this secretary-general selection battle?

In the absence of unity in the General Assembly, the truth is that the process so far has not clipped the power of the veto-wielding P5, who are the ones who will really chose the next secretary-general. The serious business will begin with a series of straw polls later in the year in the closed Security Council chamber.

The informal dialogues and the use of social media do have modest value, however, in revealing certain information that might not be widely known to the public. This includes a tweet from Rycroft from 4:45pm of the final hearing on Thursday last week:

This means there will mostly likely be another round of informal dialogues, but despite the commitments to do doing things out in the open, there is still much lobbying going on behind the scenes. It has been widely rumored that former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) and Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra (@SusanaMalcorra) aspire to the job and, as my colleague Richard Gowan (@RichardGowan1) recently wrote, they are likely second-round picks.

This information won’t feature on those individuals’ Twitter feeds just yet, but it is possible to see in real time where they are, and with whom they are meeting (i.e. lobbying). As the declared candidates were in the UN Trusteeship Council chamber for their dialogues, Malcorra, Ban Ki-moon’s former Chef de Cabinet, tweeted that she was in Moscow, ostensibly with a trade delegation, meeting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Since leaving Ban’s 38th floor offices at the UN, her Twitter feed shows she has visited Washington, London, and Paris to meet heads of government and other senior officials. Maybe we will soon see her in Beijing too. It is in the capitals and the UN permanent representative offices in New York where the real dialogues are taking place in the race for the next secretary-general. When the deal is done, the rest of us will likely be reading about it for the first time on Twitter.

Jim Della-Giacoma is Deputy Director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, Editor-in-Chief of the Global Peace Operations Review, and a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Social and Political Change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.