With the arrival and advance of the internet, the world has truly become globalised. While easing communication between states, the online space has also witnessed immature exchanges between state officials bringing shame to the long tradition of diplomacy. The most pertinent example is China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy. To understand this recent change in diplomatic tactics, one must understand how nationalism has been able to influence diplomacy through online spaces. To do so we need to look at a short background of diplomacy in the modern era and how accessibility to online spaces has let nationalism find an outlet to influence diplomacy through the limitless internet.
by Aswathy Koonampilly
A diplomatic journey
In the initial era of nation-states, diplomacy and state relations were carried out behind closed doors, but this secrecy was blamed for the turbulent wars in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the First World War. In his Fourteen Points, American President Woodrow Wilson stipulated that state affairs should be carried out in the public view.
Carr warned, before the Second World War started, that public opinion as a moral force in the international setting will have grave consequences due to its irrationality.
On the other hand, carrying out diplomatic relations in the public eye has its negative consequences. E.H. Carr warned, before the Second World War started, that public opinion as a moral force in the international setting will have grave consequences due to its irrationality. His prediction was proven when fascism swept through Europe on the shoulders of widespread support.
State relations have mostly stayed outside heated public discourses and enjoyed multi-partisan support due to the primacy of domestic concerns over international ones. However, now that the current political discourse has shifted online, it has given access to inter-state relations to anyone with a smartphone. Like most interactions in the online spaces, diplomacy has also become about one-upping the other rather than mutual understanding.
All governments, even authoritarian ones, rely on national public opinion. And it is the country’s public opinion, whether framed or real, that is being appealed to online when state officials act tough. Online, nationalism has become the most prominent voice and diplomacy has amassed an audience that needs to be appeased. The trend might have ballooned with Trump but it is most evident in the way China has adopted a tough exterior.
The Wolf Warrior on Web
Around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was a transformation within China in its perception of its position on the international stage. Till then, the debate had been around whether China’s growing presence should be framed as a peaceful rise or a peaceful development. However, by the early 2010s, instead of appeasing foreign powers through public diplomacy about China’s amicable intentions, the nation started asserting itself without factoring in the negative consequences of such actions. The target audience for nationalistic rhetoric also changed from both foreign and domestic audiences to just domestic (Wong 2020). As the need for utilising the soft power of public diplomacy diminished, Chinese officials started to ostentatiously cater to domestic nationalism publicly in front of a foreign audience. The medium that has made this possible is social media sites such as Twitter.
With the end of the Cold War, nationalism upstaged communism in binding the Chinese people together.
The Wolf Warrior diplomacy is the outcome of the recent upsurge of Chinese nationalism which is being supported by the accessibility of online spaces. The origin of the word pays homage to the 2017 patriotic Chinese movie, Wolf Warrior 2 in which the protagonist with a saviour-complex fights China’s external enemies head-on. It referred specifically to the aggressive foreign policy posture adopted by Chinese diplomats under Xi Jinping in the late 2010s, in stark contrast to the previous head of state, Deng Xiaoping’s stance to maintain a low profile on the international stage.
With the end of the Cold War, nationalism upstaged communism in binding the Chinese people together. In the 21stcentury, Chinese nationalism has mainly four causes: 1) the country’s Economic Success in recent decades; 2) its memory of the Century of Humiliation; 3) the rise in perceived foreign, especially western, provocative acts against China in absence of the Soviet Union; and 4) the state-sponsored promotion of nationalistic sentiment as a political tool (Hussaini 2020). The digital sphere has become an outlet and amplifier for this new age of jingoistic (nationalism in the form of aggressive and proactive foreign policy) rhetoric to be framed as public opinion (Kuo 2021).
Through online platforms, diplomatic exchanges are possible between state officials and at the same time visible to their people. In such an environment, any compromise is seen as a weakness. Thus, the diplomat’s mission went from negotiating with their foreign counterparts to appearing to their countrymen as defending their nation-state from any form of criticism. The online sphere is also one of the few areas where state officials can openly and publicly defend their country in front of both foreign and domestic audiences.
Related to this is the theory of the Hawthorne effect which claims that people behave differently when they feel they are being observed. If applied to the practice of diplomacy the awareness that their citizens are watching their actions, could affect the diplomat’s behaviour. Additionally, Hegelian philosophy talks about identity being created through communication (Chhabra 2020). With aggressive diplomatic exchanges, China is building up its image as a superpower on the global stage.
In response to 22 UN ambassadors signing an open letter in July 2019 to condemn the Chinese government’s crackdown upon Uyghurs, Zhao called attention to discriminatory practices within the US, specifically the racial hierarchies.
The embodiment of this online enablement of the Wolf Warrior style of diplomacy is embedded in the rise of China’s present foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian (Martin 2021). Zhao used to be a counsellor for the Chinese embassy in Islamabad but his online tirades against the US put him into the spotlight. In response to 22 UN ambassadors signing an open letter in July 2019 to condemn the Chinese government’s crackdown upon Uyghurs, Zhao called attention to discriminatory practices within the US, specifically the racial hierarchies. He was later promoted to the post of deputy director-general of the information department at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing (Palmer 2021). Throughout his tenure, he has fought fire with fire, and conspiracy with conspiracy. After American officials called the coronavirus the "Wuhan virus", Zhao claimed that it was the American military that brought the virus to Wuhan (Westcott and Jiang 2020).
In conclusion, while nationalism was a positive driving force in the period of the early modern states, it has become to be viewed increasingly negative today because of its ability to create divisions in a globalised world. In this context, the ability of public opinion to be formed and framed online through jingoistic nationalistic forces has influenced aggressive diplomatic tactics.
Aswathy Koonampilly is a postgraduate in International Studies from Christ University. She is interested in the Indo-Pacific region, International Relations Theories, and how culture and similar intangible forces shape global affairs.