The Decline and Fall of Multilateral Diplomacy?

Ilan Manor is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and ongoing debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

In January of 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson delivered his Fourteen Points speech before a joint session of the US Congress, in which he outlined his vision for peace in Europe. One of the issues that Wilson addressed was the need for greater transparency in the conduct of diplomacy. The President called for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view’.” This call was, in part, a response to the secret diplomacy that characterized relations between European powers in the years leading up to the First World War.[1] Indeed it was the constellation of “secret alliances” between European powers that had led to both the devastation of the Great War and the willingness of skeptical Europeans to adopt the “Wilsonian” view of transparent diplomacy.

If the First World War promoted the idea of transparent diplomacy, the Second World War promoted the concept of multilateral diplomacy. The Schuman Declaration of 1950,  which served as the foundation for the European Union, stated that pooling coal and steel production would make war between France and Germany “not only merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” Similarly, in 1948 several European democracies came together to form the foundation of another multilateral organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The NATO alliance was formed in order to prevent Soviet expansion, but by the end of the Cold War it had morphed into a diplomatic entity committed to spreading democracy throughout Europe. Finally, in December of 1994, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), originally meant to serve as a platform for dialogue during the détente years, was re-organized into a pan-European multilateral entity that brought together nations from the former East and West.

During the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar, the current role of multilateral organizations was explored as part of a larger discussion regarding freedom of expression in Europe. This discussion revolved around three central questions (1) Who is a journalist?; (2) Do governments use censorship policies to limit journalists’ freedom of expression; and (3)What occurs when online tools for freedom of expression are used to incite violence?


The rise of social networking sites has given birth to the citizen journalist, a self-empowered individual who uses social media and blogs in order to express his views on affairs shaping his nation and the world. The citizen journalist,[2] be it a blogger or twitter magnate, now challenges both the nation state and traditional media outlets, as he has risen to the position of an information gatekeeper.[3] Through social media, the citizen journalist has the ability to disseminate information in real-time and on a global scale, thus influencing media coverage of events as well as foreign policy narratives. Such was the case with Asmaa Mahfouz, who became a symbol of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

The power of the citizen journalist is such that some nations now search for means of silencing him. One of the panels detailed the manner in which Russia now threatens and jails both professional and citizen journalists. It now becomes imperative to answer the question of who qualifies as a journalist; if the blogger is a journalist, the protections awarded to his peers from established media outlets must also be applied to him. Likewise, multilateral organizations laboring to promote freedom of expression in Russia must labor to safeguard the rights of the citizen journalist.

The second question explored in relation to freedom of expression dealt with the media censorship policies of specific countries such as Turkey. In recent years, the Turkish government has increased its scrutiny of journalists, media outlets, and social networking sites. Turkey seems to be at a crossroads with regards to its formal policies and model of media supervision. While it has not outlawed mediums commonly associated with free speech such as Twitter and Facebook, it has on several occasions prevented access to them. In March of 2014, Turkey temporarily blocked access to Twitter following the leakage of wiretapped recordings detailing government corruption.

In the past, Turkey’s Constitutional Court has ruled that bans on social networking sites were unconstitutional. But this did not prevent the Turkish government from blocking access to Twitter and Facebook in April 2015 when images of a prosecutor held at gunpoint began circulating on social networks. The tension between freedom of expression and government censorship in Turkey, detailed in Session 4 of the Milton Wolf Seminar “The Diplomacy of Domestic Media and Information Policy” and in the aforementioned examples, demonstrates a lack of coherent government policy on the use of social media tools. Yet it also demonstrates the challenge social media users pose to governments, which face increasing criticism from a reinvigorated public sphere.

Another European country edging towards government censorship of the media is Hungary.  While Hungary’s constitution safeguards freedom of speech, legislation passed in 2010 has undermined such protections. According to Freedom House, Hungary’s media environment has further deteriorated over the past year, and the government “continued to exert pressure on private owners to influence coverage, and a new advertising tax disproportionately affected a major private television station.” In addition, 2010 saw the formation of a Media Regulation Authority, which is currently controlled by members of the ruling Fidesz party.

Hungary has recently enacted laws that limit the freedom of expression of all citizens, not just journalists. A 2013 amendment to the penal code states that, “anyone who knowingly creates or distributes false or defamatory video or audio recordings can face a prison sentence of one to three years.” According to one panelist, such an amendment indicates that unlike Turkey, Hungary has already formalized a censorship model and has also answered the question of who is a journalist—anyone who might criticize the government.

The final question debated in the Seminar regarding freedom of speech was what happens when social media tools are used to incite violence and hate, as is the case with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group. Panelists described at length ISIS’s uses of social media to spread its ideology, recruit new members, and bolster its image as an omnipotent terror organization. Recruiting Western Muslims is achieved through the production of high quality social media content, such as YouTube videos and translating content into numerous Western languages. In addition, ISIS has begun publishing an online magazine, The Islamic State Report, which according to one of the Seminar’s panelist, is specifically targeted at Western English speaking audiences.

ISIS’s mastering of social networking sites is increasingly viewed as a security threat to governments and states throughout the world. US Representatives Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, recently stated, “We’re seeing these directives on a daily basis. It’s very concerning. Terrorism has gone viral.” According to FBI Director James Comey, the US faces increasing difficulty as social media enables communication between the terror group and potential homegrown “extremists.”


When searching for recurring themes in the Seminar’s discussions on freedom of expression, two main trends come to light. The first is the merging of the online and offline worlds. Terror groups that strike offline now recruit online. Citizen journalists that criticize the state online are jailed offline, and media censorship policies enacted offline are enforced online.

The second and more disturbing theme is the inability of multilateral diplomatic institutions to face the challenge of securing freedom of expression across Europe. The OSCE is investing considerable efforts in promoting and protecting the rights and lives of citizen and professional journalists in Russia. However, because OSCE decisions must be reached through consensus, it is unable to pass binding resolutions to which all member states, including Russia, must adhere. As such, the OSCE may be devolving from an entity established to promote dialogue between East and West into a lobbying firm standing on the sidelines of international diplomacy, unable to directly influence it.

Likewise, the European Union has thus far failed to address the assault on freedom of speech in Hungary.  While Hungary passed certain amendments to comply with European Commission objections to its censorship laws, these have done little to curtail the growing power of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH).  When asked if the EU could not do more to ensure freedom of speech in Hungary, a panelist answered with a resounding no. The European Union is more concerned with Hungary rejoining Russia’s sphere of influence than it is with government restrictions on freedom of expression.

The European Union may presently have little influence over Turkey because it is not yet a member state. However, Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance. Given that the raison d’etre of NATO, the prevention of Soviet expansion, has been achieved, one wonders if it cannot commit itself to another of its core values—the protection of democracy in Europe. When asked if NATO could indeed influence censorship and media legislation in Turkey, the answer was, again, a resounding no. NATO nations are presently reengaged in a battle with Russia following the annexation of Crimea and they would not risk losing Turkey as a member of the alliance by criticizing it. NATO’s view of Turkey was most recently exhibited by Slovakia’s Foreign Minister who tweeted:


Even the menace of ISIS seems to be too great for multilateral organizations. While the terror group may be a social media wizard, social media alone does not explain why young people in the Middle East and Europe would join such a violent and extreme organization. There are root causes that might better explain this phenomenon including the disintegration of countries established during the first World War (e.g. Syria), the collapse of governments in the Middle East following the Arab Spring, and the failure to integrate Muslim youths in European countries. Measures that might re-stabilize the Middle East, such as reaching a negotiated end to the Syrian Civil War through a Security Council resolution, cannot be attained.

Like the OSCE, the UN’s design breeds inaction because Security Council resolutions can only be adopted if none of the five permanent members exercise their right of veto.  Presently, the Security Council is but one more stage for growing tensions between the West and Russia.  This systemic paralysis begs the question—are we witnessing the decline and fall of multilateral diplomacy? Are the achievements of the last decade of the 20th Century—marked by an end to the Cold War and spread of democracy across Europe—being washed away?

Judging from the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar, the answer is complex. Alongside consideration of Hungary, Turkey, and ISIS, there was also a discussion regarding the framework agreement reached between the P5+1 countries and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear weapons program.

Between 2006 and 2011, the UN Security Council passed several binding resolutions implementing economic sanctions on Iran, thereby demonstrating the value of multilateral diplomatic entities. Similarly, the framework agreement negotiated two weeks before the beginning of the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar was also achieved through multilateral diplomacy between Iran and the US, UK, EU, and Germany. It is this agreement that may signify the continuing relevance of multilateral diplomacy, because it has successfully tackled one of the greatest challenges to world peace in this century. Furthermore, this agreement may serve as a turning point in the relationship between Iran and the international community, leading to peaceful resolutions of Middle East conflicts and ending the division between extreme Islam and the West, a division which nurtures ISIS.

The Iran agreement has even held true to Wilson’s vision of transparent diplomacy for within an hour of its signing; the framework agreement was uploaded to the US State Department’s website where it could be read and debated openly by a global constituency brought together by social networking sites.


Ilan Manor recently attained a Master’s degree in Communications from Tel Aviv University. His thesis explored the manner in which nations portray adversaries on official digital diplomacy channels during times of crises. Manor’s research on Selfie Diplomacy, or the manner in which nations use social media in nation branding activities, will soon be published in Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice (Routledge). Current research projects include a cross-national comparison of social media engagement among foreign ministries, a cross-national evaluation of digital diplomacy models adopted by European foreign ministries and an analysis of how digital diplomacy may be used as a tool for symbolic violence in diplomacy. He is a contributor to the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy Blog and the Jerusalem Post, Haarezt and Times of Israel newspapers. He blog on issues relating to digital diplomacy at    


[1]  See Bjola, C. (2014). The ethics of secret diplomacy: a contextual approach. Journal of Global Ethics10(1), 85-100.

[2]  For in-depth discussion See Seib, P. (2012). Real-time diplomacy: politics and power in the social media era. Palgrave Macmillan.

[3]  For further discussion see Meraz, S., & Papacharissi, Z. (2013). Networked gatekeeping and networked framing on# Egypt. The international journal of press/politics, 18 (2), 138-165


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