An alien for Putin: are emojis changing the face of diplomacy?

Emojis could be the promised land of diplomatic history: they have the potential to speak across borders to a new, global citizenry.

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Three sets of side-eyes, a tears-of-joy face, a sunglasses face, a Japanese ogre, a goblin, an alien face, a thumbs up, the peace sign, and an arm muscle clench. These were the emojis that Walid Joumblatt, the 67 year-old Lebanese politician and ex-warlord, tweeted to mark the instatement of The Arab League’s new secretary-general.

If Middle Eastern politics doesn't already have you hooked, Joumblatt’s Twitter account will draw you in with its surreal mix of paintings and politics. He's also an emoji mogul: aliens for Putin; hearts for Oscar, his dog. 

The unorthodox style has won him 240,000 followers and drawn the attention of Britain’s diplomat-célèbre, Tom Fletcher, who served as Britain's ambassador in Lebanon from 2011 to 2015. Fletcher has not yet used emojis professionally, he tells me down the line from a Humanitarian summit in Turkey, but he is intrigued by Jumblatt’s increasing and provocative use of the symbols. 

Fletcher is well versed in the syntax of statesmanship. As a former Downing Street foreign policy advisor to three consecutive Prime-Ministers, and author of a new review into the UK’s diplomatic operations, he has fought to throw off the old stereotypes that weigh down his vocation – from “smug” aristocrat to “perfidious Machiavel”.

To do this successfully, he argues in his book Naked Diplomacy, the next generation must become “digital interventionists”; masters of social media who “influence the countries we work in on a massive scale, not just through elites”. And yet the role of emojis – the native slang of the digital world - leaves his profession in a pickle.

In many ways, emojis are the promised land of diplomatic history: they have the potential to speak across borders to a new, global citizenry. They are the Esperanto of the digital age.

Eighty per cent of world leaders have a Twitter handle and many already fly the flag for emojis, quite literally. Over 200 national banners are currently supported by the Unicode Consortium - from Christmas Island to South Korea.

But emojis can also tend to the crass and immature. Their meanings are both overly limited and hazardously slippery. Just look at the concern caused when emojis turn up in court, or Scottish fury that the Saltire is missing from the official list.

Could such crude cartoons really add to the pursuit of world peace? “I think we’re a long way from an emoji being used in an official statement, though I may be wrong,” Fletcher says. Symbols can all too easily cause offence: “Some years ago there was a big EU summit where the UK tried to introduce a logo with symbols on from all the different countries, including a pizza for the Italians – who were livid that we’d reduced Italy to a pizza. So you have to be cautious.”

Few are expected to guard their choices of expression closer than diplomats. Their duty to promote exchange between nations must always be offset against avoiding insult - a balance that Australia’s foreign affairs minister struggled to reach in a Buzzfeed interview using emojis alone. Her choice of a red-faced emoticon to describe Putin did not go down well with her country’s Senate: what exactly was she using it to infer, they demanded to know? 

How emojis receive official codification by the Unicode Consortium, the language's gatekeeper, is thus an increasingly loaded subject. Its Unicode Emoji Subcommittee regularly updates, revises and reviews requests to extend the existing canon of symbols. And participation is open to a wide range of interests: from those with voting rights - such as Google, the Government of Tamil Nadu, and Berkley University - to associate members like Netflix, and even individuals and students. Next month's new release will include both chopsticks and a criossant.

With countries as concerned with selling their brand as defending their borders, emoji generation is becoming a matter of national concern. Last year Finland became the first to announce a set of “country-themed emojis”, including a head banger and two people in a sauna.

“Aston Martins, Benedict Cumberbatch, or Prince Harry”, are Fletcher's off-the-cuff suggestions for emojis to promote Brand UK. These are fitting choices, but also ones that raise an intriguing question: is foreign service anxiety towards emojis not just professional, but cultural too?

Bond, Cumberbatch, and Balmoral are the symbolic reflections of Britain’s stiff upper lip. They echo an era when (largely male) authority was judged on an ability to keep emotions firmly under wraps. And while an Ethnos study into British citizenship found that such reserve is still admired by White English participants, it also concluded that Scottish, Welsh and ethnic minority interviewees living England “were more likely to see it as a negative trait”.

Truly “naked diplomacy” might therefore have to embrace more than just a new Foreign Office snapchat account. But something more vulnerable and risky too: emotional connection, and perhaps even emoticons.

So far it seems to be women and smaller nations leading the way. Hillary Clinton was feted for an email enquiring whether she could “get smiley faces” on her new Blackberry. The Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is also a smiley fan, while Michelle Obama has proposed a whole new set of emojis to empower girls.

Emojis ever-expanding catalogue offers a chance to grow a new form of global literacy, and perhaps a new, more engaging form of diplomacy, too. Who knows, maybe the Consortium’s 2016 decision to exclude a rifle but include a handshake could yet help pave the way to a better world.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.