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Instead of Twitter-Hashtag US Should Try Ping-Pong Diplomacy

The virtual world of geopolitics was recently electrified when Jen Psaki, President Barack Obama’s State Department spokeswoman, confronted Russia and President Vladimir Putin by tweeting a warning.

When fighting broke out between Soviet and Chinese troops along the Ussuri River, the border both nations shared in Northeast Asia, and long before President Richard Nixon considered making a surprise visit to China, Mao Zedong called in his personal physician, Li Zhisui, and presented him with a problem. “Think about this,” said Mao, “We have the Soviet Union to the north and the west, India to the south, and Japan to the east. If all our enemies were to unite, attacking us from the north, south, east, and west, what do you think we should do?” Li was then shocked to learn that Mao was planning to open negotiations with their long-time rival: the United States. According to Mao, “The United States and the Soviet Union are differentAmerica’s new president, Richard Nixon, is a longtime rightist, a leader of the anti-communists there. I like to deal with rightists. They say what they really think-not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.”(1) Surprisingly, China would use the sport of Ping-Pong to help open diplomatic relations.

The virtual world of geopolitics was recently electrified when Jen Psaki, President Barack Obama’s State Department spokeswoman, confronted Russia and President Vladimir Putin by tweeting a warning. “The world stands #UnitedforUkraine”, typed Psaki, “Let’s hope that the #Kremlin & @mfa Russia will live by the promise of hashtag.” According to Twitter, a hashtag is the use of the # symbol and marks keywords or topics in a tweet. Behind the Machine Curtain, the Twitter-Hashtag Diplomacy in fact started back in March with State Department’s deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf. She tweeted, “As the President said today, we’re proud to stand #UnitedForUkraine and bring the world together to speak w/one voice.”(2) As expected, some officials ridiculed this kind of virtual, twitter, hashtag diplomacy, calling it the Hashtag Doctrine. One Republican senator even mocked it by tweeting: “Note to the State Department: ‘The promise of a hashtag’ isn’t going to make Russian President Putin pull out of Ukraine.”(3)

Sports had always been an important part of Chinese culture, mainly the marshal arts. But it was Mao’s Cultural Revolution that emphasized and institutionalized them. Activities requiring small amounts of materials, like Ping-Pong, Volleyball, Soccer, Basketball and Badminton, became popular. In 1971, when the U.S. Ping-Pong team was in Japan, and since Mao had always believed “friendship first,” “competition second,”(4) they received an invitation from China. A planned encounter also occurred when one American player, Glen Cowan, missed his team bus and was invited to board a Chinese team bus. By the time Cowan had received gifts by other players and was stepping off, photographers and journalists were taking pictures. Other than several members of the Black Panther Party, the American Table-Tennis team became the first delegation to visit the Chinese capital since the Communist Revolution in 1949. This symbolic gesture became known as Ping-Pong Diplomacy and paved the way for Nixon’s historic visit in 1972.

In “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” Sherry Turkle examines the impact of “smart” machines. They can actually make people less connected to each other and diminish reflection by “filling each moment”. They can hinder language and cause frequent misunderstandings, especially when shooting-off short, terse emails or texts. Smart screens can be seductive, offering illusions of realities without being there or the fantasies of companionship without demands. Can virtual, geopolitical networking offer false impressions of diplomacy without the requirements of physical presence? Or bogus talks without the demands of personal interaction? Hiding behind machines, being invisible, always has a price. What happens then, to nations and societies that substitute face-to-face interaction with instant messaging and texting or face-to-face negotiations with virtual-networking? Machine-like conditions breed machine-like humans. Has not technologies as a force for progress always been disputed?

As technocracy transforms diplomacy, it is also changing what it means to be human. By physically visiting China to play Ping-Pong, Cowan found out what it meant to be human. Upon returning to the U.S. he said: “The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feeling. I made friends, I made genuine friends, you see.”(5) He also talked about how China was similar to America, but still different, and how beautiful it was. He mentioned China’s Great Wall, their ancient palaces, the parks and streams, the animals, the difference between the north and the south, China’s unity, and how people have plans and dreams. Nixon also rediscovered his humanness in visiting China. In bidding Mao farewell he said, “History has brought us together. The question is whether we, with different philosophies, but both with feet on the ground, and having come from the people, can make a breakthrough that will serve not just China and America, but the whole world in the years ahead.” China helped the U.S. end its long war in Vietnam, the Bamboo Curtain was lifted, and both nations signed a number of cooperative treaties.

The Cyber Curtain can be useful but it can also be inhumanly disempowering, veiling reality. It can be substituted for industrial ingenuity, insightful thinking, creative action, and face-to-face diplomacy-all needed in securing diplomacy and peace. It can also make people become techno-centric and induce feelings of techno-superiority. But in real time, in real politics, and in real space, one should never think better of themselves than they ought. Instead of remotely hiding behind so-called smart machines, instead of texting and twittering warnings marked with silly hashtags, the Obama Administration should pursue Ping-Pong Diplomacy with Russia and Ukraine. A surprise, physical, and face-to-face visit would help them rediscover their own humanness while recognizing the real and genuine humanness in others, including similar feelings and aspirations. The real protagonists might even be the users of such gadgets, since smart machines have never made peace. This is still in the hands of humans and their face-to-face interactions.

(1) Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War, A New History. New York, New York:Penguin Books, 2005., p. 149.

(2) “Russia hijacks U.S. State Department’s Ukraine hashtag.” By Ishaan Tharoor, April 25, 2014.

(3) “Obama’s hash tag diplomacy with Russia sparks new criticism about weak foreign policy.” April 26, 2014.

(4) Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China. New York, New York: Checkmark Books., 1999., p. 485.

(5), “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”

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