From the Telegram to Twitter, How Presidents Make Contact With Foreign Leaders

Does faster communication cause more problems than it solves?

President Coolidge conducts the first official transatlantic phone call with the king of Spain in 1927 (Library of Congress)
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After a series of phone calls with world leaders that included the prime minister of Pakistan and the president of Taiwan (a figure with whom no American president has communicated since 1979), there’s little doubt that president-elect Donald Trump’s brash manner of speaking is unlikely to be softened by the gravity of his new role. Trump’s use of Twitter to defend some of these conversations illustrates the inextricable role social media now plays in international diplomacy – and proves that the speed of communication, once thought to be an asset to foreign relations, might now be a liability.

Timeliness has been an issue from the United States’ earliest foreign entanglements. When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, foreign correspondence between the nascent U.S. and other powers occurred via letters, which traveled sluggishly across oceans. In at least one case this tardiness had disastrous results. During the First Barbary War, pirates from North Africa were seizing American merchant ships and holding their crews for ransom. Jefferson sent letters to leaders of the aggressor nations as an attempt to stave off a protracted conflict. He expressed his “sincere desire to cultivate peace & commerce with [their] subjects” – but the letters arrived too late. The Pasha of Tripoli and leaders of the Barbary States had already declared war on the U.S.

The invention of the telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1844 significantly decreased the time it took to send and receive messages, but the new technology didn’t find firm footing in the government for two decades, which is ironic, considering that Morse sent the first telegram from Washington, D.C. Throughout his first year of presidency, Abraham Lincoln only sent about one telegram per month. The installation of a telegraph office in the War Department in 1862 finally gave him the opportunity to make regular use of telegrams, and soon his words flooded the Union generals’ receiving lines. But Lincoln couldn’t yet make quick contact with foreign officials; the transatlantic telegraph line wouldn’t be laid until 1866, a year after Lincoln’s death.

Alexander Graham Bell first conducted a successful telephone call in March 1876, opening up a whole new possibility for rapid communication. President Rutherford B. Hayes was actually one of the new technology’s earliest adapters. He installed a phone in the White House, which could be reached by dialing “1.” Unfortunately Hayes didn’t have many opportunities to gab; the Treasury Department was the only place with a line to the White House.

Long-distance calling advanced sporadically, with voices shot on one-way trajectories between Virginia and Paris in 1915, and then from a ship in the Atlantic to shore in 1916. The first official transatlantic phone call happened on January 7, 1927, between New York and London. A year and a half later, Calvin Coolidge became the first president to connect with a foreign official in Europe, Alfonso III of Spain.

After thanking the king for Spain’s support of the Kellog-Briand Pact, an international treaty meant to prevent the use of war as a method for resolving disputes, Coolidge launched into a soliloquy on the value of the new technological wonder:

“I welcome this added link, no less strong because it is invisible, between Spain and the United States. I believe it to be true that when two men can talk together the danger of any serious disagreement is immeasurably lessened and that what is true of individuals is true of nations. The international telephone, therefore, which carries the warmth and friendliness of the human voice, will always correct what might be misinterpreted in the written word.”

Coolidge’s sentiments were echoed by Ogden H. Hammond, the American ambassador to Spain, who was also present for the historic call. “The point has often been made that easy and rapid communication prevents misunderstandings,” he said.

By that point in time, the number of interconnected phones in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Europe and the U.S. was already 26 million. The U.S. went on to establish telephone contact with Australia in 1930, with India in 1933, Japan in 1934, and China in 1937. In celebration of contact with China, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt exchanged greetings with Soong Mei-Ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek.

Telephone communications continued apace from that point, with world leaders regularly connecting to each other during periods of crisis like WWII and the Cold War. American presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon even secretly recorded phone calls and other conversations, and direct lines were established between Washington and foreign powers like the Soviet Union (though there never was a “red telephone” in the White House).

Today, the ease of international communication has come to the point where it’s possible for a president to release a 140-character message for the whole world to see in seconds. For Diana Owen, a professor of political science and communication at Georgetown University, the rapidity and visibility of social media is leading to unprecedented situations in which the personality of each new president has near-immediate repercussions for the world.

“I think the speed is to the detriment of foreign policy,” says Owen. “Foreign policy is something that needs careful thought, where people who are experts in the area work in a dignified way. Social media is more of an entertainment realm, and it turns foreign policy into entertainment.”

Coolidge’s first transatlantic phone call was itself a type of spectacle – it was treated like a press event– but it didn’t set a precedent where future Presidents conducted such business in the public. The jump from telephones to Internet communication has blown up those previously private foreign policy discussions. Foreign policy discussions are happening in the public eye, often without the history and context that once accompanied press releases. In this world, to borrow the words of Coolidge’s ambassador, “easy and rapid communication” might produce more misunderstandings than it prevents. 

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