Summer is mango season in Pakistan and the fruit is a common token of diplomatic exchanges. Wouter Plomp, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Pakistan, recently tweeted a photo of himself eating mangoes from his Pakistani counterpart. Thomas Drew, who served as British high commissioner to Pakistan from 2016 to 2019, referred to mango season and generosity as “two of the joys of Pakistan,” with a particular admiration for Chaunsa mangoes from Multan.
Eating at roadside stalls, praising local produce, attending weddings, visiting small towns, and documenting it all on social media is a growing component of European and Chinese diplomacy in Pakistan and beyond. It is time for U.S. diplomats to get out from behind the blast walls of diplomatic enclaves that largely confine them to interactions with elites and grasp the low-hanging fruit of authentic digital diplomacy.
The decision by diplomats to publicly laud mangoes in Pakistan is a deliberate one. The 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib attributed the mango to the “gardeners of heaven’s orchards.” Spiritual leaders and landed families gifted the flavorful Sindhri mangoes from Sindh province, where Karachi sits, as gestures to Mughal kings and later to British viceroys. At the onset of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1968, Pakistan’s foreign minister delivered a crate of mangoes to Chairman Mao Zedong, who gave them to factory workers who then preserved them as relics. Sindhri mangoes in particular even impressed diplomats with a grim view of Pakistan. Ambassador Arma Karaer, who served as deputy principal officer at the U.S. consulate in Karachi, remarked: “Oh, Karachi is an ugly place. It is a violent place. It is a dirty place. But Pakistan produces the best and largest variety of mangoes anywhere in the world.” Not always a token of goodwill, mangoes laced with explosives also allegedly took down military dictator Zia ul-Haq’s C-130 in 1988.
In 2016, the U.S. consulate in Karachi launched a social media campaign called #MangoMania and produced videos starring a magician that resembled a children’s television series and staff buying mangoes. But U.S. diplomacy rarely engages in personalized and unscripted social media or street interactions. For example, Ambassador Paul Jones became U.S. chargé d’affaires to Pakistan in September 2018, but his Twitter account still lists him as the U.S. ambassador to Poland and his last tweet in July 2018 is in Polish. Security concerns prevent the free travel of U.S. diplomats and past mishaps have produced a risk averse attitude toward digital diplomacy. In 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt temporarily removed its Twitter account due to a series of controversial tweets such as sharing satirical criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Social media also offers a skewed snapshot of countries like Pakistan where only a fraction of people access it. However, the country’s English and Urdu media outlets use the platform to craft stories that reach mass audiences and shape perceptions.
No diplomat better understood this than Martin Kobler, who served as Germany’s ambassador to Pakistan from 2017-2019 and won the admiration of large sections of Pakistani society. He practiced Urdu, traveled to remote villages, ate at roadside dhabas (stalls), engaged with everyday people, and had a tremendous social media presence. Not without controversy, Kobler received widespread backlash for overstepping diplomatic boundaries when he used a selfie to publicly criticize the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party’s “costlier, lower quality” building of roads. Some Pakistani influencers characterized Kobler as focused on publicity stunts rather than trade or visas. Nevertheless, Kobler mastered the art of low-cost digital diplomacy rooted in genuine human interactions.
Zhao Lijian, a rising star in China’s Foreign Ministry with an abrasive reputation among Western diplomats, also gained prominence using digital diplomacy from his post as deputy chief of mission in Pakistan. Zhao’s presence was ubiquitous as he managed Belt and Road projects, facilitated student exchanges, and attended weddings — all documented on social media. He contextualized Western criticism of China within a popular post-colonial framework intended to target the English-speaking middle-class of the developing world. For example, Zhao deflected valid Western criticism of China over Uyghur human rights by tweeting, “[h]istory has shown that colonial masters shared the same love of lording over others.” Zhao also shared on Twitter a BBC clip of former Pakistan Finance Minister Asad Umar excoriating the Trump administration for its criticism of Chinese investment while it also conducts business deals with the illiberal Saudi regime. “We will worry about our China debt problem. Mr. Pompeo should worry about his China debt problem,” said Umar.
Americans and Pakistanis share an element of Anglophone culture, people-to-people ties, and a storied albeit bumpy history of partnership that should give U.S. diplomacy an edge outside of formal channels. Of course, better outreach does not guarantee a desirable outcome where superseding factors exist. U.S. diplomats in Pakistan must contend with realpolitik tensions that their counterparts do not. For example, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin seemingly should have enjoyed a leg up when she met with the Emir of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Qazi Ahmad and a senior JI leader, Asif Luqman Qazi to ask for their support in the invasion of Afghanistan. Chamberlin and Qazi are both alumni of Boston University and the latter briefly lived in New York. But JI adamantly opposed the U.S. invasion and a brief détente between the U.S. Embassy and JI was later upended by the 2011 Raymond Davis incident in which a U.S. contractor killed two men in Lahore. In contrast, JI signed a memorandum of understanding with China that it will not interfere in Chinese internal affairs, including the Uyghur issue, and regularly meets with Chinese diplomats.
Traditionally, U.S. diplomacy eschews cheap optics for substance and focuses on building institutional ties. But, in a world where national policies and laws are tweeted out, U.S. diplomats are still involved in old school diplomatic efforts. In the age of TikTok and Twitter, what works is authentic public interactions. The approaches of Kobler and Zhao resonated with the local audience because they felt genuine and appreciative, not patronizing or inauthentic. Unlike the United States, Germany and China did not dump billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan to get a favorable perception. China focused on loans and Germany donated just 3 billion euros since 1961, compared to the U.S. which spent over $33 billion in the last 19 years in Pakistan. Instead, Chinese and European diplomats were savvy enough to read the local audience. Their brand of diplomacy is that of a travel vlogger who lets the world know about the hidden wonders of whatever country they are visiting. When it avoids the pitfalls of tackiness or condescension, it proves low cost, authentic and high impact.
In contrast, U.S. diplomacy is still reliant on good old-fashioned networking with elites. Safe from the troubles of the masses, U.S. diplomacy thrives in country clubs, swanky hotels, and at elite parties. The problem with this approach is that the whole “winning hearts and minds” approach doesn’t pan out when only elites are engaged in a country with severe distrust of economic and political elites. Hence, this approach regularly backfires as the public views any foreign power getting chummy with those elites as collaborators who are responsible for whatever hardship the country is experiencing.
In Pakistan’s case, the United States gives out hundreds of Fulbright scholarships to Pakistani students each year and has played an instrumental role in training civil servants, professors, and even parliamentarians. In essence, the U.S. has done more for capacity building in Pakistan than the government of Pakistan. And yet, 59 percent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy and only 10 percent as a partner, so what gives? U.S. diplomacy is missing mangoes — or more specifically, the appreciation for the host country’s public and their culture. The challenge is the inability of U.S. diplomats to realize that shelling out $30,000 to launch a report about good governance at a five star hotel in front of 30 attendees is not as effective for winning hearts and minds as showing up at a truck stop restaurant to sip tea and make a TikTok video documenting it. American diplomacy is squandering opportunities because it is unable to adapt.
Consider this: $33 billion spent in direct aid, millions more spent on running TV ads about its impact, and thousands spent writing reports about the efficacy of said aid. And yet, what gets picked up by local media is a diplomat, whose country’s total aid footprint pales in comparison, tweeting about eating mangoes on a hot summer day. To win hearts and minds, U.S. diplomacy must learn to engage them first. Elite-driven diplomacy is costly, time consuming, and outdated; it needs to end.
Adam Weinstein holds a JD and is a researcher who focuses on South Asia and Iran. Follow him on Twitter @adamnoahwho.
Adnan Rasool is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Martin who previously worked for USAID in Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter @adnanrasool.