Strategic Narrative of U.S. Digital Diplomacy against China in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Associate Prof of International Relations, Political Science Department, University of Isfahan. Isfahan

2 PhD in International Relations, Department of Political Science, University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran


The onset of the pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has weakened traditional diplomacy in the field of international relations. As a result, interest in digital diplomacy and the activities in cyberspace have been growing by a multitude of administrative departments across government agencies in the world. The United States Department of State (U.S. DOS) has also become more prominent in digital diplomacy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic by constructing strategic narratives against China. A key objective of this study is to explore the content and main reasons for narrative against China by using MAXQDA10 software package which is suitable for qualitative data analysis. A three-step coding is used to collect data in the content of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts and channels of the U.S. Department of State to manipulate perceptions of the danger that China poses. The questions raised in this research are as follows: 1- With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, how does the U.S. State Department express its goals and aspirations in the international system related to attitude of the U.S. toward China by constructing strategic narratives? 2- Why is the United States promoting these narratives? After studying the three U.S. DOS accounts, it became clear that the main US foreign policy agency was attempting to highlight two strategic narratives: a) The right conduct of the United States in foreign and domestic policy and b) the wrong conduct of China in foreign and domestic policy. In the strategic narrative of the morally good or correct foreign and domestic policy behavior of the U.S., two genres were extracted (the savior of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, the responsible state confronting China's misguided policies). In the strategic narrative of the China's wrong foreign and domestic policy behavior, two other genres were observed (China acting as a non-transparent and irresponsible government in this outbreak, an authoritarian state at home and an aggressive power abroad). Clearly, the U.S. government portrays China as a threat to its hegemony, and has taken advantage of the international community’s interest in the origins of the coronavirus pandemic to promote its anti-China agenda. In order to understand the importance of communication in international relations, the authors have used the theories of image and strategic narrative. Image theory show the perception of politicians and other actors of each other on any subject. Image theory is appropriate for the analysis of the nature of relationships in interactive contexts, because it enables an actor to define and understand one’s self-image and the image of others. Strategic narrative is also a means by which governments can express their interests, values and aspirations. Strategic narratives are a tool for political actors through which they can change the discourse space, manage expectations, and expand their influence. This is a qualitative study using content analysis method to show the hidden meaning of texts in the digital content of the U.S. State Department social media accounts. Accordingly, 247 tweets, 80 Instagram posts and 27 short videos from YouTube from the early days of the outbreak of COVID-19 in March to mid-August 2020 were selected. A total of 354 contents of the State Department’s digital activity related to COVID-19 and China's performance were systematically and randomly identified; then they were selected, translated into Persian, and analyzed. The analysis process consists of the three coding steps that are specified using the Maxqda10 software: 1- The first stage is the description stage, and is related to the formal features of the text, such as words and text structures. 2- The second stage deals with interpretation, and is a combination of the contents of the text and the mentality of the interpreter. Mentality here refers to the background knowledge that the interpreter uses in interpreting the text, which leads to the linguistic formation of genres. 3- The third stage is the explanation stage, and describes the relationship between social events (interactions) with social structures that affect or are affected by these events. At this stage, narratives are formed. By studying these three social media accounts, it can be seen that the U.S. State Department is trying to highlight two strategic narratives; the right behavior of the United States in foreign and domestic policy and the wrong behavior of China in foreign and domestic policy during the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. State Department has highlighted four genres (four images). The self-image of Washington as the savior of the world in the pandemic era is highlighted, in contrast to China's misguided policies. In general, the use of social media platforms such as Twitter by the U.S. Department of State is expected to grow in order to reach foreign audiences with the aim of achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. In the case of China, the U.S. goal has been to justify itself and discredit China during the current outbreak of COVID-19. Thus, two images have been constructed: a non-transparent and irresponsible Chinese government, an authoritarian state at home and aggressive outside. The U.S. government sees China as a threat to its hegemony. For this reason, the United States has somewhat sought to tarnish China's image by narrating it negatively on social media.


Adesina, Olubukola. S. (2017) “Foreign Policy in an Era of Digital Diplomacy,” Cogent Social Sciences 3, 1: 1-13,‏ <DOI: 10.1080/ 23311886. 2017.1297175>.
Alexander, Michele. G.; Shana Levin, and P. J. Henry. (2005) “Image Theory, Social Identity, and Social Dominance: Structural Characteristics and Individual Motives Underlying International Images,” Political Psychology 26, 1: 27-45. Available at: default/files/international_labs/ 14 thinternationallab/alexander_levin_ henry.pdf (Accessed 27 August 2020).
Antoniades, Andreas; Alister Miskimmon, and Ben O’Loughlin. (2010) “Great Power Politics and Strategic Narratives,” Working Paper No. 7, Center for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex, <DOI:10. 4324/9781315770734>.
Council on Foreign Relations. (2020) “U.S. Relations with China 1949-2020,” CFR ( Available at: timeline/us-relations-china (Accessed 12 September 2020).
Duncombe, Constance. (2019) “Digital Diplomacy: Emotion and Identity in the Public Realm,” Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14, 1-2: 102-116, <DOI: 10.1163/1871191X-14101016>.
Fairclough, Norman. (2000) Critical Discourse Analysis, trans. Fatemeh Shayesteh Piran, et al. Tehran: The Center for Media Studies and Research. [in Persian]
Haass, Richard. (2020. May) “A Cold War with China Would Be a Mistake,” Wall Street Journal. Available at: https://www.wsj. com/ articles/dont-start-a-new-cold-war-with-china-11588860761 (Accessed 27 August 2020).
Hocking, Brian; and Jan Melissen. (2015) Diplomacy in the Digital Age. Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations.‏  Available at: Digital Diplomacy-in the Digital%20Age Clingendael July 2015.pdf (Accessed 27 August 2020).
Holsti, Ole. R. (1962) “The Belief System and National Images: A Case Study,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 6, 3: 244-252, <DOI: 10.1177/ 002200276200600306>.
Kampf, Ronit; Ilan Manor, and Elad Segev. (2015) “Digital Diplomacy 2.0? A Cross-National Comparison of Public Engagement in Facebook and Twitter,” ‏ Hague Journal of Diplomacy 10, 4: 331–362, <DOI: 10.1163/ 1871191X-12341318>.
Kristof, Nicholas. (2020) “China’s Man in Washington, Named Trump,” New York Times. Available at: https://www. nytimes. com/2020/06/20/ opinion/sunday/trump-china-john-bolton-book.html (Accessed 27 August 2020).
Manor, Ilan. (2019) The Digitalisation of Public Diplomacy. New York: Palgrave McMillan.
Manor, Ilan. (2018) “The Digitalization of Diplomacy: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Terminology,” Oxford Digital Diplomacy Research Group Working Paper 2:  1-20, <DOI: 10. 13140/RG.2.2.31199.36004>.
Manor, Ilan; and  James Pamment. (2019) “Towards Prestige Mobility? Diplomatic Prestige and Digital Diplomacy,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 32, 2: 93-131, <DOI: 10.1080/ 09557571.2019. 1577801>.
Miskimmon, Alister; and Ben O’Loughlin. (2020) “The Visual Politics of the 2015 Iran Deal: Narrative, Image and Verification,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 1-21, <DOI: 10.1080/ 09557571.2020. 1813087>. 
Miskimmon, Alister; Ben O'loughlin, and Laura Roselle. (2018) “Strategic Narrative: 21st Century Diplomatic Statecraft,” Revista Mexicana de Política Exterior 113: 1-19.  Available at: https://pureadmin.qub.  (Accessed 27 August 2020).
 ———. (2017) Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.‏
———. (2014) Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order. London and New York: Routledge.‏
Moshirzadeh, Homeira. (2018) Theoretical Foundations of Foreign Policy Explanation and Analysis. Tehran: Samt. [in Persian]
Natarajan, Kalathmika. (2014) “Digital Public Diplomacy and a Strategic Narrative for India,” Strategic Analysis 38, 1: 91–106, <DOI: 10.1080/09700161.2014.863478>.
Pamment, James. (2014) “The Mediatization of Diplomacy,” Hague Journal of Diplomacy 9, 3: 253–280, <DOI: 10.1163/ 1871191X-12341279>.
Pesta, Bryan. J.; Darrin S. Kass, and Kenneth J. Dunegan. (2005) “Image Theory and the Appraisal of Employee Performance: To Screen or not to Screen?” Journal of Business and Psychology 19, 3: 341-360, <DOI: 10.1007/s10869-004-2232-0>.
Presta, Jenna. (2020, May 4). “Battle of Narratives: A Case Study of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” in Strategic Narratives of Public Diplomacy, George Washington University Blogs (  Available at: 9/2146/files/2020/04/JennaFinal-Paper-2.pdf (Accessed 9 May 2020).
Riordan, Shaun. (2016, May 12) “Cyber Diplomacy vs. Digital Diplomacy: A Terminological Distinction,” University of Southern California (USC), Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) Blog ( Available at: https://uscpublicdiplomacy. org/blog/cyber-diplomacy-vs-digital-diplomacy-terminological-distinction (Accessed 27 August 2020).
Roselle, Laura; Alister Miskimmon, and O’loughlin, Ben. (2014) “Strategic Narrative: A New Means to Understand Soft Power,” Media, War & Conflict 7, 1: 70-84, <DOI: 10.1177/ 1750635213516696>.
Ryzhova, Anna. (2019) Strategic Narratives and Public Diplomacy in the Russian News Media Portrayal of Sweden: Case of Russia Today, a Master Thesis in Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Available at: 2077/61722 (Accessed 27 August 2020).
Sandre, Andrea. (2012, August 4) “Twiplomacy is Bringing Diplomacy Back to Relevancy,” Diplo. Available at:  https://www. diplomacy. edu/blog/twiplomacy-bringing- diplomacy-back-relevancy (Accessed 8 October 2018).
Scheel, Niklas. (2017) Perceptions and Decisions: A Field-Study on Foreign-Policy in Iraqi Kurdistan, a Master's Thesis in Political Science, Lunds University, Sweden. Available at: (Accessed 2 May 2020).
Schmitt, Olivier. (2018) “When are Strategic Narratives Effective? The Shaping of Political Discourse through the Interaction between Political Myths and Strategic Narratives,” Contemporary Security Policy  39, 4: 1-27, <DOI: 10.1080/13523260.2018.1448925>.
Sotiriu, Sabrina. (2015) “Digital Diplomacy: Between Promises and Reality,” in Corneliu Bjola and Marcus Holmes, eds. Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.
Su, Shumin; and Mark Xu. (2015) “Twitplomacy: Social Media as a New Platform for Development of Public Diplomacy,” International Journal of E-Politics 6, 1: 16-29, <DOI: 10.4018/IJEP. 2015010102>.
Twiplomacy Study. (2017, May 31) “Twiplomacy Study,” Twiplomacy Study ( Available at: https:// twiplomacy-study-2017/ (Accessed 22 October 2018).
Twiplomacy Study. (2020. April) “World Leaders on Facebook 2020,” Twiplomacy Study ( Available at:  https://twiplomacy. com/blog/world-leaders-on-facebook-2020 (Accessed 28 October 2018).
Verrekia, Bridget. (2017, Spring). “Digital Diplomacy and Its Effect on International Relations,”‏ Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection 2596:  1-32. Available at: https://digitalcollections.sit. edu/cgi/ viewcontent. cgi?article=3619&context=isp_collection (Accessed 27 August 2020).
Walt, Stephen. (2020, June) “Everyone Misunderstands the Reason for the U.S.-China Cold War,” Foreign Policy. Available at: new-cold-war-foreign-policy (Accessed 15 July 2020) .
Wilkinson, Cai. (2015) “The Unsaid and Unseen: on Hearing Silences and Seeing Invisibilities in Strategic Narratives,” Critical Studies on Security 3, 3: 338-340, <DOI: 10.1080/21624887. 2015. 1103020>.
Zhu, Zhiqun. (2019, June) “The Growing U.S.-China Conflict: Why, and Now What?” National Interest. Available at:  https://nationalinterest. org/feature/growing-us-china-conflict-why-and-now-what-61227 (Accessed 7 June 2020).
Volume 51, Issue 2
September 2021
Pages 362-335
  • Receive Date: 15 February 2021
  • Revise Date: 10 June 2021
  • Accept Date: 12 September 2021
  • First Publish Date: 12 September 2021