- By Bryant Jordan
- Oct 29, 2000
It has become a cliche, but it's true: With the explosive growth of the
Internet in the past decade, no one does business the same way anymore.
That goes for the State Department, too, where generations of foreign service
officers and diplomats have been charged with the serious mission of spreading
America's political and economic message worldwide.
With its ability to move huge amounts of data and images around the globe
via Web sites, direct e-mail, streaming video and electronic publications — even into nations that traditionally place strict controls on the flow
of information — the Internet provides State with the most powerful medium
ever for delivering its message, according to Ira Magaziner, the former
White House adviser who coordinated the government's strategy on global
The Internet is "a tremendous promoter of democracy because dictatorship
depends upon control of information to flourish, and with the Internet,
it will be virtually impossible for an individual government to control
the flow of information to its people," Magaziner recently told department
But the questions facing State — which became evident during the course
of a three-day conference this month — are how best to use the Internet
and even whether the Internet can provide the necessary push within nations
to bring about change.
Casting a Wide Net
Those advocating a bigger role for the Internet in U.S. foreign policy
already have a name for it: Net diplomacy.
It's a marriage of traditional diplomacy, in which U.S. diplomats work
with foreign leaders and dignitaries, and so-called public diplomacy — working
directly with foreign citizens. The former U.S. Information Agency, which
just a year ago became part of the State Department as the Office of International
Information Programs (IIP), was created to carry out public diplomacy — or propaganda, as it is sometimes known. As it did with radio and film under
its former name, IIP now uses the Internet to contact foreign audiences — not only average citizens but also leaders in government, the media,
industry and nongovernmental organizations.
IIP-sponsored Web sites post news and events, including transcripts
of speeches, in English, Spanish, Arabic, French and other languages. The
sites are arranged geographically, tailoring information to specific regions,
and thematically, providing information on political and economic security,
democracy, human rights, communications, and American society and values.
At their best, the sites include plenty of links to other Web sites.
Interactivity is another goal in Net diplomacy, according to Martha
Chaconas, electronic publications producer at IIP. Sites should be designed
to enable users to interact with the Webmaster, each other and the Web page,
which should provide visitors with feed-back opportunities, search capabilities
and even chats and discussions.
But State's real Internet strength lies in the quality and accuracy
of the online information, which some call the "truth," according to experts.
The type of information being posted or sent out, according to some,
is where old-school State Department officials depart from public-diplomacy-oriented
"In a sense, the opportunity is there for State to put out American
perspectives on almost any issue, for anybody to pick up," said Richard
Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
"The question is: What should the government be putting out?" he said.
Solomon formerly served as U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and assistant
secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs. State Department
information could range from supplying resources to "spinning" a policy
or event in a particular way.
The State Department is steeped in the traditions of tight lips and
playing things close to the vest. The department, for example, does not
offer employees universal access to the Internet from their desktops at
its headquarters in Washington, D.C. IIP's predecessor, however, was created
in 1953 for the purpose of putting out information, and IIP has leapt headlong
into the Web.
"It is a kind of cultural clash [between]...the Department of State,
[which is] 200-plus years old [and] over the years has done things a certain
way, and an agency born in 1953 as an independent agency, with a totally
different culture," said Barry Fulton, a retired USIA officer who teaches
at George Washington University and the Foreign Service Institute.
"I don't think it's a question of truth, the opposite of which is untruth,"
he said. "It's transparency vs. not disclosing something. It's more complicated.
If it were truth, we would have all been closed down years ago."
There is no single answer about what State should disclose and when,
The Credibility Factor
Howard Cincotta, director of the electronic media and visual services
team at IIP, said the debate should not be about what State should disclose,
but rather how to balance State's mission to advocate U.S. policies with
facts that are widely known or can be easily verified via the Internet.
No matter what State puts on the Internet, the agency should be concerned
about its credibility, according to Cincotta. "We're in the business of
supporting and advocating U.S. foreign policy and national interests. We're
not an independent news organization or international entity," he said.
"So there's no ambiguity about what our role is, but at the same time it
is a fundamental truth that the only way anyone is going to hear our message...is
if they believe we're credible."
The credibility factor becomes more significant because the Internet
is unforgiving of deception, said Gary Selnow, executive director of World
Internet Resources for Education and Development.
"It lays bare everything you put out there. You can't take it back once
you send it out. Anyone can examine it for accuracy," he said. "If you don't
tell the truth on Kosovo or on Croatia, people are not going to trust what
you say about other places."
According to Sheryl Brown, co-director of the Virtual Diplomacy initiative
at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the United States learned a lesson about
credibility when it bombed suspected chemical weapons plants in Afghani-stan
and Sudan after the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam,
Tanzania, were bombed in 1998.
The United States' evidence that the Sudanese target — a pharmaceutical
plant — was turning out chemical weapons was weak, and American arguments
to the contrary only hurt the United States, according to Brown.
The State Department "put out one story, and [the Sudanese] put out
another," she said. "When everything came to light, the Sudanese government
was right, and we had to fall on our sword on that one. And we lost a lot
of face on that because we were not credible."
But even advocates of greater openness agree that information, at times,
cannot be disclosed. "If there's a crisis with lives on the line, secrecy
would be important," said former USIA officer Fulton.
"It's not going to be done that way, nor should it," Magaziner said,
although the State Department — and government as a whole, he contended — needs to move in that direction.
"As the public becomes more aware and more participatory on the Internet,
they're going to expect [openness]," he said, "And they're going to penalize
public officials or governments who are viewed as being too secretive in
the way in which policies are formed."
But some foreign policy experts are not convinced that the Internet,
and all of the online services it can provide, will play a big role in convincing
foreign citizens to support U.S. interests.
For example, one of IIP's goals is to invite international audiences
to interact with one another in chat rooms, with officials or noted individuals
in online discussions and with other online interactive applications on
the State Department's Web site.
Magaziner posed the same idea at the Net diplomacy conference. "In the
Internet Age, we are going to have to interact with everybody," he said.
He suggested building Web pages that spark interest and comments on topics
ranging from social and political issues to American sports and culture.
It's a vision that many share, but not everyone believes it is workable.
"It is in theory a great idea, but in practice the overload problem is enormous,"
said Solomon from the U.S. Institute of Peace. Agencies just do not have
the personnel to manage chat rooms, online discussions and other interactions,
The White House site offers an apt example, he said. Tens of thousands
of people send e-mail messages to the White House through its Web site,
but it is rare for a staff member to send back anything other than a canned
To try to actually respond to such a volume of correspondence, he said,
would "break the back of an organization."