Net diplomacy

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.

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

electronic commerce.

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

officials.

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.

Culture Clash

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

IIP officials.

"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,

he said.

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."

Overly Ambitious?

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,

he said.

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

computer response.

To try to actually respond to such a volume of correspondence, he said,

would "break the back of an organization."

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