Public diplomacy moves ahead

State Department turns to Web 2.0 tools to win the hearts and minds of people worldwide.

Earlier this month, the State Department joined with major new media companies and the Columbia University School of Law to bring leaders of youth movements from around the world to New York City to launch a Web 2.0-powered global network designed to mobilize people against violence and oppression.

The department’s sponsorship of the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit represents part of a new approach toward public diplomacy.

A subset of the country’s diplomatic mission, public diplomacy is defined as outreach to the people to other countries rather than to their governments.

Summit participants worked on a field manual that will be the cornerstone of a much larger online Youth Movements How-To Hub. The hub will include instructional videos, links to related resources, and discussion forums for sharing experiences and tips on using social networking and other technologies to promote freedom and justice.

Attendees represented organizations that use new media, online social networking, the Internet, and mobile technology to draw attention to issues in Colombia, Sudan, Cuba, India, Venezuela, Lebanon and other countries. Others came to learn how they could use the technologies to help their causes. Howcast Media organized the summit, and the co-sponsors included Facebook, Google, YouTube and MTV.

Analysts say the summit is just one indicator of how technology is influencing the government’s approach to diplomacy and policy decisions. Although most of the money the United States spends on public diplomacy still goes to traditional efforts such as the Fulbright Program, a new approach focused on social collaboration technology has also emerged, said James Glassman, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Glassman said he believes embracing such tools is essential to winning the war of ideas. The department is calling the approach Public Diplomacy 2.0.

“We’re not dictating, we’re not messaging here at all,” he said. “Instead, we’re helping to give young [people] the kinds of tools that will expand this conversation and — not coincidentally — help to fight violence and oppression in the world.”

Public Diplomacy 2.0 defined
Glassman said the ideas behind Public Diplomacy 2.0 are not new, but they have taken a more defined shape in recent months. 

The government has long sought to use technology to get its messages to foreign audiences. Those efforts started with Cold War-era programs, and they’ve had the ongoing support of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. However, after the Cold War ended and before the terrorist attacks in 2001, public diplomacy efforts received less attention, Glassman said.

In the current efforts, department employees sign on to blogs written in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu to engage, inform and correct what officials say are distortions of U.S. policy. The employees must identify themselves and cannot pose as ordinary citizens.

The department has also held public diplomacy programs in the online virtual world Second Life and is developing an English-language teaching game that will use cell phone technology.

State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has launched a social-networking site named ExchangesConnect through which it has partnered with the Adobe Foundation’s Adobe Youth Voices program to hold the My Culture + Your Culture online video contest.

Four winners will receive global recognition of their videos and be eligible to participate in a State-funded, two-week international exchange program.

The department has another online video contest called the Democracy Video Challenge in which participants are asked to create short films that explore what democracy means to them. The public will select the winners, and the prize is an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, New York and Hollywood and screening of the winning videos in those cities.

The department put few restrictions on submissions so it might receive some that do not align with U.S. foreign policy, but that is fine, Glassman said. Strengthening the image of the United States as a place where people can engage one another openly without having to worry about government approval is in the country’s interest, he added.

“We’ve arrived at the view that the best way to achieve our goals in public diplomacy is through a new approach to communicating — an approach that is made far easier because of the emergence of Web 2.0 or social-networking technologies,” he said Dec. 1 at an event called “Public Diplomacy 2.0” at the New America Foundation.

Glassman said new collaborative technologies give the United States a significant advantage over terrorists.

“The Internet world of al Qaeda is one of direction: Believe this, do that,” he said. “The Internet world of today is one of interactivity and conversation.”

Mark Smith, a 27-year Foreign Service veteran who is now U.S. Public Diplomat in Residence at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, said the dialogue that is possible on YouTube and Facebook is “poison to those who believe they have a monopoly on truth.”

“One thing we have come gradually to realize since [Sept. 11, 2001] is that new interactive media technologies work in favor of open societies and against those preaching intolerance and extremism,” he said.

At the New America Foundation, Glassman said the following principles guide Public Diplomacy 2.0:

  • Indirection is generally best for achieving public diplomacy aims.
  • Expertise resides in the private sector, and the department’s job is to find it, use it and serve as a partner.
  • Some of the best public diplomacy programs have long been based on collaborative approaches.
  • Speed is essential, rapid engagement is required, and the department must give diplomats the ability to move quickly.
Glassman also listed a series of cautions for the new approach.

  • Every action in public diplomacy must be strategic.
  • Traditional programs, such as exchanges, must be maintained and augmented.
  • Public diplomacy is only one tool for achieving foreign policy and national security goals.

How far can it go?
Although there is general support for the use of new technologies in public diplomacy, experts disagree about how effective they can be without changing unpopular policies.

John Brown, who recently retired from the Foreign Service because of his objections to the war in Iraq, said people in Washington tend to see technology as the solution for everything.

“It’s also very important to be aware that human beings and their complexities go beyond technologies,” said Brown, who now teaches at Georgetown University and compiles the “Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review.”

“You can’t sell the U.S. like you do Coca-Cola,” he added.

Brown said he is pleased State is experimenting with new forms of communication, although he added that what happens in Washington and what happens in the field differ widely.

It is important for Foreign Service officers to actually meet with bloggers in key countries, he added.

Smith said the new technologies are making diplomats think more flexibly about how to convey their messages because collaborative technologies require a give-and-take conversation rather than sticking to approved talking points.

Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and host of the Public Diplomacy 2.0 event in December, said he finds the approach interesting.

Clemons, who also publishes “The Washington Note” blog, said it is remarkable that the Bush administration is trying to implement a project that focuses on the type of connectivity the Obama presidential campaign has advocated.
Glassman also said that when Congress asks how money is being used for the programs, officials must show that they have made responsible choices.

“In this new world of communications, any government that resists new Internet techniques faces a greater risk: being ignored,” he added.

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