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Innovating Public Diplomacy For a New Digital World

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A seismic shift is under way at the U.S. Department of State as Foggy Bottom increasingly draws on Silicon Valley expertise to develop tools and strategies for remaining effective — and relevant — in a rapidly innovating world. Though all sections of the State Department are affected, public diplomacy in particular has had to adapt its perspective and overhaul its outreach to stay current in a constantly evolving technological landscape.

From basic cell phone and Internet access to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, the so-called digital revolution has fundamentally changed the world as we know it — a world where half the population is under the age of 30. Most recently, this digital revolution has sprung up in the Arab world, where it's been a source of inspiration for an agitated citizenry, a source of consternation to authoritarian rulers, and a source of endless debate among scholars and pundits as to what role it's really playing in the ongoing unrest.

More and more, it's also being seen as a source of power for diplomats.

The paradigm of network as power was put forward by international relations scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently left her post as director of policy planning at the State Department. The notion that we live in a networked world and America's ability to capitalize on this connectivity will impact its global standing remains highly influential among key foreign policy players in the Obama administration (exemplified by the president's first-ever "Twitter town hall" on July 6). As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote in a recent op-ed, "There are many more networks in our future than treaties."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has led the push to use technology as a platform for diplomacy as part of what she calls "21st-century statecraft," leveraging traditional foreign policy statecraft with the networks, technologies and demographics of our interconnected world. Put more simply, the State Department needs to innovate to keep up with the high-tech times.

Clinton's two speeches on "Internet freedom," the first in the winter of 2010 and the second during the throes of the Egyptian uprising last February, established the phrase "freedom to connect" as a new tenet of American diplomacy, bolstered by the Obama administration's recent International Strategy for Cyberspace, which lays out U.S. foreign policy priorities in the realm of cyber issues. Clinton has described cyber diplomacy as "a new foreign policy imperative for which the State Department ... will continue to have a leading role."

"We inhabit a moment of uncertainty and possibility that allows for and requires entirely new ways of thinking," said Judith A. McHale, who served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs from spring 2009 to July 2011, at a June 21 discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations.

McHale focused on the image of an inverted pyramid from a January 2010 New York Times op-ed page, in which U2 singer Bono shared "10 ideas to kick off the new decade." The image represented how the traditional power relationship between the ruler and the ruled has been overturned by recent developments in communications technology. The events in Egypt and the Arab world made it a particularly relevant metaphor, she noted.

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Photo: State Department
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveils the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), which uses mobile cell networks to provide basic health information to vulnerable women around the world — part of Clinton's "21st-century statecraft" vision to transform the U.S. Foreign Service's approach to technology.

"In a world where power and influence truly belongs to the many, we must engage with more people in more places," said McHale. "That is the essential truth of public diplomacy in the Internet age."

Whereas in the past, practitioners of public diplomacy could expect that audiences would come to them (or diplomats would physically go to them), McHale said that today this is no longer the case. In a networked world, the State Department has to deal with "an increasingly savvy and motivated set of influencers on a global stage, each armed with a vast array of affordable, adaptable tools to spread their message." The only solution, she argues, is to become a part of the conversations, to go out and engage with people wherever they may congregate in the real or virtual world. "We must be out there in as many ways as possible and at every hour of every day," she said.

Under Clinton, the State Department has indeed expanded its presence in the virtual world. A glance at State's revamped website reveals links to Facebook and Twitter sites, a Flickr stream of photographs, YouTube-related videos, "Dipnote" blogs and RSS feeds. Beyond gaining a foothold in the cyber world, the State Department is trying to integrate technology into its every facet of its work, rethinking public diplomacy and reinventing outreach efforts such as educational exchanges.

Last month for instance, 37 women from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian territories came to the United States for a five-week mentorship with their American counterparts at 24 U.S.-based technology companies as part of "TechWomen," a State initiative that harnesses the power of technology and international exchange to empower women and girls worldwide.

At the closing luncheon of the TechWomen initiative at the State Department, Clinton outlined some of the other projects in which technology is playing a redefining role. "We're working with farmers in many parts of the world who are now using mobile phones to find the best prices for their crops," she said. "We're working with health professionals so that pregnant women and new mothers can get good advice about how to care for their newborns via text messages. We're working with students so that they can learn English through mobile language apps. And we're working with civil society so that you can use the Internet to uncover corruption and advocate more effectively for political and economic reform."

She added: "Here in the State Department, we do what we call 21st-century statecraft. That's just a fancy way of saying that we are trying to use technology to open up doors that are otherwise closed."

Examples of opening up 21st-century doors abound. In the Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) program, students become virtual "eInterns" at the State Department and their work can be done remotely from their dorm rooms, wherever in the world they are. Traveling abroad? The new "Smart Traveler" iPhone application — also compatible with the iPod touch and iPad — features a dashboard of country-by-country information, travel alerts and warnings, maps, U.S. embassy locations, and more.

A recent edition of "Tech@State" — which connects tech innovators and those interested in diplomacy and development to help improve the education, health and welfare of the world's population — explored how "serious gaming" can spark social change. The all-day conference at the George Washington University brought together young entrepreneurs from media ventures such as playmobs, Applications for Good, LOLApps, icivics and Gamification.

The explosion of digital technologies, however, is a double-edged sword, and the movement to tap the power of technology can have stealthy undertones. The U.S. government, beyond the benign arena of public diplomacy, is simultaneously attempting to use various networking technologies to circumvent censorship and maintain its "hard power" edge in cyber space.

In the recent article "U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors Abroad," the New York Times documented a widespread U.S. government campaign to deploy "shadow" Internet and cell phone systems to undermine authoritarian governments that block telecommunications.

"The State Department, for example, is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya," wrote James Glanz and John Markoff, citing a $2 million State grant used to develop an innocuous-looking suitcase that can be quickly set up to generate wireless Internet access over a large area.

The reporters also referenced a $50 million State-Pentagon program to create an independent cell phone network in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban — noting that the effort revved up after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"The Obama administration's initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught," Glanz and Markoff wrote. "But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler."

This cool new frontier is also refreshing the face of public diplomacy, which has evolved from traditional democracy-promotion efforts such as the shortwave radio broadcasts of the past to today's webchats on how mobile-money applications can help impoverished nations like Haiti. The Broadcast Board of Governors, responsible for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, is still around and finding fertile new ground in nations such as Kyrgyzstan and Iran. But it too is embracing new modes of communitication to compete in an increasingly crowded media space.

And officials such as Public Diplomacy Undersecretary McHale still regularly make old-fashioned visits to personally meet with international audiences, but the World Wide Web has simply made the world of diplomacy that much larger. That's why McHale has been leading the charge to not only redefine public diplomacy, but boost its status in U.S. foreign policy.

"Policymaking and public diplomacy were at one time seen as separate and far from equal disciplines of our foreign policy apparatus, and the organization was structured accordingly," McHale noted in her CFR speech. The process of uniting them began with the abolishment of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) by President Clinton in 1999, and the integration of its successor into the State Department is vigorously continuing under the present administration, she said.

a6.digital.staff.storyPhoto: State Department
Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale, center, participates in the State Department's first global "Twitter Q&A" on June 29 at the U.S. State Department, whose main official Twitter feed, @StateDept, hosted the session. 

One structural change has been the creation of seven new deputy assistant secretaries of state for public diplomacy — six in the regional bureaus, plus one in public affairs for interacting with international media. McHale explained that the reasoning is "to have public diplomacy at the highest level within the State Department participating in and informing our policy decision making."

The State Department — like the U.S. government as a whole — is still trying to navigate this new technological terrain and is continually tweaking its approach. A notice on the main website page for the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) from January of this year, for example, outlines a host of changes based on a comprehensive three-month business review.

Among the changes was the decision to do away with America.gov, a democracy-promotion website created in 2008 for publishing articles and multimedia content on cultural and political topics relating to U.S. foreign interests. Since March 31, the website content has been archived and won't be updated.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, IIP Coordinator Dawn McCall explained that the decision to redirect resources from America.gov was the result of moving away from the "self-creation" of products, including "static" websites, toward actively engaging with the communities that State is trying to reach — going out directly to these communities on the web instead of just assuming they'd visit America.gov.

The resources of IIP, which has 280 personnel in Washington and around the world, will now be focused on providing content and support to America's 450 embassy websites around the world. According to a press release, IIP's "expanded use of web-enabled engagement channels demonstrates the Bureau's commitment to shift its strategy from a static web site to seeking audiences proactively on the platforms they frequent in their language."

McCall underscored the importance of engaging publics in their own language as much as possible as part of a genuine two-way conversation. "The underpinning of IIP is engagement, the conversation," she said. "It is education to foreign publics. And we weren't doing that. We weren't engaging with audiences; we were engaging with our own self-created media, and the website was one of them.

"So my thought when I came in here is that it's easy to self-create lots of things, check a box of 'I've written that article, I've made that video and put it on our own property,'" McCall explained. "But my feeling is we have to be more aggressive, and we have to go out and find a place to place that information that we've written, about whatever subject it might be, or to engage in a conversation around that particular subject."

A senior government official who requested anonymity said the decision to discontinue America.gov was a good one, arguing that the website had reinforced an artificial notion of "us" and "them," while its newsroom had taken away valuable resources from the State Department's foreign posts.

The new forms of engagement dictate a change in the type of content being produced as well. In an April 24 post on the Hillicon Valley blog of the Hill newspaper, the only media coverage of the demise of America.gov turned up by a Google search, IIP Principal Deputy Coordinator Duncan MacInnes said the bureau is now "teaching people to write shorter."

"Chunky; chunk the information down," he told the Hill. "We'll produce an article, we'll reduce that to a 200-word piece that can be used for a Facebook page and three or four tweets that can be used on a Twitter feed and instant messaging."

Likewise, McCall pointed to the need to produce different types of content, such as shorter articles and videos for social media platforms. "Obviously, being in an electronic and social media world, we had too many long things we were writing ... not enough of what I would call short features," she said.

"And we are also providing to our posts on a daily basis social media feeds, in [foreign] languages, which gives them some tweets, some Facebook entries, some links to more detailed information. So just taking look at the environment you're operating in and seeing where people are going and what kinds of conversations they're having, and where they're seeking out information."

Even as IIP and the State Department's public diplomacy specialists aim to forge a cutting-edge strategy for social media engagement, some have questioned the idea that the Internet can be an effective tool in international relations or, specifically, promoting democracy abroad.

Evgeny Morozov's 2010 book "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom" offers one of the most sustained critiques of the viewpoint that "there is no problem that social networking cannot solve."

"Every new article or book about a Twitter Revolution is not a triumph of humanity; it is a triumph of Twitter's marketing department," Morozov wrote. "In fact, Silicon Valley's marketing geniuses may have a strong interest in misleading the public about the similarity between the Cold War and today: The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe still enjoy a lot of goodwill with policymakers, and having Twitter and Facebook be seen as their digital equivalents doesn't hurt their publicity."

On a broader scale, Morozov denounced what he calls the "Internet freedom agenda" — "the notion that technology can succeed in opening up the world where offline efforts have failed," he wrote in the Foreign Policy article "Freedom.gov."

For all the hype and positive headlines, the State Department has yet to produce any tangible successes from its tech-based strategies, Morozov argues, noting that its "enthusiasm for technology has surpassed its understanding of it."

He detailed how two programs — Haystack, a privacy-protecting and censorship-circumventing technology offered to dissidents in Iran, and an anonymous SMS tip line to help Mexicans share tips about drug cartels — both largely failed because they couldn't ensure anonymity, putting the users at even greater risk of exposure.

But the biggest flaw in State's approach, Morozov argues, is that it makes Silicon Valley look like Washington's propaganda tool. "Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don't talk about promoting Internet freedom," he wrote. "The State Department's online democratizing efforts have fallen prey to the same problems that plagued Bush's Freedom Agenda. By aligning themselves with Internet companies and organizations, Clinton's digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism."

Indeed, companies such Google, Facebook and Twitter — whose ultimate aim is profits not democracy promotion — remain conflicted as to what their responsibilities are in nations such as China and Iran that routinely block the flow of information.

Moreover, just because the world is more interconnected does not mean it's necessarily any less complicated. In an April interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, leading social media expert Clay Shirky criticized the idea that the State Department could effectively use Twitter, which limits tweets to 140 characters, due to a fundamental conflict between the type of transparent communication fostered by the medium and the inherently nuanced nature of international diplomacy.

Shirky argued that foreign policy is simply too prickly an area for effective use of the medium. "What I think is really startling about the State Department's use of Twitter is the way in which it has become painfully obvious that they actually can't say the same thing to everybody," he said. "Even if the State Department had some much more integrated way in which it wanted to use Twitter, foreign policy is the single hardest isse to manage in a democratic government."

Still, the State Department is using a range of 160 different Twitter accounts to manage its "conversation with the world." Tech-savvy internationalists often caution that communication technologies are "agnostic" to political outcomes and can potentially benefit dictators just as much as democratic leaders, but there remains a strong sense that non-engagement carries serious risks.

Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation to Secretary Clinton, offered The Diplomat plenty of arguments to counter those who would discount the utility of Twitter as a diplomatic tool. He described it as a "progressive agent of change" because, like other network technologies, it "tends to distribute power away from large institutions and nation states and toward smaller institutions and individuals by elevating ideas and voices of all kinds."

Ross admited Twitter posed "interesting challenges for large institutions because it is a community that privileges immediacy, interactivity and provocative creativity." But he emphasized the value of the tool, and digital diplomacy more broadly, in allowing the U.S. government to interact with non-traditional audiences. "In short, digital media allows more people to participate in diplomacy," he said.

But despite the growing buzz around Twitter in the United States, Ross also pointed to the perhaps more significant explosive growth of mobile phone use in the developing world, calling it a "game changer" for foreign service officers. In fact, mobile subscriber penetration has reached more than 5 billion people worldwide out of a total world population of 6.9 billion, according to the United Nations, which estimates that by 2012, half the people living in remote areas will have one.

While historians likely debate what role cell phones and social media will have on society far into the future, what is already evident is that they are but one facet of a broader generational shift, enabled by new modes of digital communication, that is upending the relationships between people and governments around the globe.

As these technologies continually reinvent the ways in which people interact, they will fundamentally redefine the practice of diplomacy. And as the juggernaut of cyber connectivity marches forward, diplomats will need to keep pace if they want to connect with the people who find themselves newly empowered in ways never before possible.


About the Author

Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 17, 2012