Symposium Transcripts: (former) Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Mike Doran

This PDF (72kb) is the second of six transcripts from the January 13, 2009, Smith-Mundt Symposium. This is the lunch time keynote by (former) Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Mike Doran. His comments are followed by an active question and answer session. Audio for this part of the Symposium can be download here (1 hour and 3 minutes, 15mb). My comments will follow in a forthcoming report.

Excerpt is below the fold.

… In today’s referential age, messages by Americans about American strategic concerns will not necessarily command the attention of key local groups. To address the strategic threat d by hostile information networks and to tap into the constructive power of the new media, a revamped public diplomacy enterprise must be tasked with supplying local credible voices with material and resources tailored to their specific environment. It cannot simply be tasked with getting out the American message.

It must, in other words – and this is my key point – create networks that promote the strategic interests of the United States. This is not to suggest that the new enterprise should be engaged in covert or clandestine activities; it simply needs to support third parties whose efforts dovetail with those of the United States even if those efforts are not directly engaged in telling America’s story.

This brings me to the second, less obvious point about the story from Africa with which I opened up my remarks, and that’s this, foreign audiences are first and foremost concerned with themselves and not with the United States. The Africans who loved John McCain do so because what his actions tell them about their own political systems.

If we’ve learned one thing in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it’s that the attitudes towards the United States are often – that local attitudes towards the United States are often byproducts of struggles for power and authority in those societies. These are sometimes highly parochial conflicts about which we are poorly informed.

For instance, it’s not uncommon to learn that one village in Afghanistan will decide to support transnational terrorist networks in order to strengthen its hand in land-standing conflicts, conflicts that at their essence have no direct connection to the United States and its struggle against al Qaeda, nonetheless they have a big impact on that struggle.

The United States must therefore be concerned about such issues because they impinge directly on our most vital interests. In attempting to influence local debates, telling America’s story is not the most important action that a revamped public diplomacy could take. In such circumstances, supplying a local credible voice with cultural resources wholly disconnected from the United States might be the most appropriate step to take.

This kind of activity of course requires significant research of a kind that we are not accustomed to conducting on the necessary scale. As Nick Cull’s outstanding book on USIA demonstrates, the old USIA played a very important role in overseeing a vast network of listening posts around the globe. A new information organization must also engage in what might be called strategic listening, or as Jim Glassman said this morning active understanding.

We need to be much more attuned to local political and intellectual discussions, not just among our enemies but also among our friends. Strategic listening requires paying more attention to open-source information, the kind of intelligence that anybody who has run a political campaign is intimately familiar with: conducting polls, focus groups, and simply identifying the key people who have their finger on the pulse of their community.