The ability to share information empowers people, regardless of where they are. Increased access to information is democratizing. It can mobilize, increase oversight and accountability, and improve access to resources and markets, all of which increase participation and standards of living.
It is not surprising then that one of public diplomacy’s chief proponents in Congress, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), wrote about the use of social media as a tool for democracy in Twitter vs. Terror at ForeignPolicy.com.
The adroit use of social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, coupled with text messages and increasingly widespread mobile-phone technology, can help lend support to existing grassroots movements for freedom and civil rights, connect people to information, and help those in closed societies communicate with the outside world. It also promises to give a strong economic boost to small entrepreneurs and the rural poor. The World Bank estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the number of mobile-phone users in a developing country, there is nearly a 1 percent increase in its economic output. …
But social networking technologies are more often used to enable individuals across a country, or across the globe, to interact, engage, and become empowered. Although this means that our government will not be able to control the message as well as it might with conventional public diplomacy tools, I believe it is a risk worth taking. Terrorists and other anti-American propagandists have for some time been using the Internet and other techniques to communicate and recruit. America needs to beat them at their own game, especially since we invented most of the technology.
I would encourage the administration and our diplomats to be nimble, flexible, and innovative as they pursue a wide range of foreign-policy initiatives that use these new communication and connection techniques. Diplomacy and development are our best means of winning the global war of ideas, and we must come to the battle armed with the most modern tools at our disposal.
This is the latest in the Senator’s many efforts to improve America’s outreach, including increasing access to knowledge the old-fashioned way: opening up access to libraries.
In the age of information, it is difficult for a traditionalists to give up control of information. They want to control a message but today’s world of Now Media, where information moves seamlessly between platforms and across porous borders, information is relayed through a web of proxies, each adding or subtracting some value. It is thus encouraging that the Senator encourages nimbleness, flexibility, and innovation.
A couple of comments, or clarifications, on the Senator’s well-written article are necessary.
First, the State Department has come a long way under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The public diplomacy apparatus has to come a long way, a process of began by Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Jim Glassman. Judith McHale, the current under secretary, is still putting her stamp on the operations, which we’ll see with her public diplomacy strategy that has been signed off by the Secretary but still under review within the department. It is important to keep in mind, however, the Judith McHale does not actually oversee US State Department public diplomacy, just a small bit, although she does provide guidance and leadership in areas she has no direct authority over, such as the regional bureaus and the posts.
In his article, Senator Lugar highlights the dysfunction that is described in part above. He referred to several projects pushed not by McHale but the Secretary’s very capable senior advisor for innovation, Alec Ross. When Alec was announced to be Clinton’s senior advisor, before I knew him, I noted the overlap with the public diplomacy shop. I still believe Alec’s position was created in large to work around limitations of State’s bureaucracy, particularly of the capabilities and gaps of and between the public diplomacy office of McHale and the democracy and global affairs office of Maria Otero.
Second, the President’s Ghana speech and the excellent use of SMS by the McHale’s office had its limits unknown to most Americans: it was unavailable to people within the geographic United States. Bureaucratically, informing Americans is the job of the State Department’s public affairs office, an office that ostensibly reports to McHale. But the reality is different, hence my italics for “and Public Affairs” when I write McHale’s title.
The Senator closed with a sentiment that is spot on and should be more widely adopted: “Diplomacy and development are our best means of winning the global war of ideas, and we must come to the battle armed with the most modern tools at our disposal.”