Today I attended the presentation “Public Diplomacy 2.0” by the State Department’s Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy James Glassman at the New America Foundation. The presentation and discussion was on using web 2.0 technologies for public diplomacy, with a focus on specific examples, both within the State Department and in the wider world. Audio (MP3) and video of the event are both available.

Glassman focused a good deal on the “war of ideas”, basically idea that the U.S. needs to use public diplomacy (and strategic communications) more to encourage people to choose alternatives to violence instead of trying to make the U.S. more popular. Much as been written on this, so I will keep my notes in this area limited. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that much of the following was presented through this lens.

As I saw it, Glassman had two main points:

  1. Not the technology: Public diplomacy 2.0 is not, and should not be, about the technology. Instead, public diplomacy 2.0 is a (somewhat) new process for communication and, more importantly, engagement. Indeed, Glassman noted that the State Department has long been doing web 2.0 style public diplomacy, just without (or with different) technology. He pointed to cultural exchanges and encouraging foreigners to study in the U.S. as exemplifying “web 2.0” type two-way engagement the U.S. government has long been involved with.

    One of the primary examples Glassman gave of this point was the Columbian movement against FARC which, by utilizing the social networking site Facebook, put millions of people on streets around the world to protest against the rebel group. While he noted that Facebook was important to facilitate the marches, there had to be a preexisting enabling environment.

  2. Web 2.0 gives the U.S. a significant competitive advantage: This new conversational medium gives the United States a significant competitive advantage over our opponents, most specifically Al Qaeda. Glassman’s argument is that the U.S.’s fundamental message (democracy, personal freedom, etc) is more compatible with the web 2.0 world than Al Qaeda’s (war of cultures, global jihad, etc). Ultimately, Glassman argues that, to be successful, Al Qaeda needs to control the message, which is not possible in the web 2.0 marketplace of ideas. To quote directly: “There is a reason Al Qaeda blows up marketplaces”.

    To support this point, Glassman highlighted Al Qaeda’s difficulty with engaging on social networks and video sharing sites since that opens them up to direct criticism which then dilutes their message. In contrast, Glassman mentioned the Democracy Video Challenge, which encourages the public to submit a video on how they view democracy. Importantly, the winning video may not share the Department of State or U.S. government’s perspective on democracy.

Five best practices and three concerns

Glassman also highlighted the five best methods for conducting public diplomacy 2.0:

  1. Indirect engagement usually works best: Having the message delivered through a third-party is often better than delivering it directly. Glassman used this example: Muslims often view the U.S. as hostile to their religion, despite the millions of Muslims who freely practice their faith in America. To address this dichotomy, Moroccan journalists were invited by the U.S. government to interview American Muslims on their lives and faith. This resulted in a multi-part documentary aired on Moroccan television. While the presentation did highlight some of the problems American Muslims face in the U.S., the overall impression conveyed was quite positive.
  2. Convene and facilitate: The U.S. government is often an ideal avenue to find people and groups doing good things, put them in contact with each other and then to lend long-term support. Furthermore, as a facilitator, the U.S. government needs to be willing to release control, acting more as a steward for the conversation. Glassman noted the upcoming Alliance of Youth Movements as an example of this. The event, taking place later this week in New York City, will connect leaders of youth movements in a global network that seeks to empower young people to mobilize against violence and oppression.
  3. Expertise resides in private sector: Significant innovation, experience and expertise resides in the private sector and public-private partnerships need to be formed to create a gateway to harness these resources. At the same time, Glassman was critical of some of the recent reports that suggest a non-governmental organization would be best equipped to create such partnerships, noting his concern about out-sourcing core public diplomacy functions.
  4. Best public diplomacy has long been web 2.0, just without the name: As noted above, much of the public diplomacy already being taken place fits well within the web 2.0 environment, even if they are not utilizing the underlying technologies.
  5. Speed is essential: Conversations and innovations are increasingly happening in real-time, so the U.S. government needs to be faster, more agile and increasingly entrepreneurial. Since this is likely to mean fewer checks on messaging, the government also has to be willing to back people up if and when they do make mistakes.

In addition to his best practices, Glassman also pointed to three concerns:

  1. Everything we do must be strategic: Continuing his calls for better coordination, everything, whether public diplomacy 2.0 or 1.0, needs to be based on a strategic plan. Furthermore, this strategic plan needs to be based on specific goals, such as increasing domestic security and/or promoting freedom abroad.
  2. Need to balance between the tried-and-true and the up-and-coming: While it is important to always keep looking for the next method of communication and engagement, tried-and-true programs (such as student/cultural exchanges and broadcast journalism) also need continual support.
  3. Proportionality: Public diplomacy is only part of the way to achieve our goals and, in some cases, military force will be necessary. Soft power is never a substitute for hard power. The inverse is also true.

A number of the State Department’s programs were mentioned throughout the presentation and following discussion. Since much has been written on them already, I’ll just note those mentioned:

Due to the Undersecretary’s tight schedule, the question and answer period was quite compressed so I’ve integrated many of the replies into the above notes. Many of the questions also touched on well-covered areas (persistent funding/resource constraints, power of words vs. deeds) or were somewhat off-topic (role of VOA/BBG, approach to the Arab media), so I’ve not addressed the responses here. For more on these issues, skim through my (very) rough notes (PDF).

I also had a few questions which, alas, there was no time for. Here they are:

  1. How are public diplomacy 2.0 programs measured and evaluated? Quantitative questions are only useful to a point while qualitative measures are often difficult to systemize and institutionalize. How is success defined? (This is a regular issue I face in my work and I wonder if there is being addressed on an institutional level.)
  2. With the focus on the “war of ideas”, is there too little emphasis on influencing perception of publics in friendly countries? The U.S. has substantial business with many of her closest allies and those nation’s public opinions matter. There are innumerable examples of how foreign public opinion can shape U.S. policies and goals, but here are a few: foreign troop engagement levels in Iraq or Afghanistan, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or defining global warming or agricultural policy.
  3. Are we coordinating public diplomacy and strategic communication efforts with our allies? With less focus on “Brand America” and more on providing alternatives to violence, there is much more scope for international coordination.

This post has 10 Comments

  1. Darren,

    thank you for taking notes! Good summary; I just listened to his speech, and am listening to the questions. I agree with the subtext of your second question above– the policy of the United States speaks louder than particular communication techniques. (I hear the first questioner raising the question of “moral consistency”)

    I have another question– and I see that you are in fact a state dept employee, so maybe you can follow-up and find out — is there solid evidence to Al Queda diminishing their influence because the apparent interactivity of “web 2.0” is an anathema to them? The fact that al-Zawihiri took four months to answer questions… did that result in some real soul-searching among Queda sympathists?


  2. Hi Jon, thanks for the comment. I’ll investigate this a bit, but I can point to at least one example off the top of my head. As you probably saw, just after the election al-Zawahiri called Obama a “house negro” (or possibly worse, depending on the translation). Naturally this was met with considerable derision in the general blogosphere, as one might expect. Many of these bloggers viewed the racial epithet as a signal that Al Qaeda feared the incoming president since he undermines their message, that the U.S. oppresses their own minorities and has little concern for the wider world.

    All the blogs cited thus far are American, but Evan Kohlmann of the Counterterrorism Blog, has a great post on the reaction in Al Qaeda forums and in the African-American Muslim community. Two quotes: “Global reactions to [al-Zawahiri’s] controversial condemnation … have begun to pour in — including via the top jihad web forums used by Al-Qaida to disseminate its propaganda” and “Several U.S.-based Muslim organizations immediately held press conferences or issued statements to strongly criticize al-Zawahiri”

    While these aren’t direct examples of how the new media landscape is undermining Al Qaeda’s ability to get their message out, they do speak to U/S Glassman’s first point, that technology is merely a facilitator. It seems that, for a variety of reasons (principally, in this case, the election of Obama) the environment is shifting under Al Qaeda’s feet, allowing the influence of these technologies to bite harder into their message than they otherwise would.

  3. Fascinating! I suppose I was too caught up in the jubilation post-election to keep track of this interchange.

    Though I do feel that Glassman unnecessarily simplified this to a world where Qaeda=Web 1.0 and US=Web 2.0. McLuhan be damned: sometimes the message trumps the medium, and, in the case, al-Zawahiri misfired with his words. (And it should be noted he was always on top of the new media; I am familiar with this prison TV moment which helped galvanize EIJ in its day).

    Though to a separate point by Glassman (and one not unique to the 2.0 era), I recognize Matt Armstrong’s point that the State Department didn’t have to do anything overt to fan the flames here.

    I’d just add here that I’ve seen political liberals make the argument that conservatives aren’t sufficient;y “2.0” and thus not open to other viewpoints, that is partially what leads to a failure in the war of ideas. I’m still not sure on that one. I’m more tempted to go with the theory that a particular ideology (e.g., militant jihadism) fails on its own grounds.

    Well, I assume there is more data behind Glassman’s speech– it would be interesting to read (and, most certainly, easier for the rest of the blogosphere to digest than a 70-minute video! the politicalsphere seems occupied today more with who is going to lead the State Department next year. Important, as well, I suppose!)

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