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We Are All Ambassadors Now: The Age of Citizens' Diplomacy

| 23 Comments | 6 TrackBacks

Let me tell you why you should care about the Smith-Mundt Act.

Huh? Bear with me here. Back in 1948, not long after the beginning of the Cold War, a short addition to the US Code was passed (the link is the amended version). Its purpose was to forbid the domestic dissemination of content created by the overseas information arms of the US government, such as the Voice of America and U. S. Information Agency (USIA) generally. Records of the time suggest a two fold logic for the Act. An apparent concern was the commercial media organizations' fear of government competition in the content domain. Larger was making sure that the government could not turn a propaganda apparatus on its own citizenry, which still retained a keen memory of the Nazi propaganda machine. Cynics then and since have suggested a third reason: to hide the devious machinations of America's own overseas propaganda from its citizens.

The Act has been maintained and enforced by the Executive ever since, even as it produced an increasing number of apparently foolish outcomes. As satellite TV and then the Internet made the attempt at artificial barriers between foreign and domestic dissemination increasingly ridiculous, still the government soldiered on, impelled by statute. Here, for instance, is a Naderite organization attempting to force open access to USIA archives under FOIA, and the defeat of the case by the Clinton administration. Issues have arisen as recently as the run up to the Iraq invasion.

Silly it may be, but it's a law, not some executive order changeable at the stroke of a pen. There have been amendments, most notably the section allowing news gathering organizations, among others, access to English transcripts on request and at their expense. Apparently holding that the 'on request' is the essence of this rule, the Voice of America (still subject to Smith-Mundt), has driven an entire English language news website through that loophole, the information flow now being indexed by Google and frequently cited at The Command Post, among others.

The purpose of this is not to call the dogs on the VOA, who are merely behaving sensibly, but to display an obvious example of the ossified state of US public diplomacy in a networked world. Here a little jargon is perhaps necessary. The regular sort of diplomacy is Colin Powell Condi flying off to see Hosni Mubarak - state to state. Public affairs is the government talking to the media, domestic and international - think of Richard Boucher, State's spokesperson. Public diplomacy is the US government talking directly to foreign citizens, usually over the heads of their own government. Think Radio Marti, or Radio Free Europe for those of us of an age.

Public diplomacy was high profile, and rather successful, back in the Cold War days where the Voice of America was often the only source of reasonably credible news (and jazz and rock & roll) to citizens of communist countries with captive government media. Post the Cold War, the constituency for public diplomacy as an independent establishment dwindled, and it was reorg'ed into the State Department, where it was apparently a bit of a red-haired stepchild. Just in time, as with so many of our governmental institutions, to be wrong-footed by the eruption of war with Islamofascism, in which public perception is a major part of the struggle.

Meanwhile, the media world changed. From a scarcity of US derived content, many outside the borders went to a deluge of satellite-borne media, from Baywatch to CNN to Lion King (and some of them hated us for it). Then came the Internet, and any hope of controlling or segmenting the outflow of information ended. The distinction between public affairs and public diplomacy has collapsed; what is said in Washington goes around the world instantly, and any official acts overseas come here nearly as quickly. If you followed the last links, you'll note fixes that were talked of in terms of charters, org charts, budgets. But radical shift in the media environment makes this kind of marginal tweaking irrelevant. The issue is structural, at a whole systems level.

Along with the worldwide spread of satellite media came an adversary with propaganda skills more polished than the Soviets and a cultural sensitivity beyond that of US public diplomacy. Layer on top a domestic media that often seems to put more weight on playing gotcha games with our own government than on their effect on a deadly war. Public diplomacy, public affairs, strategic communications have all been scrambling to come from behind ever since.

Now realize that thanks to citizens' media, thousands of Americans, Iranians, Chinese, Iraqis, Aussies and all the rest are now in direct contact with one another, for better or worse. Free to persuade, insult, cajole, inform, love and hate one another - totally out of control. For many in the outside world, the Americans on the Internet now matter a lot more than the anointed ambassador or CNN. For a growing number of Americans, first hand (virtual) encounters have more substance than official and media pronouncements. Consider this comment on the one year anniversary of Iraq the Model:
You have demystified Iraq for me. You have humanized for me, not only yourselves, not only Iraqis, but the whole arab world, the whole Islamic world. you have let me open up the formerly impenetrable case, the one that baffled us and frightened us all, so terribly, on sept 11th, and let me see my purported enemies, as well as my friends, with human eyes, instead of unknowing imaginings.... We are not different, we are alike.and with that, the contrived wall between Us and Them crumbles, and blows away in the wind, and guarantees the failure of all those who labor in vain to set us against each other. for them, it's the worst news possible: We all know each other now. There's nothing they can do, now, that can touch that. It's too late. We've made friends. And we did it just by being our natural selves. Heh. the ordinary is powerful! I bet they never thought they could be done in by the simple act of regular folks, just telling each other anecdotes of mundane everyday life!!!
Poignant, corny, and loaded with implications for the future. The numbers involved are still small. There are plenty of trolls, nay sayers, and hate-mongers intermingled with the goodwill. There are language barriers on all sides. There are adversaries using the same medium to organize destruction. And this will not reach truly disconnected countries, from North Korea to Sudan.

Yet, every sign points in the direction of growth, from the increasing reach of the Internet, the spread of cheap mobile media devices, to the growing desire to bypass the legacy media and find out for ourselves. And people are starting to act based on their contacts, from influencing votes to mobilizing relief organizations such as Spirit of America.

Venture capitalists like myself keep an eye out for learning curves, things growing fast and out of control. The military looks for fast decision (OODA) loops, systems that adapt faster than their competitors. Citizens' diplomacy scores on both counts. That was the point of dragging in the Smith-Mundt Act and the Dept. of State: These are representative of the government's adaptation rate in the world of foreign affairs and media. There are folks in the DOD who recognize the problem (large PDF file) and are pushing for change. I wish them well, but bureaucratic history is not on their side.

So where do we go? The title gives it away - I think you're looking at the medium that will forge a large part of the outcome. We are all ambassadors now, Americans and others alike. Just as we're bypassing mainstream media, we've started to bypass mainstream diplomacy. What we do and say with one another may matter a great deal - just a small matter of war or peace (not to put on any pressure).

6 TrackBacks

Tracked: November 16, 2004 5:13 AM
The era of citizens from The Shape of Days
Excerpt: Ever read a blog entry that makes you go "wow?" Tim Oren has generated such an article over at Winds of Change: We are all ambassadors now: The age of citizens' diplomacy. Now realize that thanks to citizens' media, thousands
Tracked: November 17, 2004 1:54 AM
Excerpt: Many more examples of out-and-out censorship rearing its ugly head in the modern age. The last link is particularly worrisome - making it unlawful to use a device simply to skip over commercials on videos? (But at the same time...
Tracked: November 22, 2004 1:09 AM
The War of Perception from fredschoeneman.com
Excerpt: Check out Tim Oren's piece on Winds of Change -- putting history in perspective. Get Some....
Tracked: December 3, 2004 1:52 PM
We Are All Ambassadors Now from In the Agora
Excerpt: Numberless cultivated Americans traveling in Europe never by any chance speak English or carry English books on railroad trains, as a protection against the other type of American who allows no one to travel in the same compartment and escape...
Tracked: December 3, 2004 1:53 PM
We Are All Ambassadors Now from In the Agora
Excerpt: Numberless cultivated Americans traveling in Europe never by any chance speak English or carry English books on railroad trains, as a protection against the other type of American who allows no one to travel in the same compartment and escape...
Tracked: December 12, 2004 1:32 AM
Excerpt: [UPDATE 12-11-04] Here's Hoder at Harvard, courtesy Jeff Jarvis, and more Iraq the Model guys (including visit to the White House), scroll up and down. Armed Liberal is

23 Comments

FanTAStic article, Tim. Thank you very much for writing it.

What a wonderfully encouraging idea! What a tremendously terrifying idea! We can now do things to bypass an incompetent, ineffective, and frequently counterproductive State Department, but 10% of our new "ambassadors" are howling moonbats and another 10% are raving wingnuts. Are we sure we want the citizens of other countries to have that clear and accurate a picture of us?

To your point, Richard, our best hope is that politically moderate Americans, Iragis, Saudis, Russians, Europeans, Chinese et. al. will step up and become far more active in this medium such that thier views are more adequately and accurately represented over the din of noise made by those on the fringe. I'm optimistic but nervous.

Interesting idea, but how to deal with the tendency of people to congregate on sites that represent their own existing views of the world?

Richard & Tracey, that's precisely why I put this out there. There's no way to fake what we are, and that unfortunately includes the moonbats and wingnuts. We need to make sure that the center that governs is effectively and proportionally represented.

Dingo's question is also right on. We need to get out more - not necessarily to hang out on US or other Western political sites, but to have a chat with the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Chinese and so on, even if it's just about soccer or food.

What, if anything, should the government be doing to enable, encourage, or guide this? Some of the old VOA type public diplomacy is still relevant, since places like Sudan and North Korea are effectively off the net. I'm partly arguing that the pace and organization of bureaucracies means they are doomed to be ineffectual in the citizens' media space - a lot of the outcome is really in our hands. So maybe the question is what capabilities and institutions should the networked citizenry be constructing to make this effort more effective - since it's going to happen willy-nilly anyway.

Note to MSM: Yes, Tim oren is talking about (gulp) pajama diplomacy!

Off topic:

Dubya scores another political and historical coup by making a black female Sec. of State. Again, another reason why the Democratic Party, a party that claims to carry the banner for minorities, should disband.

Congrats to Dubya, Condi and the GOP.

A word of advice to Condi - please remember to read those intelligence reports and the footnotes. As a former educator, you should no the importance of doing your homework. As a so called PhD. Russia expert, you missed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR and you missed "9-11".

Three strikes and you are out.

Some of the old VOA type public diplomacy is still relevant, since places like Sudan and North Korea are effectively off the net.

I would put a lot of other countries in the "effectively off the net" category--including plenty in which it is available but expensive. When I taught in Uzbekistan, a lot of my kids rarely, if ever, used the net. They were apparently aware of VOA because one of them asked me one day, "Why does your government lie?" He was, ummm, very ideologically committed to his government at the time, but he now treats VOA as a valuable news resource.

There was something of a shortwave airwar going on in that neck of the woods. Iran broadcast in local languages and Enlish to the area. Russia, China, and the BBC did too.

I actually spent a bit of time in the USIA office in Tashkent and found their publications incredibly valuable. They had a hard time distributing these materials because they had to charge for them and people needed to ask for them. Pretty much the only people who knew about the place were other Peace Corps Volunteers and a handful of cash-strapped local teachers. However, they offered US government and history texts in Uzbek and Russia as well as lots of great English-language publications.

Tim, good post. You are right that personal connections are supplementing diplomacy between peoples. I say "supplementing" because I think you overreach a bit when you write that "we've started to bypass mainstream diplomacy."

First, mainstream diplomacy does things that person-to-person contact cannot. It signs treaties. It reaches trade agreements. It gets criminal suspects extradited. It opens countries to military basing. Etc.

Second, the idea of the foreign public as a target of U.S. diplomacy is a pretty recent development. For centuries, diplomacy was strictly between governments, and to this day, that's how most governments conduct business. I don't know about you, but I don't get the "Voice of France" or "Voice of China" on my radio. So we (Americans, that is) might be bypassing our government's mainstream diplomacy, but others around the world are not bypassing their countries' diplomacy so much as communicating in ways their diplomats have never done.

There have always been interpersonal contacts across borders and across cultures. What is new is the internet--allowing far greater numbers of people to get to know each other. This is a good thing. People don't fear that which they know and respect.

Supurb post!!! I wish I had "thunk" it myself.

BD, we don't disagree. While I've overstated the case for right now, I'm "leading the duck" as far as the trend line. We're not going to negotiate basing treaties with just-plain-folks in Iraq or Kazakhstan. But to the extent that the state of affairs now revolves around hearts-and-minds on a civilizational scale, we have a new tool. But that tool by its very nature is more easily wielded by the individual than by government organizations.

First, mainstream diplomacy does things that person-to-person contact cannot. It signs treaties. It reaches trade agreements. It gets criminal suspects extradited. It opens countries to military basing. Etc.

I wonder if there may be a lot more of the small scale diplomacy than we may realize. Every time we buy something directly from overseas, take a foreign trip, read a blog written overseas, or write a post that's read by someone overseas we're engaging in this small scale diplomacy. A retail vs. wholesale thing.

In addition there are empowered individuals, companies, and NGO's that are contributing to the overall foreign policy of the United States at something between an individual level and a governmental level.

Worldchanging has an entire category devoted to what it calls the "second superpower." Of course, their politics are somewhat different, but if they're good enough for Joey K, they're good enough for me!

Praktike, I'm aware of the 'second superpower' thread of discussion, as well as 'emergent democracy'. My issue with them is that they represent the left indulging in a bit of wishful thinking: that citizens' media selectively enable and advantage their point of view.

I see no evidence of that. What I think is true is that citizens' media have relatively advantaged fringe positions, as they are no longer throttled by their limited access to the legacy media prior to the Internet. But I don't see any ideological valency - there's a Freeper for every Indymediot. What happens is the fringe gets relatively louder for those who shift their attention from the legacy media to the Internet - the point of Richard's comment above.

Of course, there's also a lot of 'fringe' that is not ideological, just a matter of niche tastes. That's the core of the long tail argument with respect to citizens' media. Some of those interests cross-cut ideology and nationality, which I think is reflected in the comment I quoted above.

"there's a Freeper for every Indymediot"

True, true. There are benefits to barriers sometimes.

Like the old Carole King song: "You've got to take the bitter with the sweet...."

P: Since we seem to have this little corner to ourselves, I was noodling around your place and noticed the link to the Liberals Against Terror Wiki. Though I now write an R after my name (RINO wing - In Ahnuld We Trust), that's largely a result of a D party that doesn't get it on Islamofascism. You seem to, and I'm glad to see your attempt. One suggestion: Take a look at Thomas Barnett's "Pentagon's New Map" as a source of ideas. Don't be put off by the name, and don't settle for the short Esquire version, which was skewed to be topical to the pending Iraq invasion. The full book digs more deeply in the issues of the disconnected Gap in a way that I think gives some springboard for strategic liberal thinking. You'll have to live with the notion that globalization is mostly a good thing, though.

Tim, I suspect that one of the reasons that Barnett endorsed John Kerry for president was that he hoped that a Kerry Administration could be persuaded to move in the direction of his Core/Gap Grand Strategy. Personally, I suspect that that was just whistling past a graveyard.

I spent 25 years with USIA (the last few in State as part of reorganization). Much of what you say is absolutely true, with no qualifiers.

You miss, I think, the incredible damage that was done to USIA (and State) in the quest for a post-Cold War "dividend". The USIA posts in Saudi Arabia, circa 1990 (I include both pre- and post-Gulf War) were in three cities, with American staffing at 8 officers and about 35 foreign nationals. When I was assigned to run that office in late Sept. 2001, there were four Americans and 15 foreign nationals, in two cities. In places like India, it was even worse: from 25 Americans and over 2,000 Indians on staff, by 2001 it was 12 Americans and 200 Indians, although all four posts remained open.

Since salaries and benefits are always the big bump in the budget, the only way to trim costs effectively was to cut staff. But programs were also cut. In some places, programming money--that's the money that's used to actually do things--was under 15% of the budget.

I know that some people think that the US pisses away money overseas. But the entire US foreign affairs budget--_including all foreign aid_--is under 1.5% of the entire USG budget. We most certainly get what we pay for.

State went for entire years in the 1990s without inducting new officers. Why? There was no money to pay their salaries. By 2002, there were 800 positions open overseas that had no bodies in them: there were no bodies available.

Part of the problem was a change in employee attitude, I'll certainly grant. There was far less a sense of tackling hard problems--in hard places. It was (understandably) far more desirable to work in Canberra or Lisbon than, say, Khartoum or Karachi.

But State is no longer the career that it once was. Now, people will go into State for 5-7 years, either early in their working lives, or after they've done something else. State has plenty of people who come in after entirely successful careers in other areas. In my office in Riyadh, I had a junior officer who had retired--after 20 years--as a Texas attorney. Another who had been both a public defender and deputy district attorney in Wisconsin--as well as having been a university professor and a public relations person. A third came in after seven years in the US Army. None of us, by the way, came via Ivy League. If you want to do something about State, rather than just rag on it, I encourage people to join. If you're under 57, you're eligible. (State has a mandatory retirement at age 65, so they want to get something back for the training they provide.)

USIA had a dictum, coming from Edward R. Murrow, one of the early directors of VOA, that went, "The last three feet are the hardest". This was the face-to-face distance that you had to go to close the deal, to make something happen. That dictum is still true today, though it is being challenged in some regards by technology.

Once upon a time, an ambassador was the active personal representative of the President. That meant he could take actions without a six-month referral back to HQ, the time it took correspondence to cross the ocean. While referrals still can take six months, technology (including the phone) often puts ambassadors out of the loop. When the SecState or the President can pick up the phone and directly speak to a head of state, ambassadors can sometimes become ancilliary.

But they can be very active in public diplomacy, if they understand both the mission and the media. PD is not PR. It doesn't exist to glorify the ambassador. PD offices in embassies work to analyse the local media and generally know what has clout and what doesn't. And sometimes that's not what you expect.

In the UK, for instance, the most important medium is still the radio. Getting an interview on BBC-4's "Today" program, in either the 0710 or 0810 slot, means you make news and drive the agenda. But stunningly, many American officials want to argue that point, prefering instead to do TV. In my four years in London, as Information Officer, SecState Albright did exactly two interviews with the British media: they were both softballs with David Frost. Her PA person, Jamie Rubin, managed one radio interview in that same period, though he did do backgrounders with the media.

I would argue that snubbing the media is not taken well, not because their feelings are hurt, but because it demonstrates an attitude of taking someone for granted. Getting out there and talking with and to people--or arguing, if necessary--is more productive than keeping one's mouth shut.

SecState Powell understood public diplomacy, but he was defeated in his attempts to get the importance of that mission into the minds of sufficient numbers of State employees, both foreign service and general service. He did make marked improvements, but not nearly enough.

I was able, though--and clearly I had bureaucratic support in this--to re-open the third post in Saudi and increase staffing levels back to 1990 levels. It only took 9/11 to do that.

Oh, one last thought...

Smith-Mundt, as you point out, is still the law of the land. State can't change that. Only Congress can change that. USIA was well aware of the absurdity of the application of the law in the face of new technologies. It did lobby--as has State--to have it stricken. It's still on the books and in many regards it's still absurd.

Don't write State about it; write your congressman.

Tried to respond to Tim's comment earlier, but got a cgi error. Bad MT. Tim, I've read TPNM and it plays a large role in my thinking about the world. What I like about it is that it synthesizes liberal internationalism and democratic realism, two schools I seem to be stuck between due to the various flaws I see in each approach.

John - thanks, that's an incredible amount of detail to fill in my "red-haired stepchild" remark.

I know I am joining this posting late, but if there were ever a book on citizen diplomacy that demonstrated the current need for such a method, it is Dr. Melinda Gelders book, Meeting the Enemy, Becoming a Friend. Published by Bauu Press, it can be found here "http://www.bauuinstitute.com/Publishing/MeetingTheEnemy.html". Such an inspiring story, how Dr. Gelder had to deal with the U.S. military in easing the tensions between Japanese citizens the U.S. military personnel. I read this and totally became inspired in my upcoming situation as I am off to several Central American countries for various diplomatic and humanitarian projects.

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