“Conversation, not Dictation”: Public Diplomacy 2.0

As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, James Glassman has vamped up efforts to debate with jihadists on the internet. In fact, Glassman has completely retooled the federal government’s virtual presence, hoping to harness the power of web 2.0 interactive technology to fight a “war of ideas, ” a sort of public diplomacy 2.0.

During a recent appearance at the New America Foundation (an mp3 of his talk can be found here), Glassman made this particularly striking comment about the internet:

This new virtual world is democratic. It is an agora. It is not a place for a death cult that counts on keeping its ideology sealed off from criticism. The new world is a marketplace of ideas and it is no coincidence that Al Qaeda blows up marketplaces.

Glassman has been pushing for open debates between State Dept. representatives and members of foreign publics on Facebook and Iranian blogs. He helped to organize a conference of international bloggers, not all of whom were vetted for pro-Western views. He helped to fund (but not to direct or control) a series on Morrocan television about American Islam and religious tolerance and to sponsor a legal debate about Guantanamo at a Kuwaiti university.

Of course, it is easy to see in all of this simply the newest twist in a global propaganda battle, one smacking moreover of Cold War influence jockeying. Yet Glassman, a conservative libertarian naturally uneasy with excessive state power and control, takes, I think, a more nuanced position. He seems to believe that instead of lecturing the world about “American values” from our city on a hill, public diplomacy efforts should be aimed at the facilitation of their practice and I think he’s right. An actually open debate about democratic values (not simply PR to “sell” American policy) will expose extremism for the shallow dogmatism and violence it actually represents.

Instead of defensively exclaiming the superiority of Western civilization (so often the timbe of existential “the West vs. Islam” discussions), the State Department should encourage debate and dissent, dialogue and peaceful protest, or, as Glassman put it, “conversation, not dictation.” It should make space for moderate forces to stand on their own (away from Washington’s deadly imprimatur) and it should take seriously the grudge, borne by much of the world, that America arrogantly dismisses its input.

In diplomatic speak, Glassman is trying to rebuild “soft power,” the good old battle for “hearts and minds” (though see Marc Lynch’s thoughts on Glassman and on the “war of ideas” in general). Glass believes the election of Barack Obama could itself be a catalyst for selling democracy and restoring America’s tarnished international reputation.

But he further, and rightly I think, believes that the internet, a naturally democratic communication platform, is where such a battle of ideas will ultimately take place. Social networking sites decentralize officially sponsored messages, be they from Al-Qaeda or the State Department, opening them up to the rigor of debate and democratic discourse. Instead of being feared, social networking sites should be encouraged. Let go a bit of the officially controlled message, of the narrow and current foreign policy agenda of the United States, and I think America can show itself through the more complex prism of its strengths, ideals and imperfections. Glassman believes that that is how the fight is won.

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8 Responses to ““Conversation, not Dictation”: Public Diplomacy 2.0”

  1. Dictation Operator Says:

    I think you hit the crux of the issue right on – this needs to be a discussion, not dictation. If this important item of advice can be heeded, then everything else will start to fall into place.

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