Wednesday, February 4, 2009

One Step Forward, 2.0 Steps Back

This is not as timely as some recent posts, but I still owe an entry from the first week...

While rumors circulate about his replacement, acting and outgoing Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman has been ruminating about lessons learned and his legacy at PD. However, it strikes me that two of those take-away messages are strangely at odds with each other. 

On one hand, Glassman (in a solid application of 'listening') notes that the U.S. polls least favorably in the Middle East and non-Arab Muslim nations, just as he marks these areas of the world as central to Global Strategic Engagement and 'winning the battle of ideas.'

...achieving specific foreign policy and national security ends is possible even if the United States is not popular...We need to recognize that there is a complex, multi-sided battle going on in Muslim societies for power. This is a battle in which we cannot be a bystander if we wanted to.

On the other hand, a cornerstone of Glassman's tenure at PD has been an emphasis on Public Diplomacy 2.0:

This new approach takes advantage of new social networking technologies like Facebook and YouTube and Second Life. In fact, a few days ago, I became the first U.S. high official to participate in a Second Life event when I participated in a discussion with bloggers from Egypt and others around the world.

While PD 2.0 makes for good media sound-bites at home and generates a progressive, proactive image for the outdated division of the State Department Glassman inherited from his predecessors, it does little to address the United States' number one target audience in GSE/the 'battle of ideas.'

In fact, it is likely not even reaching them. I spent over a year researching online public media and interviewing bloggers in one of the most moderate Arab countries, Jordan. The fact remains that, as much as new media and Web 2.0 are doing for free speech, balanced journalism, and even civil society, they remain a drop in the bucket when you consider the region's established (and populist) media machinery. Only about 20% of the population in the Middle East has regular Internet access, and it is much more expensive relative to the cost of living than in Europe or the U.S. The demographic that does use the Internet in the Arab world is likely to be affluent and, on balance, more secular.

That is not to say there aren't Internet users of all stripes in the Middle East (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egpyt sports a robust blogroll), or that PD's Digital Outreach Team clarifying U.S. policies on Arabic and Farsi blogs isn't a step in the right direction. But the 'complex battle' Glassman references, between voices of moderation and extremism, is not playing out only or even mostly online. The public square in the Arab world is not found in Second Life nor on YouTube (actually, it's Ikbis for Arabs) nor on the comment boards of Baheyya's blog in Egypt; it is the actual, public square. It is the news stand next to the Mosque ablution fountain. It is the coffee house where political debates flare over the late-night hum of al Jazeera's punditry programs or its latest rebroadcast message from bin Laden.

If the U.S. wants a voice in this public square, or to promote local moderate voices, it needs to operate through the people's media. Accept more invitations for official spoke-persons at al Jazeera tapings (I can tell you Gonzalez's Arab-speaking replacement is less than stellar, but that the channel's translations for English speakers are fair and accurate). Place editorials in the still-dominant local print media (After all, Qaddafi gets page space in ours). Cash-in the doomed al Hurra's mutli-million dollar budget for more language training for press attaches and cultural affairs specialists in Embassy posts throughout the region.

PD 2.0 isn't a bad idea for the Arab world and Muslim nations, it's just 10 years too early--and 10 years can be an eternity for the United States' regional image and 'the complex battle' raging within Middle East society.


  1. This was a very well thought out posting and you make some highly valid points about the challenges facing PD efforts in this dynamic global environment.

    To your points about the public square, there is still a very large focus in the public affairs realm to be present in the local print media. (Note: US Public Diplomacy is actually split into two categories - Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs). I would agree with you about the US efforts to the extent that it is reactive because it is an effort focused on being present in local media outlets as a response to negative press about the US. In a revised 2.0, there could and should be greater efforts to have a regular presence in local media streams so that it is a norm in the society. Let me know your thoughts on this if you have the time.

    On another note, I see a disconnect between your criticism of focus on next-generation technology and communicating with foreign audiences. You seem to argue that extremism is a bottom-up phenomenon where we miss the actual target audience because they do not have access to the worldwide web. Given that many of the 9/11 hijackers either had post-secondary degrees or were pursuing them, for instance, don't you think there is value in using technologies used by the elites in society? I would agree with you that certain areas may require more adequately tailored approaches, but I am curious to know your response to this aspect, especially with your research abroad.

  2. You're right that I overlooked the role of PA in foreign print media--which is all the more surprising because my roommate works in PA...I do still believe that PD can have a voice in local print media as well (consider the incentive for an Arab newspaper to print an exclusive short editorial from even a lower-level US public diplomacy officer, clearly identifying herself/himself). Agreed; if that were a regular or even occasional feature of our PD presence abroad, it could be a great proactive asset.

    While focusing 2.0 efforts on local Internet news media would be a good start, I still think an emphasis on using the media streams with the most reach in the Arab world--satellite TV outside of al-Hurra--is the most effective strategy for message dissemination.

    On your last note, I would clarify that I don't deny the importance of the Internet to the young generation of Arabs (who make up an overwhelming majority of the population in each country, as you know). I would just reiterate that most of that importance lies in Web 1.0 (email and more importantly, chat rooms), and in indigenous Web 2.0 (Ikbis and Arab blog aggregators like Maktoub, Jeeran, etc.). The problem with the U.S. PD 2.0 strategy, as I see it, is an overemphasis on platforms that are popular with young Americans and only a small sliver of highly-Westernized Arabs. I bet the 9-11 hijackers were more likely to have used Islamist chat rooms or yahoo message boards than Facebook or Dipnote. More importantly, the all important moderate Muslim demographic isn't on Second Life either. That's why I think the Digital Outreach Team, small as it may be, hits the mark.

    My commentary on PD 2.0 only making for good sound-bites to domestic audiences probably went too far, but to sum up I think the strategy could use an overall with regards to the Arab world.