Wednesday, July 28, 2010

21st Century Statecraft In The Obama Administration--Same Ploys, Different Toys?

Twitter cannot stop a bullet.

That's the lesson of what happened last year. There was a lot of romantic outpouring here thinking that Facebook is going to stop the Revolutionary Guards. It doesn't. Thuggery, a determined regime that is oppressive, that will shoot, almost always wins.A hard but simple truth--especially when the Internet actually can be controlled.
Charles Krauthammer on the one-year anniversary of the election that spawned the Green Movement in Iran

Back in June the State Department's Special Advisor on Innovation Alec J. Ross and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen led a delegation of tech companies to Syria. But Ross and Cohen are not mere wonks, as they demonstrated while in Syria:
But it's not all work and no play for Ross and Cohen, who have been finding some time to take in the sights and tell us about it, 140 characters at a time. For example, according to Ross, on Tuesday Cohen challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest and called it "Creative Diplomacy." Match that, Tehran!

Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus, but while Ross was "amused" by the place, Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that "I'm not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus."
So this is supposed to be the wave of the future, though not necessarily the future of social networking. After all, we already know all about that. Instead, Ross and Cohen are supposed to be the harbingers of the future of statecraft.
On Twitter, Cohen, who is 28, and Ross, who is 38, are among the most followed of anyone working for the U.S. government, coming in third and fourth after Barack Obama and John McCain. This didn’t happen by chance. Their Twitter posts have become an integral part of a new State Department effort to bring diplomacy into the digital age, by using widely available technologies to reach out to citizens, companies and other nonstate actors. Ross and Cohen’s style of engagement — perhaps best described as a cross between social-networking culture and foreign-policy arcana — reflects the hybrid nature of this approach. Two of Cohen’s recent posts were, in order: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958” and “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!” This offhand mix of pop and politics has on occasion raised eyebrows and a few hackles (writing about a frappucino during a rare diplomatic mission to Syria; a trip with Ashton Kutcher to Russia in February), yet, together, Ross and Cohen have formed an unlikely and unprecedented team in the State Department. They are the public face of a cause with an important-sounding name: 21st-century statecraft.
And they credit Hillary being its godmother! Be that as it may, this 21st century statecraft is supposed to be more than just different packaging, one more way to communicate and get your message across:
It represents a shift in form and in strategy — a way to amplify traditional diplomatic efforts, develop tech-based policy solutions and encourage cyberactivism. Diplomacy may now include such open-ended efforts as the short-message-service (S.M.S.) social-networking program the State Department set up in Pakistan last fall. “A lot of the 21st-century dynamics are less about, Do you comport politically along traditional liberal-conservative ideological lines?” Ross says. “Today it is — at least in the spaces we engage in — Is it open or is it closed?”
I don't know what spaces Ross and Cohen are talking about, but in that same space called Twitter where they are talking about frappucinos on the one hand and Guinea elections, people are talking about anything and everything that concerns them--and they bring along their ideologies. If anything, what Facebook and Twitter bring to the table is the ability to disseminate a message more broadly and coordinate groups for action more effectively.

The Skeptical Bureaucrat is...well, skeptical. He quotes the technology columnist from The Economist who has seen all this before:
I can't define it, even though I've listened to Alec Ross speak about it twice. (Mr Ross is the senior advisor for innovation at America's Department of State.) Is it a new kind of state-run broadcaster, a digital Radio Free Europe? Is it a new kind of public diplomacy? Is it a new kind of foreign aid, a digital USAID? Is it a quicker, less centralised way of determining America's public response to an international event? Does it signal a focus on the role the internet plays in human rights and international trade?

I've now encountered it for a third time, in a profile of Mr Ross and a colleague, Jared Cohen, in the New York Times Magazine. And I've decided that “21st-century statecraft” is just a grab-bag; it means all of those things. Some of them are good ideas. Some of them are not. And all they have in common is that the internet exists.
He goes on to note that defending this new technology with a dismissive "you don't get it, old man" just does not cut it. A response like that by itself just does not differentiate between the good and the bad in any idea.

Narrowing the goal of statecraft down a bit, Ross has been working on using Twitter in the field of digital public diplomacy--
The world just doesn’t seem to understand how great America is. This is the central problem of public diplomacy, which is expected to fill in the gaps between America’s policies and its self-image. I’m not sure how Twitter is going to help.
Like most tools, it works great when spreading you message to people who think the same as you and organizing them. However, there is nothing in such a tool that inherently makes a message more impacting.

Returning to the recent visit Ross and Cohen made to Syria, one of the justifications given was to make this new technology and infrastructure more widely available. While they obviously view this as an agent of change, the fact that Assad was willing to allow this for discussion implies that he is not nearly as afraid of this as Ross and Cohen might assume.

Rami G. Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut wrote When Arabs Tweet, and explains why. Even with Facebook, Twitter and blogging--not to mention more established media such as Al Jazeera satellite television--what exactly is being achieved?
Watching Arab pundits criticize Arab governments, Israel or the United States — common fare on Arab satellite television — is great vicarious satisfaction for ordinary men and women who live in political cultures that deny them serious opportunities for free speech.

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

This is partly because the modern Middle Eastern security state is firmly in control of the key levers of power — guns and money, mainly — and has learned to live with the digital open flow of information, as long as this does not translate into actual political action that seeks to change policies or ruling elites.
Instead, he concludes, the way for the US to really make a difference is through its actions, not its words--no matter how they are packaged technologically. Sounds like an old formula, no?

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

...Like I said, the United States and other Western governments should apply more honesty and intellectual rigor to their assault of our digital world than they did in their military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It all comes down to a US foreign policy, making wise decisions with the help of knowledgeable people who can make decisions beyond their ideologies--recognizing what does not work and being willing to change accordingly.

It's hard work.
Which may explain the attraction of using Facebook and Twitter in the first place.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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1 comment:

NormanF said...

Its hard work achieving real change in the Arab-Muslim World when one hand of the government doesn't know what the other hand of the government is doing. Going on Twitter and Facebook won't change the nature of the bureaucratic beast.