It is said that design is a trademark of Helsinki, and great design may carry over from architecture to foreign policy with cultural exchanges like Invitation to Helsinki and its related exhibition Mirroring Helsinki (which I had the honor of attending at the Embassy of Finland) being part of a new model for a somewhat troubled area of government commonly called “public diplomacy” – the conduct of foreign policy by engagement with foreign publics. It’s one thing for senior level diplomats to have good relationships with their counterparts from other countries. But in a world where mobile phones, satellite television, and social networks make information locally global and easy to share, diplomatic engagement with average people is at least as important as sitting across from peers at the UN or similar bodies. And so, at least in the case of Finland, an idea has been ripped straight from the pages of Lauren Weisberger’s Everyone Worth Knowing – except that instead of public relations firms gathering prominent socialites at parties to sell messaging about products, embassies are gathering prominent careerists at parties to sell messaging about nations.
According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the U.S. Favorability Rating is relatively low in many parts of the world. And while our ratings received a recent boost due to the election of Barack Obamaand events like his well-covered speech in Cairo, constant engagement by diplomats on a local, common level is necessary to build authentic, trusted relationships over time. Yet while “winning the information war” is a major military, geopolitical, and stability issue, it’s not clear that the U.S. has a grand strategy for doing so. In fact, there is disagreement about what buzzy terms like “strategic communication” even mean; Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself, recently published
an article seen as highly critical of efforts thus far. He stated, “Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.”
Building authentic, trusted relationships is often claimed to be the bread-and-butter benefit gained from using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter (the latter of which Admiral Mullen has taken to using on a regular basis). In a now famous New York Times Magazine article, Clive Thompson wrote about the new digital intimacy people feel when using technology to become “ambiently aware” of what loose acquaintances are doing and thinking. So too with public diplomacy, in what Alec Ross, the Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Clinton, has termed “21st century statecraft.” Ross would know. The Washington-based non-profit he founded in 2000, One Economy, has grown into a global organization that continues to connect the underprivileged to digital tools of the future – tools like Nokia’s phones – that will increasingly be critical for survival; whether that means conducting business affairs, as a disease early warning system, or merely social networking with peers in sparsely populated regions of the world.
Technology does not provide public diplomacy in itself, but it can be part of facilitating communication between previously unconnected people. That would appear to be at least one of the goals of the Democracy Video Challenge that the State Department recently developed. When I went to listen to Jonathan Margolis– currently Deputy Coordinator for the Bureau of International Information Programs – speak about this effort at a Government 2.0 Leadership, Collaboration, and Public Engagement Symposium at the Reagan Building, I was impressed at both its depth and breadth. From coordinating with partners like YouTube and the Motion Picture Association of America to carefully developing a challenge of real value for everyone involved, this contest that amounted to making a short film finishing the sentence “Democracy is…” not only engaged foreign youth with an activity that interested them, but also captured their wisdom about how ideas about democracy differ radically from culture to culture. This information has value to the State Department in expanding in-country contacts and cultural understandings, and to the American people. Here, novel tactics meet old strategy to complete an agency mission, avoiding the premonition of Sun Tzu that haunts many a technology early-adopter within a large organization, “tactics without strategy are the noise before the defeat.”
The topic of strategizing about and implementing emerging technology to perform public diplomacy and attempt to achieve information dominance in a sea of ideas is in fact so important to the State Department that an Office of Innovative Engagement (OIE) is currently being stood up as part of the larger work within the aforementioned Bureau of International Information Programs. According to an interview she gave to the informal government social network GovLoop, OIE deputy director Lovisa Williams says that the new office constitutes, “a dedicated team of people who’s focus is on working with the [diplomatic] posts to build out their communities using a mixture of traditional technology and social media.” And in what might seem like a departure from normal government work, Williams suggested that creativity and risk-taking would be rewarded in this new office – precisely the “shoot, aim, ready” and “fail often, fail small” attitude that Web 2.0 gurus promote as the necessary qualities for success in modern collaboration and communication.
Finland is not the only country besides the U.S. deploying new media technologies to engage and influence foreign audiences. In fact, a number of embassies in Washington havebegun extensive public diplomacy campaigns. The House of Sweden uses the popular virtual reality world called Second Life to digitally reach out to people. At the French Embassy, a spokesman related that a decentralized staff was using Palm and Apple mobile technology to communicate with the American public via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Flickr. Many other diplomatic stations in the U.S. have also created increasingly popular Facebook “Fan Pages” where people can interact and learn about news from countries of interest to them. When I visited the Embassy of Canada to talk with our most important bilateral partner for trade, homeland security, and energy (not to mention hockey players), I learned about Connect2Canada, which is a program through which Canada reaches out to people in the U.S. to promote their country and clear up misunderstandings, yet generally steer clear of our domestic affairs. Connect2Canada is a 44,000-person network that started as Canadian ex-pats but expanded quickly to many “friends of Canada,” as deputy spokesperson Jonathan Sauvé related to me. Their website, separate in web space and in mission from the embassy website, is pleasantly helpful with features like a Canadian-events-in-America calendar, and they’ve begun using other technologies like a Facebook “Fan Page,” a weekly 10 minute podcast, and a Twitter feed to reach people with useful content. Given the special bond between the U.S. and Canada, this effort out of the Washington-based facility is focused heavily on reaching audiences here; little similar work is being done in, say, Paris or Copenhagen.
The British, with their unique position in the world, have more of a globally coordinated approach to using emerging technology for public diplomacy – something probably more in line with what the U.S. has in mind. According to Brendan O’Grady, deputy press secretary at the British Embassy in Washington, about 15 blog posts about people, policies, and news topics are published per day from staff in embassies around the globe. Some of the writing is even done by ambassadors themselves – the British Ambassador to Vietnam, for example, blogs in Vietnamese. In the U.S., the British Embassy’s head of digital diplomacy, Brian McGuigan, uses Macs, PCs, iPhones, and whatever other tech he needs to engage with people every waking hour of the day. “Those people” include me: While visiting him he used a Flip Mino digital camera to capture a few words from me on the profoundness of climate change for their “100 Voices 100 Days” project. This personification of shoot-aim-ready might succeed in highlighting multiple viewpoints of a complicated issue before the international climate change negotiations open in Copenhagen. And if it fails, it fails small.
What does all this Diplomacy 2.0 amount to? After all, information dominance via meme competition must ultimately help nations in their diplomatic missions. Democracy Video Challenge might be labeled a tentative success, and certainly a good experiment. 100 Voices 100 Days might amount to nothing; or something significant that influences diplomats – word of mouth will be the arbiter of this. Still other technologies may not be such a good fit in the Government 2.0 world if they are not engaging platforms for users. After nearly a year of tweeting, for example, the Connect2Canada account has only attracted about 1,200 followers – not due to lack of quality or know-how, but perhaps because of averaging only about 1.5 tweets a day (the equivalent of a radio talk show host using 15 words a day on the air). One must conclude that after some initial buzz coming from getting one’s feet wet, how new media tools are used means more than merely if they are used – and people in the new Office of Innovative Engagement are definitely spending most of their time thinking about this very complicated “how.”
Both futuristic businessman Tero Ojanperä and futuristic diplomat Alec Ross know that technology themes like global, mobile, and social are a big part of communication’s future. Outside private boardrooms and diplomatic chambers, the realization that someone’s first computer might be a Nokia and their first online social network a set of text messages is a powerful one when thinking about Public Diplomacy 2.0 and how to go about dominating the international information spectrum. President Obama’s themes of openness, transparency, and participation should promote authenticity, which promotes trust – and may provide a model for how other countries conduct their more personal brand of diplomacy as well.
People discussing U.S. public diplomacy often imagine bringing back the late U.S. Information Agency, just as people talking about U.S. science and technology policy discuss bringing back the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and so forth. It’s very hard to revive dead government operations – they’re usually dead for a reason. But in the case of public diplomacy, do we really need to?
The answer may lie just outside the government proper. I visited with Andrew Kneale, the coordinator of the Governance & Society Project at the British Council. Not familiar to many on this side of the pond, the Council is an international charity and cultural relations body that has close relations with the British government (indeed, in Washington their offices are inside the British Embassy compound; in other areas this is certainly not always the case). In the sense that they have a government charter and a wide-ranging, worldwide mission, they are something akin to a combination of the U.S. Peace Corps, Kennedy Center, Boy Scouts, Red Cross and more, all wrapped into something that Mr. Kneale was hard pressed to compare to anything else in the world (the best we could come up with was Germany’s Goethe Institute).
People at the British Council – an organization with about 110 centers around the world, encompassing roughly 8,000 employees – are interested in proactive, positive outreach and messaging for making connections around the world. A recent study by the British Council’s internal think tank Counterpoint named Options for Influence discusses global persuasion campaigns as part of a strategy of modern public diplomacy. The range of tactical possibilities outlined in this report make it a must-read for anyone working in diplomatic relations, and for students of emerging media, international relations, and world affairs.