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CHAPTER II - Diplomacy in a Networked World

The transformation of international relations has been described in numerous ways over the past several years, from the “death of distance” to the collapse of hierarchies. For diplomacy, increased transparency and heightened volatility have been two of the most significant phenomena to characterize the emerging information age.

For instance, there is now a pervasive belief that diplomacy should operate in the open, a notion that has been thrown into sharp relief by WikiLeaks. This has both positive and negative implications, as increased transparency can allow global audiences to hold public officials to account, yet make it more difficult for diplomats and political leaders to fashion compromises that are the essence of statecraft. At the same time, states are contending with increased volatility as newly empowered non-state actors (both individuals and groups) interact with states in unexpected ways and increase political uncertainty at domestic and international levels.

These trends have complex implications. Media and policy circle discussions, however, tend to focus on the more superficial aspects of so-called digital diplomacy, such as the novelty of tweeting ambassadors. This tends to divert attention to ICTs themselves and away from the actors and institutions that are seeking to shape and exploit technologies.

Many of these phenomena are starkly apparent in Southeast Asia, the region examined by this year’s roundtable. The governments of the countries in the region are dealing with the changing expectations of their domestic publics, as well as competing strategic priorities. Disputes in the South China Sea, the rebalancing of U.S. policy toward Asia, a rising China, political liberalization in Burma, and ASEAN “community-building” processes are converging against the backdrop of shifting demographics. As the number of children in families has decreased, the share of family resources devoted to education has increased, helping fuel the emergence of well-educated, networked and vocal youth.

Diplomatic actors in the region must contend with activated domestic and international public opinion, coupled with the potential for sudden mobilization around flash issues. China, whose impact is felt all across the region, must also constantly fine-tune its political system in a networked and information-rich environment. For the U.S., this poses a rich array of policy opportunities and challenges, even as its diplomatic infrastructure continues to evolve in keeping with the new information environment.

Roundtable participants discussed these and other issues, beginning with a general discussion of the changes taking place within diplomacy and its evolving offshoot, public diplomacy.

Technology: Driver of Change?
There was general agreement among participants that new technologies, particularly social media, had fostered a dynamic and increasingly unpredictable environment for diplomacy. That said, some cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the role of technology in creating change.

“It's important to emphasize from the outset that technology doesn't produce these outcomes, people do,” said Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor for Innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “What technology does is amplify things on the ground." Arguing against techno determinism, Ross and others cautioned against attributing too much agency to ICTs.

At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fundamental transformations taking place in the realm of diplomacy. These changes mirror those in other fields, such as education, said one participant. Trygve Myhren, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the University of Denver, noted that, “In education, it’s sage on stage. And sage on stage is going to be gone.” Yet while many recognize that information is abundant and easy for many to access, “The wellsprings of wisdom have to be mentored,” he added. Similarly, in diplomacy, the mere distribution of information is insufficient for good diplomatic practice, Myhren concluded.

The Evolution of Public Diplomacy
The Roundtable explored the definitions and goals of public diplomacy, seeking to isolate the shifting distinction between public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy. Public diplomacy has traditionally been defined as the means with which a country communicates with overseas publics in order to inform and influence for the purpose of promoting the national interest and advancing foreign policy goals. Yet, as public diplomacy scholar Craig Hayden writes, diplomacy and public diplomacy may be increasingly fused in what may be thought of as social diplomacy—involving not just the ascendance of public diplomacy, but “the integration of technological tools, publics, and state institutions in the formation of policy and successful programs or interventions.”

In practice, “I’ve always had trouble untangling the two,” said Kathleen Stephens, Senior Associate at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and former Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. “I see both through the lens of relationship building.” In addition, she noted, some of the United States’ most successful public diplomacy programs have been long-term programs designed to reap benefits over a number of years, such as exchange programs, music programs and so on.

For some, public diplomacy was a very distinct subset of policy, distinguished by the fact that, “In broad terms our public diplomacy should support our stated foreign policy goals,” said Jeff Moon, Vice President of Asia-Pacific Policy and Government Affairs at Cisco Systems. “Public diplomacy must support the goals and objectives of diplomacy,” added Tim Aye-Hardy, Director of Outreach for Burma Global Action Network.

One way to distinguish the two, said Charles Morrison, President of the East-West Center, is to understand diplomacy as the day-to-day work of diplomats, and public diplomacy as a way to “build moral authority that makes the work of diplomats easier.” In this sense, emphasized many participants, the dialogue aspect of public diplomacy is very important. “Public diplomacy is where the U.S. government is actually listening, not just promoting policies we want to ensure,” said Dina Powell, President of Goldman Sachs Foundation.

Some cautioned that public diplomacy needs to be disentangled from the broader space of international communication among peoples and nations. Conflating the two “leads to suspicion and distrust of both the message and the messenger,” said Ivan Sigal, Executive Director of Global Voices.

Soft Power and Public Diplomacy
The term “soft power” generally refers to the ability to influence through persuasion rather than coercion, encompassing a country’s attractiveness as con­veyed through culture, diplomacy, multilateral participation, business and other interests abroad, and economic strength.

Public diplomacy, if utilized correctly, can help amplify soft power. “What I’ve thought of as public diplomacy is less about public relations and more about the basic values of American society, and how we convey those basic values,” said Charles Morrison. Thinking about public diplomacy as a component of soft power means having to be smarter, he added, in husbanding the things that give the U.S. moral authority.

Peter Manikas, Director of Asia Programs at the National Democratic Institute, generally agreed, adding that often the U.S. intends not merely to promote a set of U.S. values but a broader set of democratic values. Because of this, the platforms that may be most effective will not be national, U.S.-based platforms, but rather international ones. The nature and credibility of the platform may have “a big impact on the acceptability of the messages that are being projected,” he said.

Ivan Sigal elaborated on the significance of platforms, noting that it is critically important to understand that the question of who owns the platform matters. “When you invite people to come to our house and interact on our territory, that’s an assertion of authority,” he said. The simplest way to reconceptualize public diplomacy, he added, is to adopt a basic tenet of storytelling and show, not tell. “If we want to show the world the way the U.S. functions, with all its diversity and complexity and freedom of the individual in relation to the state, the way to do that is to show the world that, not to dictate that."

Bringing the Public into Diplomacy
One of the most striking ways in which technology has affected diplomacy is the penetration of the political non-elite into the nuts and bolts of statecraft. In the past, “American public diplomacy was oriented toward the elites, the future leaders of a country, the current leaders, the military,” said Marc Nathanson, Chairman of Mapleton Investments and former Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. With the advent of social media, public diplomacy has “brought in the people.”

As a result of these new complexities, governments must understand that “decisions are not just made in presidential palaces or foreign ministries,” said Christopher Hill, Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a four-time ambassador. “If you have a policy of trying to get a country to do something, you can’t just do it with talking points in the foreign ministry. You need a broader audience for that policy.”

Scholar David Faris calls the current epoch “The Age of Sharing,” in contrast to the “Age of Secrecy,” which characterized much of traditional diplomacy. He notes that the traditional “two-level games” of foreign policy—referring to negotiations between states, and then again between states and their domestic audiences—have become “three-level games,” adding in the networked elite as an intervening variable between policies and mass audiences. In the era of the three-level game, diplomats continue to mediate state relationships, but must do so with a new appreciation for public opinion as channeled through social media. Moreover, they must comprehend that global publics are now part of creating diplomacy, not merely consuming it.

The implications of the growing power of global civil society and its impact on diplomacy are still not completely understood, many participants noted. Because of this, noted John Rendon, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Rendon Group, some essential diplomatic skills may be missing. “Our challenge is to understand how to take 21st century statecraft and turn it into 21st century streetcraft,” he said. “We have all sorts of tools in our diplomatic toolkit that have been honed over time, and we don’t have any tools in the streetcraft kit.”

One potential role that civil society might play would be to help create broad acceptance of policy, noted some participants. This might help “strip away conflict that prevents policy resolutions,” said Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society.

Yet there are implicit challenges as power arguably devolves away from central governing authorities toward networks of non-state actors. “Civil society cannot run a country, movements cannot run a country,” said Madeleine Albright, Chair of Albright Stonebridge Group and former Secretary of State. “How do you get from Tahrir Square to governance, in other words?”

Adapting Bureaucracies to the Information Age
Roundtable participants considered various ways to amend diplomatic and policy structures to render them more nimble and responsive to new challenges. Dina Powell argued that it is important that Foreign Service officers not only see public diplomacy as essential, but as a career-track field. This also requires having public diplomacy people in key policy meetings, she added. “If no one’s thinking about how policies are communicated, it’s a really big miss,” she said.

Of course, changing highly entrenched structures within large bureaucratic structures is often not only challenging, but impossible given the realities of political timeframes, priorities and incentive structures. “The barrier to making great thinking a reality is risk,” and the risk tolerance of bureaucracy is low, noted Alec Ross. During his time at the State Department, he said, he was lucky to have been given the permission to make mistakes of commission rather than omission, allowing his team to provide seed funding for a number of non-traditional ideas generated by embassies. Ultimately, diplomatic bureaucracies must recognize that some things will fail, and be comfortable with that, he concluded.

At least one recent change in the U.S. may open the door to a more creative set of approaches to public diplomacy. The U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, commonly referred to as the Smith-Mundt Act, laid out the terms under which the U.S. government could engage with foreign audiences. It also prohibited the U.S. government from disseminating domestically the programs it produced for foreign consumption. Since its inception, there have been calls for termination of this prohibition, most particularly in recent years given the easy access to such content by domestic audiences through the Internet. Earlier this year, the ban was repealed, thus enabling U.S. government public diplomacy materials to be disseminated within the United States.

Rethinking the Broadcasting Board of Governors
Participants discussed various ways that the end of the Smith-Mundt era might open up various possibilities, including potentially restructuring the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the independent federal agency that oversees all U.S. civilian international media). Specifically, participants imagined transforming the missions of Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, or re-examining the function of State Department bureaus such as International Information Programs, and Educational and Cultural Affairs. Participants also discussed using newly raised or redirected funds—from the U.S. government, other governments or private sources—to amplify the power of independent journalism or alternative narratives in foreign countries.

Finding fresh funding for new public diplomacy initiatives might be problematic, however. If U.S. government funding drops off, other groups may not pick up the slack, maintained Marc Nathanson. “I don’t want us to be naïve” in expecting various other governments or companies to come together to provide platforms for cross-cultural communication and other initiatives. If the U.S. government considers enhanced and expanded communication platforms to be in its interests, many participants observed, then it will have to commit to the changes in funding and bureaucratic structures to enable this.

Flipping the Question: How International Diplomacy Impacts Technology
A few participants noted that the interplay between diplomacy and technology is not unidirectional, despite frequently being framed that way. Much of the session focused on how new technologies were affecting the practice of diplomacy, but Lokman Tsui, Head of Free Expression for Asia and the Pacific at Google Asia, pointed out that international relations can also affect how technologies are developed, adopted and used. Tsui highlighted ongoing discussions between governments and civil society regarding the multistakeholder nature of Internet governance, its open architecture, acceptance of freedom of expression online, and so on. He explained that these types of global agreements and norms will have an impact on the development of the Internet as a medium, particularly as more and more users in developing countries come online. “One thing we should not take for granted is the technology itself,” he argued. “We need to think about the Internet as a space with values of its own.”

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