As the U.S. government belatedly gears up to spread the message of liberty as an alternative to extremism and tyranny, there is evidence to suggest that independent, grassroots efforts to nurture democratic ideas in some of the world's most repressed societies are gaining momentum and could make old-style public diplomacy irrelevant.

Uncle Sam's Blog

By , , Briefing

The Bush administration's latest budget contains a significant increase in spending on ''public diplomacy" -- government-sponsored programs to communicate with the citizens of other countries through the media and cultural and educational exchanges. The increase has been met with a sigh of relief from foreign policy watchers who believe public diplomacy is an essential pillar of American ''soft power" and have watched that pillar slowly crumble since the end of the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the US Information Agency led America's public diplomacy assault, broadcasting Radio Free Europe to Soviet Bloc states, broadcasting the Voice of America throughout the world, and sponsoring numerous alternatives to state-sponsored media in nonfree countries. The agency was dissolved in 1999 and its programs absorbed into the State Department, where critics say long-term public diplomacy efforts have been starved for attention in a department culture that is focused on short-term solutions to immediate crises.

After flat funding for public diplomacy over the last decade, the president's fiscal year 2006 budget request would increase spending on broadcasting, education, and cultural exchange programs by about 15 percent, to $1.08 billion, according to the State Department.

This is no doubt a good sign. However, as the bureaucracy belatedly gears up to spread the message of liberty as an alternative to extremism and tyranny, there is evidence to suggest that independent, grassroots efforts to nurture democratic ideas in some of the world's most repressed societies are gaining momentum and could make old-style public diplomacy irrelevant. While the latest US-sponsored public diplomacy efforts, such as the new Arabic television station Alhurra, rely on decidedly old-media formats, the Internet appears to be the medium through which future international political opinion will be influenced most significantly.

In most foreign countries, traditional media like Al Jazeera -- against which Alhurra, established in February 2004, is designed to compete -- is the place most citizens get their political information. However, the particular characteristics of the Internet and Web logs make them fertile ground for alternative political cultures to take root, especially in countries where the state attempts to control access to information. With their use of the Internet for organization and for communicating their ideology to new believers, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have already demonstrated the power of networks to spread political movements. Less publicized so far is the growing use of the Internet by democrats to foster liberal culture in repressive countries.

In Iran, for example, there are more than 75,000 active Web logs written in Persian, Iran expatriate Hossein Derakhshan, who now lives in Toronto and is a central figure in the Iranian blogosphere, told an audience at Harvard University's Internet and Society conference in December. Derakhshan says Web logs are the most trusted information medium among Iran's citizens, of which 70 percent are under the age of 30. He believes it is only a matter of time before blogs become a major political force.

Iran's ruling mullahs are clearly worried. The regime arrested a number of bloggers last year as part of a crackdown on journalists. The BBC reported Feb. 23 that Arash Sigarchi, who was arrested in January after criticizing the Iranian government on his own Web log, was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison. Another Iranian blogger, Mujtaba Saminejad, is awaiting trial in an Iranian jail.

Although the international blogging phenomenon is in its infancy, Internet trends spread fast, so US foreign policy makers would do well to take notice soon. A chief aim of public diplomacy has always been to foster liberal political culture where authoritarian states are attempting to snuff it out. President Bush clearly believes America's interests are served by the spread of freedom and democracy. To that end, US policy makers should recognize blogging as a perfect tool to promote the proliferation of independent democratic voices.

There is some indication that the US foreign policy establishment is beginning to understand the Internet's potential in this area. The 2004 annual report of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy recommended that the State Department ''actively look for ways to use emerging software developments to expand its broadcasting reach over the Internet."

Michael Waller, professor of international communication at The Institute of World Politics, says, ''While some in the State Department recognize the power of the Internet for public diplomacy, they are years behind the technology and show little sign of advancing soon." He proposes that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs US-sponsored broadcasting, ''quickly integrate its radio and TV programming with Internet media to facilitate global, interactive networks of independent bloggers in English, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and other languages, united against Islamist extremism."

To accomplish this, the radio and television stations could feature ''the best and most interesting bloggers" on their programs, Waller says. ''The bloggers, in turn, would find it in their interests to draw listeners and viewers to US-sponsored media."

That approach could do much to popularize political blogging in places where it already exists. At the same time, programs to expand blogging in countries where it has not yet taken root are needed. One organization's effort to expand blogging in the Arab world could provide a model for future government programs.

Spirit of America, a nonprofit group started by a California businessman to fund nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, is developing a blogging tool to give Arabic speakers the same ability to create blogs as users of English software like Google's Blogger. The group says hosting each blog will cost just $12 a year. To make sure the tool is used to promote democratic ideals rather than, say, jihad against the West, each blog created with the tool will display banner ads promoting ''groups, individuals, and news that, in the big picture, advance freedom, democracy, and peace in the region," according to Spirit of America.

It is easy to imagine the dramatic effect an influx of funding from the State Department could have on such a low-cost project. Though the youth of Iran are already largely pro-American, the creation of pro-democracy blogospheres in places like Syria could do much to encourage reform movements. Eventually, such movements would significantly increase the pressure for change on authoritarian regimes like that of Bashar Assad, giving the US government more options in its statecraft.

Although creating a community of bloggers depends on improving lagging access to the Web in nondemocratic states, the availability of the Internet in even the poorest and most closed countries is growing rapidly. The number of Internet users in the Middle East increased 219 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the advisory commission's report.

If the US government is to harness the Internet to spread liberty, State Department officials will have to rethink their whole approach to public diplomacy. Whereas the Internet is, by its very architecture, decentralized, messy, and chaotic, the government's initial attempts to revamp public diplomacy after Sept. 11, 2001, drew on the slick, prepackaged ethos of Madison Avenue. The first Bush appointee for the position of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, in fact, was a former advertising executive. Charlotte Beers, who was sworn in to that position just weeks after 9/11, had been CEO of two of the world's largest advertising agencies. Among the public diplomacy campaigns Beers reportedly considered were advertising spots in which celebrities would talk up the United States to Arab audiences.

Beers lasted just eight months, and the Madison Avenue approach to public diplomacy appears to have fallen out of favor in the State Department. However, if US officials have conceived of an approach that can overcome foreign skepticism about American ''propaganda" while still aggressively fighting the battle of ideas that is critical to creating a freer, more open world, they have not publicized it.

The advantage of a public diplomacy that seeks to build indigenous communities of reform-minded bloggers is that no American bureaucrat needs to develop the correct tone for communicating American ideals. Instead, the message of liberty and democracy can be encouraged to spread from the very communities that public diplomacy campaigns are designed to reach in the first place.

This article first appeared in
The Boston Globe on March 14, 2005.

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