We Invented It, Let’s Use It

As the "global war on terrorism" enters its fifth year, it has become increasingly evident that the United States and its allies are involved in an ideological war, in which propaganda and moral suasion will play a large part. Some Bush administration officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have recently jettisoned the "GWOT" moniker in favor of the less martial and more comprehensive "struggle against violent extremism." National security advisor Stephen Hadley has also begun emphasizing the ideological nature of this conflict, recently telling a reporter that the United States is involved in "more than just a military war on terror" and must offer an alternative to the "gloomy vision" of Muslim extremists.

A key part of any foreign policy aimed at winning such a battle of ideas is public diplomacy -- government-funded efforts to communicate directly with foreign publics, largely through broadcasting. The role of Radio Free Europe in the Cold War, for example, is an undeniable testament to the power of this tool of statecraft against an ideologically motivated enemy.

But U.S. public diplomacy has not changed much since it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire, even as communications technology has advanced dramatically. The Internet is the fastest growing medium for spreading political ideas, but government-funded broadcasting has not progressed much beyond the old media of radio and television. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are aggressively using the Internet to promote jihad. If adherents of a medieval ideology like militant Islam can adopt modern technology, then the United States government -- which, after all, helped invent the Internet -- should be able to use it to promote values like liberty and democracy. Fortunately, tentative progress is being made in Internet-based public diplomacy -- but more still needs to be done.

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