Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Public Diplomacy: The Transformational Approach

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has recently announced the first major shift in State Department strategy in decades: Transformational Diplomacy:
Rice has described the notion of transformational diplomacy as a shift from merely reporting on events to influencing them to foster the growth of democratic states worldwide.

Under the plan outlined yesterday, Rice will expand the U.S. presence by encouraging the spread of new one-person diplomatic outposts, now located in a few cities such as Alexandria, Egypt, and Medan, Indonesia.

"There are nearly 200 cities worldwide with over 1 million people in which the United States has no formal diplomatic presence," Rice said. "This is where the action is today."

These reassignments may be painfully disruptive to many State Department personnel. Diplomats may be a bit puzzled as to exactly what their mission will be, as the plan is for many of them to be left alone without protection in their new posts. It doesn't help that these changes have been announced with all of the tact, clarity, and delicacy usually associated with the Bush Administration.

So I guess it's up to me, an ordinary American, to tell our diplomats what I think their new core specialty and specific mission should be:

Your job is now Public Diplomacy. Your mission is to free the minds of the people where you are posted.

The primary function of the executive branch is to protect the country from external attack. Al-Qaeda relies less upon specific governments than upon the conspiracy mentality of the Middle East, a mentality that can be manipulated by militants of all stripes to turn, as Daniel Pipes has written, "the merest sign of good will...into collusion."

These peoples accept conspiracy because truth is so rare in their experience, and most have little power to affect the everyday injustices imposed by corrupt authoritarian or dictatorial rule, and very little sense of true nationhood. They then clutch at any idea that will allow them to feel powerful in their own minds, and thus become easy pickings to even more charismatic and violent power-seeking individuals - for violence itself is an expression of power.

Over time, democracy allows power-seekers to reach for power nonviolently, but the process can take decades and rarely works without an educated electorate. People may not grasp that they are free, and can remain wrapped up in the twisted threads of wide-eyed conspiracy theories and untruths for decades.

That's where the new Public Diplomacy comes in. Traditional Public Relations techniques won't work in the conspiracy environment. Whether you run capture-bin-Laden ads on television or matchbooks won't prevent people from thinking that the U.S. is trying to accomplish something else. Speaking in public to a large crowd about the big issues only pushes the ball of string back and forth or pulls the knots even tighter. And in the Middle East, it is the statements leaders make in public, not to diplomats in private, that really make the difference.

So you are to go out and work the streets, souks, and senses of the Middle East. You will be protected only by your tongue, not any bodyguard. You will learn the local language fluently, even idiomatically, for your mission cannot succeed if it looks like your message can be manipulated through your translator; if such a person is an American, you are only a puppet of the CIA; if the translator is supplied locally, you are being manipulated by and implicitly supporting the local dictatorship.

Your do not accomplish your mission by talking about the big issues of war and peace - at least not at first. You are not missionaries of any religion, or even of any political system. Your function is DETHREADING, untangling the threads that keep peoples' minds tied up in knots.

Does this sound like you are being asked to accomplish the impossible? I suppose so, if you think big. That's because success in this endeavor isn't accomplished by thinking big. It is accomplished by thinking small.

Let us suppose that you are a diplomat working a hostile crowd. You are assaulted with questions from every side: Israel, Crusaders, bin Laden, Mubarak, Denmark. (Where did THAT come from? Welcome to the Middle East.) No security is present, indeed, not a single friendly face is in sight. What do you do? How do you even stay alive?

All of these assaults have a common foundation: conspiracy, the twisted doubt of American motives, which is founded by the powerlessness of the accuser in the face of the seemingly all-powerful United States. Believe it or not, your job is to make people - the people throwing mean words or even mean weapons at you - comfortable!

Suppose someone throws out "It's all a Zionist/[substitute appropriate "enemy"] conspiracy!" Relax. Smile. Forget everything you may have learned about standard PR and engage the speaker personally. Don't bother affirming or denying such statements. Instead, invite the speaker forward. Ask him if he thinks he is a "Zionist". Or the person next to him? Work your way progressively through the room -- hostiles first. You retain control of the situation and the crowd accepts this because you are defining people and bringing order to their lives, shedding light in dark corners. Some of these people believed that they are literally surrounded by "Zionists". You are showing them that they are not, and they will love you for it.

And suppose you find a "Zionist/enemy" in the room? Command the crowd to back off. Let him tell his story if he wishes, or if he is too frightened, point out to the crowd that the person is very frightened and should be given the benefit of protection. Surely he -- or even a sizable number of such in the room -- cannot pose an immediate threat to everyone else, because so many people have defined themselves as not the "Zionist/enemy." It's all O.K., because you're just here to talk.

You do not talk about war and peace. You do not talk about the politically controversial. You reach into their culture and talk about little things of common interest, the little choices people can make under any regime.

Food is a good choice: what sort of pickles are available? Why do you choose one type over another? What candy do you prefer? Do you make your own ice-cream, or do you prefer buying from the store? (Caveat: Don't make the mistake I once did, as a white American talking about the merits of different watermelons to a student from Swaziland.)

Or interior decoration: Did you build that furniture yourself? Who thought to make that window sill such a pretty color?

What you are doing is making people comfortable with you. You are limiting discussion to a sphere where they are just as competent to discuss matters as you, if not more so. They have genuine power of choice in these matters, and the threads will start to untangle.

You will also be in a better position to realize the range of freedoms and choices available to the populace. (There is little point to them taking a pro "Zionist/enemy" position on things if that means they will get their heads cut off, is that not so?)

Keep matters light throughout, and end on a friendly note of mutual non-commitment. If your new "friends" try to "convert" you respond with a polite but immediate no -- you are, after all, a diplomat out to represent the best of your country. The same sort of folksy good neighborliness that U.S. troops have won hearts and minds with throughout the world, but without the accompanying guns and battles. And for that you will get paid far more than the soldiers do, eat better meals, and sleep in a comfortable bed every night.

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