REVIEW: Article

Technology and Public Diplomacy: Changing Cultures Not Just Priorities

In an ideal world, technology would never be considered a substitute for in- person communications and interaction. But in an era when budgets are stretched, time is short and travel is increasingly problematical and expensive, the rich bounty of 21st century information and communications technologies (ICT) have become the life-blood of global communications outreach AND impact.

When the United States Information Agency (USIA) was established at the beginning of the Cold War, a top priority was developing global shortwave radio services in strategically targeted languages. It was demonstrably successful in piercing the Iron Curtain with vital news, concepts of democracy and insights into American culture. Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other US government (USG) radio services were often the major sources of reliable news and event coverage even beyond the Communist-dominated world. Today, America’s public diplomacy challenge is less about being the source of reliable news and more about engaging listeners awash in radio and TV signals broadcasting “news” and views that are fueling culture-clashes and growing anti-Americanism.

Turning up the Volume on Radio and TV

Currently nearly half of the formal US public diplomacy budget continues to be appropriated for US government owned and operated radio and television infrastructure and programming under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG was created as an independent entity to consolidate what was left of the already poorly funded broadcast pieces when USIA was disbanded at the end of the 1990s. 

Despite tiny audiences, a surprising portion of the BBG’s budget is still devoted to preserving the nostalgic but technologically outdated shortwave radio services. With some success, however, the BBG has been able to migrate more of its program transmission to AM and FM through agreements with local government and private outlets in a number of countries. Its most touted new initiative, Radio SAWA, is broadcast on FM and targets the strategically important and fast growing young Arab population. In 2003, it spent $22 million not counting capital costs. By contrast, the total spent by the State Department Bureau for International Information Programs was only $49 million. While too early to fairly evaluate, questions are already being raised about Radio SAWA’s effectiveness as a public diplomacy tool. Its initial audience building success may also be its liability. In several countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Morocco, SAWA’s pop music format has proven so popular, that locally-owned stations are now copying the format and starting to siphon off some of its audience. 

The newest USG public diplomacy broadcast priority is the launch of an expensive and ambitious US government-owned Middle East Television Network (METN). The initial $60 million budgeted seems like a lot of money especially in contrast to the overall public diplomacy budget which has dwindled ever since the US declared public diplomacy “victory” at the end of the Cold War. But sharp pencils suggest that the funds appropriated will be just enough to get the network built, but not enough to develop and sustain the customized, quality program needed to gain a cost-effective and strategic audience. This assessment has added credence since the BBC apparently spent more than $100 million several years ago before it had to declare failure in its own efforts to launch a Middle East satellite network.

But beyond the money involved, I believe that even more fundamental concerns should be raised. Given the vital role that private sector, rather than government-run, broadcasting has played in the sustenance of our own vibrant democracy, what kind of  “signals” will we send by injecting yet another government broadcaster—no matter how well intentioned? What kind of local credibility will we gain over the long term by pouring already limited resources into yet another government broadcast operation in a region that has been smothered in decades of often misleading and always restrictive local government controlled media? Our public diplomacy objectives are to engage and persuade not just communicate.

Over the long term, diverse and independent media will be the best AND most credible messengers for democracy. Without further debating the merits of massive investment in government-owned infrastructure, public diplomacy resources spent on partnering with local broadcasters, training journalists and making available compelling, but commercially viable, programming in local languages that more fairly reflect our values and culture should be given at least equal priority. The long-term benefits can be huge. One has only to look at the breathtaking rise and commanding impact of Al-Jazeera to see that local and regional voices, even when questionable, will win out.

Reinvigorating Old Programs with New Technologies

The State Department, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and increasingly the Defense Department (which is now also heavily involved in promoting public diplomacy objectives) are starting to pay more attention to technology beyond broadcasting. While far behind the private sector in harnessing the economies and growing efficiencies of the Internet, Web-based services, video streaming, and IP telephony, the State Department is working on several promising “virtual” initiatives. The recently launched “American Corners” and “Information Resource Centers” are designed to serve as “virtual libraries and consulates.” Although still in their infancy, they are already demonstrating how the vast and increasingly user-friendly resources of information technology can be used to establish (or re-establish) a cost effective “American presence” in places long since axed by personnel cutbacks.

Digital videoconferencing (DVC) is also finally coming into its own in augmenting the vast array of public diplomacy-related meetings, speeches, conferences and exchanges that the State Department coordinates around the world. Posts such as Tel Aviv have turned to videoconferencing for all of their speaker programs because of travel and security concerns. With good videophone conferencing equipment under $300 and Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) line charges of $60 an hour, the economics are compelling. Traditional diplomats are quick to remind me that you cannot shake hands on a videoconference or effectively use the coffee breaks to negotiate and clarify differences. But our own Advisory Group, nevertheless, gained fresh insights, saved tens of thousands of dollars and many days of draining travel by utilizing DVCs to meet with and exchange views with a number of Arab and Muslim leaders and constituencies on their home turf.

USG investment in information technology networks, software and services is only as good as the senior level commitment that makes ICT a priority, the staff level “buy-in” and the dedicated man-hours required to make it useful.

Despite the strategic role that ICT plays in managing and measuring, as well as delivering information, the State Department continues to be among the least advanced government agencies in its effective use. Both the recent Department of State Information Technology Planning Project report and the September 2003 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report highlight chronic and long-standing deficiencies in effectively incorporating ICT in support of public diplomacy activities.

The litany of ICT problems includes: inadequate or poorly planned resource allocations, government network security restrictions, lack of interagency cooperation, slow and painfully bureaucratic conflicts in migrating the unclassified network from PDNet to OpenNet Plus, inability to buy inexpensive off-the-shelf software, absence of meaningful performance measurements, lack of ICT incorporation in broader strategic planning, limited involvement of our Embassy experts in the strategic design and customization for local conditions and cultures. The list goes on.

There are plenty of good role models out there. For example, the International Research Exchange (IREX) has managed over 10,000 professional and academic exchanges in its forty years of existence. All of its alumni are included in sophisticated up-to-date electronic data banks that it launched over a decade ago. IREX continually upgrades with new links, develops new Internet-based training, and follows up with other technology-based programs to tap its vast alumni resources of goodwill and expertise. By contrast, the Educational and Cultural Exchange Bureau at the State Department informed us that it continues to be a paper operation with few organized records and follow-up procedures to keep in touch with the hundreds of thousands of its USG-funded educational alumni. There are signs of “bite the bullet” commitments at the senior level to make technology a major and integral part of public diplomacy. But it remains a woefully under-tapped resource and far behind other agencies.

The  Web site and hyperlinks have only recently considered utilizing even the most rudimentary traffic assessment software, which has long been commonplace even in many small enterprises in developing countries. Effective and ongoing translation of key Web sites into Arabic and other strategically critical languages have only recently gotten into the budget loop. Clearly, more resources will help. But there will be no substitute for more senior level attention to insure that “corporate culture” as well as resource allocations change. Personnel performance incentives and rewards, not just requirements, are also needed.

To be sure there have been many champions of technology in the public diplomacy arena. But they have clearly had minimal influence. This is especially difficult in today’s world when fewer funds are expected to stretch further. Too often well meaning bureaucrats try to maintain the status quo on current programs and at the same time scramble to cover the many new requirements that are laid on them.

Congress exacerbates the problems by over-specifying and earmarking over 90 percent of the expenditures in the Department of State and USAID. There is minimal incentive to change or innovate. Long-favored programs suited for the Cold War era combined with sudden new demands in the war on terrorism have left little room for the serious investments in the people as well as the technologies required to maintain effective management, measurement and follow up over the long term.

A bright spot on the horizon is the newly confirmed Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Ambassador Margaret Tutwiler. As a former Ambassador to Morocco, State Department Spokesman and successful PR executive, she brings an especially impressive and well-suited professional background to the job. Unfortunately, it looks like she will never have the official clout or status enjoyed by a Director of USIA. But with strong support from the White House and Congress, she may have better luck than most in making the bureaucratic as well as substantive changes needed to better leverage the resources of people and technology that are already at hand.

On paper, the State Department may get the majority of the funds earmarked for public diplomacy—but increasingly the lion’s share of the resources used to actually implement our public diplomacy objectives lie elsewhere. Although not earmarked as such, it was surprising to learn that both USAID and the Defense Department spend more money on traditional public diplomacy activities than the State Department. Clearly more resources are needed. But meanwhile, more attention must be paid to leveraging and maximizing the resources that are at hand.

In a variety of unimagined ways, public diplomacy is a more complex and globalized challenge today than it was in the Cold War era. America is learning painfully that it can never declare victory in the war of ideas. Moreover, waging peace is a long-term process that I believe will never totally end. It can and will change. But it will always be dependent on effective communication, education and understanding beyond our borders. If the US government is to meet the daunting public diplomacy challenges of this century, it must, at minimum, master the magnificent technology tools of the last

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Chair, Cyber Century Forum;
Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies;
United States Coordinator for International Communications and and Information Policy, 1982-1988