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Words From Charlie - Foreword to the Dialogue on Diplomacy and Technology 2014 Report

This report emanates from the third annual Aspen Institute Dialogue on Diplomacy and Technology. After exploring issues of public diplomacy in the Middle East and the use of technology in the global diplomatic rivalry with China in the two prior years, the Dialogue turned inward. Why is the United States seemingly ineffective in winning the hearts and minds of key audiences it is seeking to persuade? How can it better employ newer social and mobile media? What should the public diplomatic apparatus of the United States look like going forward?

The Aspen Institute was fortunate to attract a group of 24 outstanding leaders in the diplomatic and technology fields to address these problems. They met at a time when Russian media can successfully misinform their diaspora across the Russian borders, when a small but significant number of people are actually attracted to ISIS videos of people playing football with severed heads, and where other credulous audiences receive messages that, if taken as true, undermine American interests. Despite its many dollars and divergent approaches, the U.S. government still seems to be catching up to the new realities of the world of 2015.

The group set out a mission and vision of public diplomacy. The mission, set forth in this report, is to “further the interests of the United States by building networks of shared interests and shared values.” It is to explain American policies and practices and “to build relationships through interaction and engagement” with foreign governments and societies. The vision of the future is centered on what the group called “Network Diplomacy,” (and I call “Netpolitik”).i It focuses on building open platforms for the world’s billions to access the global network, encouraging dialogue among diverse peoples and viewpoints, and using public-private partnerships and network-savvy principles and practices to engage with new voices. It also calls on the United States to use creative approaches to reach uninformed or otherwise hostile audiences, and to create honest feedback loops.

But most of the Dialogue addressed the practicalities of American agencies and personnel whose job it is to convey American values and viewpoints to the world. Aware of the many policy reports on public diplomacy that have preceded this meeting, the participants focused their recommendations on current legislation proposing reform of the apparatus.

Starting with the need for an authentic voice to the rest of the world, the participants observed that American officials face a risk-averse environment created by the increased need for security (fortified embassies) and by some senior officials and Congressional pressures. Public diplomacy needs to reinforce the American narrative as the “incubator of people’s dreams,” highlighting traditional American values of entrepreneurship, innovation, opportunity, freedom, openness, empowerment, democracy, economic development, dignity and choice. It needs to listen to other peoples’ concerns and engage at that level and on those issues.

To do this, Dialogue participants recommended reforming both the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the State Department’s public diplomacy apparatus, what they refer to as the “R Bureau.” They recommended, as a needed first step, the adoption of H.R. 4490, which has been passed in the House of Representatives and was pending in the U.S. Senate. It would replace the BBG with a new International Communications Agency (USICA), with its own Chief Executive Officer, managing the daily operations of Voice of America and the Cuban broadcasting entity. And it would create the Freedom News Network, with its own CEO, to operate the surrogate broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

Another forward looking recommendation was to create an Innovation Fund, allowing the government to fund outside entities, in competition with existing international broadcasting entities, to accomplish certain specific goals. The goal here is to give the CEOs the flexibility through short-term funding grants or contracts to address public diplomacy goals that cannot or are not being achieved through current approaches.

The Dialogue owes its origins and thanks to the support of Aspen Institute Trustee Marc Nathanson. Since his tenure as the first Chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, Nathanson has been concerned with how American diplomacy could more rapidly embrace the changing world of social media and other technologies. We also acknowledge and thank Ambassador Christopher Hill, Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Relations at the University of Denver; Aspen Institute Trustee Madeleine Albright; and Aspen Institute President, CEO and former Chair of the BBG, Walter Isaacson. We are thankful for our association in this Dialogue with the Korbel School and the guidance and leadership of Secretary Albright, whose father is the namesake of the school.

As is the case with almost all of our Communications and Society dialogues and roundtables, the aim is to frame issues, gain insights and make recommendations for important public policy issues at the cutting edge of our society. We do not take votes, however, and the report is the rapporteur’s take on the topic as amplified by participants’ remarks. Therefore, not all the opinions expressed in the report are subscribed to by each of the participants or their employers. Unless someone is specifically quoted, it should not be assumed that he or she adheres to a particular position, but rather such statements are the rapporteur’s sense of the group in general. The group did, however, specifically endorse the pending legislation on reform of the BBG and the U.S. State Department diplomacy apparatus.

In addition to the above leaders of the Dialogue, I would like to thank Richard Kessler, our rapporteur; the Nathanson Scholars, Elizabeth Caruth and Emily Winslow, who created the background materials; and Kiahna Cassell, Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program Senior Project Manager, for organizing and managing the dialogue and this report itself. Finally, we thank the Jane and Marc Nathanson Foundation, which is the senior sponsor of this project.

iCharlie Firestone and Leshuo Dong, PhD. “Netpolitik: What the Emergence of Networks Means for Diplomacy and Statecraft” in The Aspen Institute Journal of Ideas, March/April 2015. Available online:

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