Remarks at the Aspen Institute

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Aspen, CO
August 4, 2014

I’m going to let you in on a secret – there are two Walter Isaacsons. (Laughter) This man who’s running panels, who’s running the Aspen Institute; who do you think is writing all those books all the time? That’s the other Walter who’s at home, typing. But you never get to see him.

Walter also likes to say I succeeded him as editor at Time, which is not quite true. It always reminds of the great line when Thomas Jefferson succeeded Ben Franklin as ambassador to Paris. Jefferson said, “One cannot succeed Franklin, one can only follow him. Which is how I feel coming after Walter.

It’s fantastic that we have this panel discussion about Walter today. (Laughter) So I just want to introduce that. I’m sorry, it’s torture for someone to speak in front of the panel where everyone is more distinguished than the speaker.

Let me just say a couple of things to set up the discussion. I did from the private sector. I was editor of Time. And in fact, my motto as editor of Time was that we explain the world to America and America to the world, which is actually not a bad definition of public diplomacy. I also used to say, eight years ago when I became the editor of Time, that the only thing harder than creating a new brand in media is destroying an old one. Well, that is 180 degrees wrong, of course. It may have even been wrong eight years ago.

The media environment has changed so radically. In fact, it’s easy to start new brands now. If you think of the new brands that started in the last ten years – Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, not even mentioning the largest media brand in human history by an exponential margin, which barely existed ten years ago, which is Facebook, communicates to billions of people. The media sphere has absolutely changed, and that has changed what we need to do in public diplomacy.

Because today we’re living in an era, not of hierarchies anymore, but of networks. There was a famous essay about the Linux operating system back in 1997: The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Alec would know that too. Basically, the essayist said that the old way of communication was the cathedral: top-down, mandarins, elites from on high preaching to the people. The way of communication is the bazaar: horizontal communication, people-to-people communication. That actually is a pretty good definition of modern public diplomacy, which is not about governments talking to governments, but people talking to people.

And even in all of our discussions, which we just came from, the idea is that for policymakers, everybody has to factor in public diplomacy when making a policy. You have to factor it in in terms of how you create it, how you sell it, and how you preach it to foreign audiences and domestic audiences. That is the challenge, and we’re going to talk a little bit about that now.

One of the things that I’ve seen in this job – I’ve been in the job four and a half months, and as you can see I’ve solved most of the world’s problems in that time, (Laughter) which is why we can talk about public diplomacy now – there is a new narrative, and that post-Cold War narrative just doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re seeing a diminishment of democracy around the world. Freedom House talked about over the last eight years, the number of countries embracing democracy has decreased. In 2013, 42 countries, according to Freedom House, narrowed their democracy, narrowed their freedoms.

The thing that has most surprised me, coming into office, is I came in at the time Russia annexed Crimea. And what I saw, which I hadn’t seen from my previous perch in media, was the power, the comprehensiveness of the Russian propaganda machine on social media. In fact, we started up in the State Department a Ukraine task force to combat Russian messaging in Russian, because what we realized is that the people in Ukraine, the people in the Baltic States, the people in the near abroad, were getting their information from Russian media.

We stood down after the Cold War fell, and the Russians and the Chinese and others started coming in there. That’s the new information space. And there’s competition in that information space; it’s an information battlefield. We’ve seen that with Russia. The other place we’ve seen it, which is depressing, is in the Middle East with ISIS or ISIL. One of the things I’m responsible for is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which is a real-time social media hub that was originally the idea of combatting al Qaeda messaging. Well, it’s shifted to combating ISIS or ISIL messaging.

One of the things we’ve seen is this unprecedented seeding of the battlefield through social media before there’s actually any kinetic battle. It’s been unprecedented. The amount of social media engagement that ISIS or ISIL has engaged in is something we haven’t seen before, and it’s something that’s a little bit scary.

One of the things I’ve talked about in general is that the great definition of public diplomacy is soft power. But in this new world, and in this new narrative, there has to be a hardening of soft power. That’s one of the things we’ve been talking about for the last couple of days. I’m eager to engage with everybody here. Thanks very much.