Remarks at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Los Angeles, CA
October 15, 2014

It’s fantastic to be here. Standing room only; that’s great. Phil, thank you, and Jay, thank you. I actually have a history with the Annenberg foundation, so I want to thank them in absentia for combining on this. In another previous incarnation I ran the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and they were a very big donor to the Constitution Center. Mrs. Annenberg was still alive then.

So as Phil said about public diplomacy, so much diplomacy in the 21st century is public diplomacy. It is, indeed, public diplomacy’s moment, and the reason for that is because of all the changes in technology and the way people communicate, which are actually in service to public diplomacy and people-to-people communications. I will get to that and talk more about that in a moment.

And as Phil mentioned, I came directly to the State Department from Time Magazine, or Time as we called it because that word magazine doesn’t resonate anymore. The world was changing while I was there. I became editor about eight or nine years ago. The media environment, which we all faced or we all had back in those days, was a little bit like a box of chocolates. Every little chocolate was so proud of itself. It was so bespoke. There were the three networks; there was the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was a very contained universe. It was very top-down.

This is the new media universe. It’s much more horizontal. It’s exponentially more complicated. It’s very, very hard to break through. I remember when I was editor of Time during the 2008 campaign, the editor of the New York Times talked about how hard it was to “break through” in the media environment. When the editor of the New York Times is worried about breaking through, you know the media environment has changed radically.

When I was editor of Time, I used to say – at least when I first started – that the only thing harder than starting a new brand was killing an old one. Well, that is 180 degrees wrong. If you think about 10 years ago, the brands that didn’t exist in media – starting with the largest communications brand in the history of the world, Facebook – it’s astonishing. Whether it’s Huffington Post or Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed has a larger valuation by a big margin than the Washington Post. It’s a completely new environment, but you’ll see why this environment lends itself to the raising up of public diplomacy.

In 1998, a theorist named Raymond Carver wrote an essay called, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” about the first open-source operating system, Linux. The idea was, old communication was a cathedral: top-down; elite; we know better; we talk to people below.

Modern communications, open-source communications, are horizontal. It’s a bazaar; it’s people-to-people, which is of course the kind of sine qua non of what public diplomacy is. For all of these reasons, that’s why the media environment favors public diplomacy, because it allows individuals to talk with individuals; it allows governments to talk with individuals, and individuals to talk to governments. In fact one of the issues and one of the difficulties we’re finding in this new universe is, after you have this initial conversation about something, what do you say? We’re not used to actually having a conversation. I more and more want the U.S., when it comes to public diplomacy, to be, “We’re the nation that listens to you. We’re the nation that has a conversation with you.” Not many other nations do that.

I want to go back a few years to how this world we’re seeing now came about. That is the Berlin Wall in the bad old days. When the Berlin Wall came down – and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is coming up next month – when the Berlin Wall came down, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History. The idea was, suddenly these ideological debates that we’d been having for a very long time during the cold war were over. Capitalism had won. In fact I remember doing a story. I went on a “capitalism has won” tour of Eastern Europe for Esquire, because there was a kind of general rejoicing. It was like, “Yes. Everything we did for the last 40 or 50 years succeeded. Capitalism won. There’s no ideological debate anymore. It’s a non-zero sum game. Everybody’s going to rise. We’ll just go home and celebrate and be Americans.

Well, at the same time that was happening, a lot of other players on the world scene started thinking that what the U.S. had done in terms of communications, in terms of propaganda, in terms of public diplomacy, that was awfully smart. Maybe we should start doing that. So who started doing that? The Russians started doing that. The Chinese started doing that. The Gulf States started doing that. It started changing the whole media environment. One of the things I saw as editor of Time, for an example, the largest news bureau in Washington now is CCTV – they have 300 people there.

What we started seeing too, and we’ve seen in the last few years and it’s coming to a head now, is the narrowing of the information space. In the post-Snowden environment, all of these countries, the rise of illiberal democracies as Fareed Zakaria called it; the rise of autocracies, the rise of autocratic capitalism as Bill Clinton referred to it the other day, has been coming up. And one of the things countries have done and realized, as the same time as they’re spending billions of dollars to get their information out, to get their message out, they can narrow the information space.

We were pretty naïve about what the Internet meant. Because the Internet for so many people was like air: it was universal; we all have access to it; we all need it to breathe. But actually, in this post-Snowden environment, countries – Russia, Turkey, Brazil – realized they can narrow their information space. They don’t have to have their servers in Southern California. They don’t have to have American guidelines governing content. They can supervise it themselves.

This map here is from Freedom House, and this is a larger map about what we’re seeing in the world in terms of countries that are becoming more democratic vs. becoming less democratic. In this annual survey they do, for the last eight years, the number of countries that are becoming more democratic has decreased, and the number of countries that are not democratic, that are autocratic, are increasing. That’s been going on in the last eight years, and the seeds for that were laid after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Let’s go to the next slide. This is also the same context. It shows you the difference in terms of countries with more freedom decreasing, and countries with less freedom increasing.

Let’s go to the next slide. This is part of that. One of the things we’re seeing and we’re beginning to grapple with is the massive corruption that exists all over the world that intercedes with democracy, that intercedes and gets in the way of people being able to fulfill their destiny, for people being able to achieve what they want. Part of the American values we’re talking about in public diplomacy is allowing people to achieve their own destiny and for there to be a legal and meritocratic even scale. So that there’s a meritocracy, so if you work hard, if you do well, you can achieve. In all of these countries where the perception of corruption and the reality of corruption are growing, that level playing field doesn’t exist.

So, what can we do about this? One of the things that – and I’ll get to Citizen Kane in a second – one of the things that I saw when I came into the job was something that I thought I knew about before from the media environment, but was nevertheless somewhat of a surprise to me. About a month after I started was the Russian annexation of Crimea. One of the things that we saw there, apart from that kinetic battleground, is that we saw the Russians in the social media space laying a predicate for their battlefield in Crimea. The Russians started investing in social media I don’t know how many years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago. They have thousands of bloggers. They have thousands and thousands of bots.

What I started hearing from American ambassadors in the region and the Russian periphery and the Baltics and the near abroad was, “I have anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of my population, they speak Latvian and Russian. They speak Polish and Russian. And they are, in this contracting media space, they are the swing voters in this new space that the Russians are talking to and we are not talking to. We stopped talking to them after the Wall came down.

So what the Russians were very smart about, they created these channels all throughout Eastern and Central Europe. They’re a combination of entertainment programming, sports programming, and news programming. And their news is not anything like the news that we get. It is propagandistic. It makes assertions of things that are absolutely wrong, that are lies, and this is what all of those people in the area around Russia were getting. Not to mention the people in Russia. I saw an amazing statistic the other day, which is that 90 percent of Russians get 100 percent of their information from state-controlled media. There is no free press there. There is no objective media.

This is the information battlefield we were confronting before what we saw happen in Crimea. I went to Ukraine about a month after that happened, and I was having lunch with the Latvian defense minister, and I said, “This is something new, right? This kind of laying an information predicate before the battlefield, we’ve never seen anything like that before.” And he said, “Yes. Sun Tzu talked about it 3,000 years ago in The Art of War. And basically every theorist of war has talked about an information battlefield that precedes and actual kinetic battlefield. That’s what we saw.

I’ll tell you where else we’ve seen that – we’ve seen that with ISIL. The smartest people about ISIL are people who knew something was coming because they saw what ISIL was doing on social media. One of the things that’s under R, which is public diplomacy and public affairs, is CSCC, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. It was created under Secretary Clinton out of this need that al Qaeda was on social media, was trying to recruit young men on social media. There was no answer from the U.S. government at all. We were not out there contesting the space, as CSCC’s motto is.

So they’re in social media in five different languages, and in the last few months they’ve started tweeting in English as well. But we saw the same thing with ISIL. ISIL was recruiting young men. They were communicating with people in the areas, the so-called “caliphate” they wanted to create, all before they were actually in the actual kinetic battlefield. They’re very sophisticated.

I don’t know if some of you have seen this, for example, one of the things we saw in CSCC dealing with al Qaeda, messages that worked were things like, “You’re killing more Muslims that anybody else. You’re wantonly violent.” Those are the exact messages that ISIL is putting out. That’s their positive reinforcing message. It’s hard to combat that because basically any right-thinking person would reject that message, but they’re not looking for right-thinking people. They’re looking for young men who actually do want to decapitate people, young men who do want to embrace violence. We need to compete in that space.

So the theme of the talk, which I’m finally getting to, now, is the hardening of our soft power. Soft power is often a definition for public diplomacy. But one of the things that I’m realizing, that people are realizing, is that it can’t just work in a soft environment. I’m going to talk about exchanges in a second. But in this information environment, where you’re up against Russian propaganda, where you’re up against this incredibly nasty and vile ISIL propaganda, you have to contest the space. You can’t let lies go unanswered. One of my great heroes was Pat Moynihan, and Pat Moynihan used to have a great saying, which was, “You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.” Here in this incredible blooming, exponentially more complex media environment, more and more people feel like, “I’m entitled to my own facts.” It’s never been easier to actually put out a false narrative, to put out a lie, to put out a misstatement and find believers.

That is the beauty and the genius and the flaw of social media. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato said that rhetoric was neutral. It can be used in favor of things that are good; it can be used in favor of things that are bad. That’s the same thing with social media. As much as it helps us talk to people around the world, to have conversations with people, it also helps ISIL talk to people. It also helps al Qaeda talk to people. It also helps the Russian bloggers talk to people. It’s neither good nor bad, but it hastens and improves the ability of people to do good and to do ill.

So let’s talk about soft power a little bit and the beauty of educational and cultural exchanges. I know that’s something that you talk a lot about in the program. In my travels around the world I meet with international exchange students, Fulbright Scholars, Americans who have gone abroad or international students who have come here. It’s the most wonderful part of every trip that I’m on.

Last week we had all of the public affairs officers from around the world come to the State Department for the first time in four years to talk about a lot of these changes in technology, how to contest the space, how to be more aggressive as the Secretary urged people to be. One of the people who spoke to our folks was Hisham Melhem, who is the al-Arabiya bureau chief in Washington. And he told one of the loveliest public diplomacy stories I’ve ever heard. He grew up in Beirut. He said when he was 16 years old he got a flyer from the U.S. embassy for an outdoor showing of Citizen Kane. And he went to it. And it changed his life. He eventually moved to America and fell in love with blues music; he knows more about it than anybody I know. All because we showed him Citizen Kane in Beirut in 1965. That’s fantastic, right?

Cut to 2014. There are now, a very rough estimate, a billion and a half people on the planet who, five minutes from now, could watch Citizen Kane right here on their phone. So what does public diplomacy mean, what do exchanges mean in a world where in 1965 you had to transport canisters of film across an ocean, set up a screen to show people Citizen Kane to change their lives, and now they can watch Citizen Kane on their own phone? I don’t have the answer to that.

But that is the challenge of public diplomacy now in 2014. What are the new ways we can bring age-old experiences, the golden experience of face-to-face communications, but using new technology? Again, because technology is neutral, it’s a force-multiplier for good or for ill. One of the things we’ve seen in educational exchanges is the rise and power of MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses. You can reach so many more people with a combination of that kind of technology with face-to-face tutoring as well. That, to me, is the kind of new model, and I would urge you to think about that, and I would urge you to invent that new model for the 21st century, because you will be, and are, the practitioners of that.