Remarks at the American Security Project

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Washington, DC
September 16, 2014

Matthew, thank you. I’m delighted to be here. General, thank you. I don’t see where you went. I see a lot of familiar faces here. And since my boss was so integral in starting the organization I had to come here. He seemed pleased when I told him I would be speaking here.

I’ve been in the job a little over six months, and as you can tell I’ve solved most of the world’s problems in that time. (Laughter) There isn’t too much to talk about. As Matthew mentioned, I was editor of Time for seven years, and although I’m new to public diplomacy, I’m not new to the values and ideas of public diplomacy. My mantra when I was at Time was that our job was to explain America to the world and the world to America. That’s not such a terrible definition of public diplomacy. In fact, Time was kind of the organ of American Exceptionalism and I wanted to keep that current. I didn’t want to be the final editor of Time to say that it wasn’t the American century anymore, as Henry Luce had said, in Life, not Time.

The things that I was reckoning with as editor of Time are many of the same issues that I feel I’m reckoning with at the State Department, which is partially the radical changing of the media landscape. It’s nothing like we’ve ever seen unless you compare Guttenberg’s invention of moveable type. It’s exponentially more complicated.

And one of the great insights into the ways media was changing is an essay that was written in 1997 by Eric Raymond about Linux, the firs crowd-sourced operating system. It’s called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar. And the idea was that old media, old communication was a cathedral – vertically-integrated, top-down, elites talking to masses; and the new media ecosphere was a bazaar – horizontal, people negotiating with each other, people talking with each other. I still think it’s a great and fantastic metaphor for what we’re seeing.

It’s a great metaphor for what public diplomacy is, because I think the technological changes are suitable to make public diplomacy even more important in the 21st century than it was before. Because public diplomacy is a conversation. It’s people talking to people, it’s not governments talking to people, it’s sometimes people talking to governments. And all of this new technology, particularly social media, enables this conversation to happen in a way that it never was able to happen before.

One of the tasks that I’m looking at is that I want us to be in that conversation. Every day all around the world there is a gigantic global conversation going on, and we need to be in it. Our old way of communicating – the cathedral way of communicating was, “Here’s our message. Let’s go home at five o’clock.”

And now people can talk back to us and we need to figure out what we say when they speak back to us. It needs to be a conversation. And one of the things that I tell my folks is in that conversation, our job isn’t to make people like us or to persuade people that we’re right. It’s to tell people what our policies are, to explain why we have come up with these policies, and then engage in a conversation. Again, we’ve all experienced the fact that we can’t always persuade people that we’re right about things and we’re not always right about things. But we should be the nation who listens and the nation who is involved in this two-way conversation with people all around the world. Technology makes that possible. To me that’s a sign of strength. Engagement is a sign of strength, and that’s what we should be doing and that’s what we’re trying to do.

I’m not a political philosopher or a political scientist, but I do read all of those folks. And there are implications for the way the world is changing for public diplomacy, and I think it’s changing in a pretty dramatic way. If you go back to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of course there was the Francis Fukuyama book The End of History, which a lot of people subscribed to. It was this idea that, basically the ideological battle had been won. Everybody would henceforth be living in democratic, capitalist systems and there was no ideological tug anymore.

Well, I think we can all agree that turned out to be wrong. We’re seeing a reemergence of history, the reemergence of blood and borders. We’re talking about what’s happening in Ukraine; we’re talking about what’s happening in the Middle East; we’re talking about what’s happening in Southeast Asia. Not that folks took their eye off the ball, and not that many political scientists thought that was a false narrative anyway, but we’re certainly seeing the emergence of a much more difficult environment. If you look at all the statistics about the rise of freedom and the opening of governments around the world, we’ve been in retreat. Freedom House statistics – for the last eight years there’s been a decrease in the number of countries that are considered democratic. There’s been a rise of autocracies. There’s been a rise of what my friend and former colleague Fareed Zakaria calls illiberal democracies, and we need to reckon with that.

What we’re also seeing is something that is disconcerting and that we’re trying to campaign against is the limiting of the information space. I think we were a little bit naïve about the Internet. In this post-Snowden world, this idea that the Internet is universal, is available to everybody is not correct. What we’re seeing in these autocracies, in these illiberal democracies, is a closing off of the information space. People realize, “You know what, we don’t have to have our servers in California or America or Europe. We can have our own servers. We can limit that amount that people can participate. There are tools and mechanisms, whereby we can monitor what people are doing. There’s a closing off of the information space and of the range of freedom of information and freedom of speech that we’re seeing. That’s not something we thought about very much when the Berlin Wall was falling, but that’s something that we’re seeing now all over the place and it has great implications for public diplomacy.

To talk about specific examples of it, and I’ll start with the Russian space. I was in the media space for almost all of my career, and when I came into the State Department, I was surprised and displeased at how powerful the Russian messaging machine was, how powerful the Russian propaganda machine was. And we’re not even just talking about the Russian audience in Russia, which may be beyond the pale (actually, that expression comes from Russia), but the near abroad – all of those countries: the Baltics, Lithuania, Poland, etc., that have a high percentage of dual language speakers, of Russian speakers and speakers of the local language. They have been receiving, pretty much since the end of the Cold War, Russian news, Russian broadcasting. And what they get – that mixture of entertainment programming, sports programming, and news – that news is nothing like what we think of as objective news. And that’s been a concern.

When I came into the job I started hearing from our ambassadors in those countries, “We need to speak out. We need to do stuff there.” And we have started a Russian language messaging service, VOA (I see David Ensor here) working in that space as well. And I’ve tried to gear that up because it is a challenge. It’s a competition, and we’re competing for the kind of swing voters in that world who look to the East and look to the West. What is the battle of Ukraine about? It’s about Ukraine wants to be more westward-facing. It’s not like they don’t want to have any relations with Russia anymore. They were part of Russia for 1,000 years. They will always have a relationship with Russia, but they want to pivot more to the West, and we want to help them.

As Matthew mentioned I just came back from the Middle East. I was with the Secretary during the first part of his trip in Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. And again what we’ve seen with the rise of ISIL, even apart from the horrible, savage beheadings and type of warfare that they wage, what we’ve also seen is that they’re very adept at the information warfare, at digital warfare, where they are laying a kind of predicate for what they do in the battlefield in the digital space. They’re very sophisticated. That’s something that we have learned, and it’s something that we’re combating. One of the bureaus underneath me is CSCC, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which combats in real time al Qaeda messaging and ISIL messaging on social media in five languages, and in fact six weeks ago we added English. That has actually gotten a lot more focus on what CSCC does. It’s very effective; it’s very potent; but we still need to do much, much more.

In terms of this public diplomacy space, one of the things I’ve started talking about is that, as we all know, public diplomacy is soft power. We need to do more to harden our soft power. That’s not to say that so many of the parts of public diplomacy don’t matter. Educational exchanges are the gold standard of people-to-people diplomacy. They have long-term benefits that are incalculable. But in the short term, there needs to be a hardening of that soft power landscape. We need to be competing in different spaces with our messaging, with programs that we do, with reaching audiences that are sometimes receptive to points of view and attitudes that we’re not crazy about.

I do feel that the Secretary has been the point of the spear with that. As we all know, the opinion polls, the terrific Pew poll that we talked about a number of months ago, a number of Americans felt we should be more disengaged with foreign policy, that foreign policy wasn’t creating the kind of dividends that necessarily were worth its investment. That, I think, is a false narrative. It’s a narrative that the Secretary wants to combat, and by the way I think single handedly does combat. He’s more engaged on more fronts than anybody in the world. I think we are as well as a government and as a State Department, as the White House. I think particularly with the response now to ISIL, which is beginning to change some of that opinion. People realize, “Boy, we are out there and we are making a difference.”

It’s not as though we can solve every problem, and everybody here knows that. But there are some problems only America can solve. That’s why we do need to be out there. I know I’m preaching to the converted with that.

So I’m happy to be here, and happy to answer any of the questions you may have.