“How could a mass murderer who publicly praised the terrorists of Sept. 11 be winning the hearts and minds of anyone? How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?” — Richard Holbrooke, Former US Ambassador to the UN, Get the Message Out, The Washington Post, October 2001
We’re a nation at war. At war not with another nation, but with a hateful ideology violently expressed: terrorism. Every militaristic move a terrorist makes is designed to intimidate, frustrate, agitate….in short, communicate. Physical destruction and loss of life, crass as it sounds, are means to those ends. In this sense, the war of ideas is no longer a metaphor or a figure of speech — it’s a literal war in which we now find ourselves. And in a war of ideas, public diplomacy will be an important tool in our national security toolkit.
If you’re just joining us — and haven’t yet had a chance to read Part 1 of this post — public diplomacy is the practice of influencing public opinion abroad in order to achieve America’s foreign policy goals. It’s primarily the responsibility of the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. As former Under Secretary of State Jim Glassman explained in the comment section of my last post, it’s all about “understanding, informing, engaging and influencing foreign publics.” It’s alternately characterized as a “war” of ideas or a “global marketplace” of ideas.
As the modern technology becomes more commonplace, America’s enemies will inevitably develop increasingly destructive armaments. And with the rapid proliferaiton of Internet technology, some in the national security community are turning their attention to the possibility of large scale online attacks — “cyber-terrorism” — and how public diplomacy may be one way to prevent them.
Public Diplomacy for National Security
There’s long been consensus that public opinion is vital to domestic policymakers. President Lincoln said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Later, at the dawn of the information age, President Eisenhower would apply this maxim to foreign policy as he spoke of “the spreading of ideas through every medium of communication” as a part of “real psychological warfare.” Today, we hear echoes of this rhetoric when foreign policymakers talk of the “global information battle-space.”
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Matt Armstrong, who authors a prolific blog, Mountain Runner, on the topic of public diplomacy, urges us to “reestablish public diplomacy as the tool of national security it must be.” Citing Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “media is the oxygen of the terrorist,” he writes:
Being able to communicate ideas and counter misinformation and distortion has always been essential to peace, stability, and national security in general.
Recognizing that many of the most influential international actors — friend and foe alike (e.g., foundations, NGOs and terrorist organizations) — are not bound by national borders, Armstrong proposes a Department of Non-State, more similar to the now-extinct U.S. Information Agency than the current State Department, which would commandeer public diplomacy responsibilities to deal with non-state entities. Regardless of whether this specific recommendation is feasible, the suggestion to “think outside the border” seems sensible enough given these 21st century realities.
A report out this week from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee titled, U.S. Public Diplomacy — Time to Get Back in the Game [PDF] shows that some elected officials are taking the dire state of public diplomacy seriously (despite its casual title):
It is no secret that support for the United States has dropped precipitously throughout the world in recent years. Many experts believe this is due not only to various U.S. foreign policy developments but also to the method by which we conduct our Public Diplomacy…This lack of focus was also partly due to the belief that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had won the “War of Ideas” — a belief that 9/11 quickly shattered.
The “war of ideas” is — and will continue to be — an increasingly important front on the War on Terror. And much of this war of ideas will be played out on through new media such as the Internet.
Cyber-security and cyber-terrorism are recent constructs and the subject of significant debate. Back in 2001, before 9/11, “Security Czar” Richard Clarke dismissed the likelihood of “information warfare” being used by terrorists, but routinely emphasized our vulnerability:
You can take virtually any major sector of our economy — or, for that matter, the government — and do a vulnerability analysis and discover that it’s relatively easy to alter information, disrupt and confuse the system, and even shut the system down…shutting the system down has consequences — the electric power grid crashes, trains stop running, airplanes crash into each other.
While there have been a few examples of politically motivated hackers attacking certain government websites (a phenomenon known as “hacktivism”), there have as yet been no incidents of sabotage on the scale that Clarke described. Also relevant, the hacktivism that we have seen so far has not been perpetrated by known terrorist organizations.
As a result, some critics think the concept is overblown. Indeed, in his book Terror on the Internet, Gabriel Weimann is limited to investigating “how modern terrorist organizations exploit the Internet to raise funds, recruit, and propagandize, as well as to plan and launch attacks and to publicize their chilling results” since there are no examples of direct terrorist attacks via the web. That is, terrorists have turned the Internet into a battlefield in the war of ideas, but there’s little evidence that these organizations have, in a physical sense, weaponized the Internet.
In a special report published by the United States Institute of Peace, Weimann notes that fears of cyber-terrorism have been exaggerated, fueled largely by the fact that “two of the greatest fears of modern time are combined in the term…The fear of random, violent victimization blends well with the distrust and outright fear of computer technology.”
But, in this case, fear itself isn’t the only thing we have to fear. Weimann suggests that our military victories might actually have the effect of making “terrorists turn increasingly to unconventional weapons such as cyber-terrorism.”
So, if our military victories aren’t coupled with public diplomacy victories (i.e. winning over mutual respect and muting hatred), then our foes will be armed with not just the means, but the motivation to do America harm. Without effectual public diplomacy gains, the specter of cyber-terrorism will grow more vivid as a new digitally savvy generation of would-be terrorists comes of age. Frank Cilluffo, the director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, commented, “While Bin Laden may have his finger on the trigger, his grandchildren may have their fingers on the computer mouse.”
Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.