Diplomacy versus public diplomacy, or pragmatism versus sincerity

Almost 20 years ago to this day, the Berlin Wall fell and with it, half a century of Cold War came to an end.  Soon, the leaders of the two poles of the Cold War, George Bush senior and Mikhail Gorbachev, were to meet aboard a ship, off the shores of the island of Malta, to state that 45 years of a brutal, global and ideological confrontation was over. And so nearly five decades of a global rift ended with a new horizon full of optimism, to a point where sociologists like Fukuyama, drawing on Hegel’s philosophy, announced “the end of history,” meaning the end of centuries of ideological wars and the convergence of all countries around representative democracy and the market economy.
Ten years later, and to last week as well, the sad events of September 11 erected a new wall of separation.  This wall divided the same West, but with a different kind of East this time; an East classified as Islam.  Another brutal global and ideological confrontation took shape, and one that we are still witnessing today.

Regardless of the geopolitical circumstances surrounding the period, it was widely acknowledged that the Berlin Wall fell, primarily, because the people of the Communist East wanted an “American Dream” of their own – or at least wanted some of its basic forms; I mean Hollywood, Levi’s and Coca Cola.  Another agent of change was also at work, and that was Public Diplomacy.

Communication proved mightier than war.

Can the same be achieved with the new wall created on September 11, 2001?

The American dream, though it may be exhausted by recessions of its own making, is still there, and so is Public Diplomacy.  Some important questions, however, seem to persist: Are these enough tools to end yet another major global rift?  Do they work with the Islamic version of the East?  And if they do, do we have to wait half a century to reach a happy ending?

Is the US a “sellable” brand to Islam, especially in the Middle East?

Ladies and gentlemen, let me start with the easy stuff, and don’t worry; I won’t get technical – or worry if you’re here only to get figures.

Does television have the required penetration to reach the people in question here?  Where do radio, print and outdoor fit in?  Most importantly, what about the internet and social media?  Which one works best, advertising or content?  Is professionally-produced content more important than that generated by the audience?  Can Western global media play a role, or do we leave it to territorial or even local media?

The answer is yes, and all of the above.

Because the fundamental principle of new media, or media as a whole today, is that all can reach one, and one can reach all.  What you write on a blog, or download on YouTube, in the privacy – or lack thereof - of your room can go anywhere, and come back to you, sometimes in multiples.  The same way that anything you produce in some mega global media network can reach you in that very room.

But how do we deal with censorship, which might prevent the message from reaching its destination?  The trick is somewhat easy. I am not saying it is simple; it does require hard work, but it is not rocket science.  The quality or relevance of your message is capable of surpassing the reach of censorship more often than we would like to believe.  What people should read or see will eventually get to them – one way or the other.

But with a complex media environment, audience variances, potential weaknesses of reach, as well as censorship, how widely can one reach and how effectively?  

The picture of reach is not as bleak as you might think.  Let us take the internet for instance:  Close to 20 percent of the nearly 330 million people in the Middle East and North Africa alone is now on the net.  That’s around 65 million.  The internet-penetration level of around 28 percent is slightly better than the world average of 25 percent or so, and it is growing.  Youth constitutes around 60 percent of these internet users.

And if you want to get fancy, over 6 million internet users, or about 10 percent of the total online population in the region, have access to broadband networks.  Over eight percent of active Facebook users come from the Middle East and North Africa.  While almost four in five young people in the region own a mobile phone, and one in four own a web-enabled one.  Etc. etc.

In my opinion, 65 million reachable people is not bad.

Research also indicates that the single most important priority for young people in the region is living in a democracy, followed by infrastructure and access to the best universities.  The idea of global citizenship is as important to almost seven in 10 young people too.

All this while, contrary to perceptions, most bloggers in the region are producing country- not nation- (i.e. Islamic Umma) related content, and are mostly secular reformists.  Islam-focused blogs constitute a minority; I would estimate 20 percent.

But the most important catch is that only one percent of all online content is in Arabic.  Thus, the medium is available, but content is not.

I am still talking reach here and relevance, but how about efficiency?

On the nature and aspirations of the target audience, one would expect me to start by saying that one must be aware of the complexity and diversity of the Islamic region and/or the Middle East, where one should pay careful attention to the nuances that lie between them.  In essence, agreed.  But is the audience split merely by region, creed or gender, or are there cross-territorial and gender-common denominators?

To make the point, let me go back to where I started, or to the difference between the Berlin Wall that fell and the September 11 wall that is still out there.  The nature of the global divide, I would like to argue, is one and the same.

To make an analogy, imagine that the Cold War was labeled Protestant or Catholic versus Orthodox, or believers versus atheists. Just like it shouldn’t be today about crusaders versus jihadists, it wasn’t.  It was about one way of life versus another.  It was about the rule of law versus despotism; it was about liberty versus oppression; it was about personal prosperity versus state monopoly.

Is the Islamic world an exception?  Some in Washington would like to argue that what matters most in the West might not matter at all in the East; that the foundations of Western society, i.e. the rule of law, prosperity, democracy – excuse me for I had to mention the “D word” – and the likes are not necessarily what Muslims want.

A few months ago, President Obama, in his famous and much appreciated Cairo address stated:  “I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.  Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Please underline “mutual.”

I tend to agree with President Obama.

You see, for many of us who actually live the situation rather than read or inquire about it, there exists a great divide, and it is not between Christians and Muslims.  The divide, believe or not, is still the same as the one symbolized by the Berlin Wall.  It is about a majority of moderates, Muslims or Christians, who are naturally pro liberty, equality and prosperity, versus a few who are attempting to use the Quran or Arabism as a substitute for the Communist Manifesto.

They are merely power mongers who are either in power and want to remain there, or those who are trying their luck.  Some will use Communism, others will use Arabism, and now Islamism.
Don’t be fooled, or let anyone fool you with “wars of civilizations” or, as much with the “Islamic exception.”  Every human being, Christian or otherwise, wants what we all here want.  The difference is merely in terminology.  If I cannot get what is rightfully mine through Adam Smith, I will try, for lack of better options, to get it through Nasser a few decades ago, or through Islamism nowadays.  

It is not about the rule of law versus Sharia; it is not about tolerance; it is about mutuality.  It is about “am I entitled to an ‘American dream’ of my own or not;” it is about “am I a world citizen on par with another, or am I the underdog”?

Sincerity, ladies and gentlemen, is the key issue, because, while in Diplomacy pragmatism is the main factor, in Public Diplomacy it is sincerity that matters most.  The former may serve a short-term purpose, but the latter will advance the long-term objective.

Were we, as the free world, sincere in our message to beyond the Iron Curtain?  If we were, let us then repeat the same sincerity with the new metaphysical curtain.
Here is a view from a place and a society where the two cultures – or civilizations if you wish – are next-door neighbors; where the “dialogue of cultures,” or their “war” for that matter, are conducted not from afar, not through experienced or experimental study and examination, and not through regular visits or in-depth exploration. They are conducted on a daily basis, and even hourly; they are your business meeting or lunch break, they are your night out with friends or the love affair with your high-school sweetheart.

In Beirut - and don’t mind some analysts’ cynicism or the media’s sensational interpretations – this is how life is conducted every day.  This is where the two cultures, and more, exist in parity in size or status - and in ambitions - and where people have to learn to live together rather than simply coexist side-by-side.  This is where a term like “respect” or “tolerance” is the least expected, and where “mutual” becomes the objective of the day and one of the essential means of progress.

As respected scholar and ex-public servant from Lebanon Ghassan Salamé once said, “With respect, you recognize the other’s otherness, but you keep him at a distance, you exclude him from your sphere, his otherness being a shield separating him from you and protecting you against him. With tolerance you not only recognize the other’s otherness, you also recognize your duty to maintain diversity in the midst of your sphere of life. But tolerance is also a source of frustration because, implicit in it, is a balance of power in which the stronger side tolerates the existence of the other as long as the other recognizes that he is only tolerated; that he basically is in an inferior position.”

While in mutuality, you and the other become more like one, sharing the same – or similar - worries and aspirations, albeit with the diversities of individuals or societies - as is the case between America and Japan, or as is the closeness between Europe and America.  Can we level with that remaining other, i.e. the Islamic East, and communicate with sincerity?  If we can, then all the previously-asked questions are achievable, and would not take five decades - there’s internet nowadays.

Mr. Salamé goes on to say:  “Arab politics has never divided Arabs as much as it does today, but Arab culture, propelled and popularized by the new media, has never integrated them so deeply.” 

Many Middle Easts are concurrently being built, and though it is hard to say which of those is going to ultimately have the upper hand, two conclusions can hardly be disputed.  The first is that you cannot build a new Middle East if you have no idea of the old one; and the second is that in order to reshape that part of the world, you need to do it with and for Middle Easterners, neither against them nor in their lieu and place.  Though quite banal, these two basic rules have been largely ignored by the West in the recent past, opening the way for non-Western powers to get a rapidly-growing foothold in the region and, more importantly, giving regional players in the Middle East the chance to try and reshape it by and for themselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us use all the available tools to the extent possible, and let us do it as soon as possible, but let us do it with sincerity.  Let us tell the true American story, and let us tell them that we are on a par as human beings, and that what we have is also rightfully theirs, and that we as Americans are here to help, not because we are a greater nation, but because “We the people of the United States Of America” can as well be “We the people of the Middle East.”

Let us stand firmly by the side of those who share our values – and not necessarily our opinion, in that we establish credibility, i.e. respect.  Let us also promote what we believe in to those who have not had the chance to see it the way we do, but let us do it with humility, in that we establish sincerity, i.e. affinity. Let us make the bulk of them see the bright side of possibilities for the future that lie in the same values we aspire to, in that there is mutuality, and in that there’s the ultimate bonding, and that is trust.

Establish trust and you establish hope, and by that all walls and curtains will fall.  Just like the Berlin Wall did.

Thank you.

The above speech was given at the Aspen Institute in Washington on September 15, 2010