Hacking Public Diplomacy, or can we make space for Counter-Public Diplomacy?

A week or two ago I noticed a post on Twitter about ‘Public Diplomacy 2.0″ and in an instant I felt what Walter Benjamin once coined “the dialectic of awakening” as when he describes the experience of hashish (read Twitter, LOL):

“The most passionate examination of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance,” he wrote. “The reader, the thinker, the flaneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. … Not to mention that most terrible drug — ourselves — which we take in solitude.”

Benjamin was referring to the experience of post-WWI capitalism and the “loss of experience” that many endured as a result of the war. As we wade through the legacy of eight years of the Bush Administration’s foreign and economic policy failures I think many of us can relate. My experience of “ecstasy” (ok, not so ecstatic but it got me thinking about things I haven’t worked on for a long time so it sometimes feels like ecstasy), however, was the realization of the absurdity and oxymoronic nature of this expression, “Public Diplomacy 2.0”. The flash of clarity stemming from the juxtaposition of web 2.0 and diplomacy has me thinking about the opportunities the present holds.

In public diplomacy 2.0 the staid, disciplined, foreign service idea of diplomacy based on an 18th-19th century discourse on sovereignty combined with public relations marketing and a concern for brands is mashed up with the more open, bottom-up, participatory (at least in rhetoric and we know much of this rhetoric is fueled by hubris and Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism but there is still a big element of ‘truth’ here) and inclusive architecture of the so-called web 2.0 technologies. It is time for a critique, but one with the goal of creating new opportunities rather than a critical trashing of the DC foreign policy crowd (and many are my former classmates and friends, BTW). And of course, there are critiques internal to the public diplomacy as well. But I’m thankful for the juxtaposition of these elements because the absurdity of it all got me thinking, and thanks to Twitter I’ve been having some tweets back and forth with Joshua Fouts (@josholalia). So thanks to the Public Diplomacy 2.0 and Josh for getting me thinking about this.

I’m a “refugee” from diplomacy and international affairs, having a graduate degree in International Relations and Economics and never really feeling at home with the official foreign policy crowd, yet I’ve spent most of my professional career engaged in human rights, global health, international development, South Asian, African and Middle Eastern politics and feel quite qualified to engage in “public diplomacy” sans official papers. And this is what excites me.

Now, to hacking public diplomacy (here I’m referring to the original meaning of hacking that was used by computer scientists in the 1950s when they approved of a playful and ingenious response to a technical problem and later extended to the desire to create, small, bottom-up approaches to computer systems). Both these terms “public” and “diplomacy” need unpacking. Their genealogies shouldn’t just be taken for granted. Why is there a need for “public diplomacy”. Have the gods of the diplomacy corps suddenly allowed someone else into their ranks? I don’t think so, at least not yet. What is a “public”? Does the American “public” exist or is it formed through public opinion polls and the like? This imagined community of Americans is increasingly created through a myriad of public opinion polls and tools that can be useful, provided they fit the brand image (eg. if a large percentage of the country doesn’t trust Muslims or is completely ignorant of the Arab/Muslim influence in not only US culture or the making of the ‘West’ we can conveniently discard this fact). Is an American ‘public’ the same as an Egyptian ‘public’? I ask these questions to illustrate how there is much more going on than appears in articulating “Public Diplomacy 2.0” and asking some questions might open up space for other types of discussions, other forms of experience and innovations in how international affairs get mediated. Turning these terms inside-out would be a highly useful project for an Un-diplomacy (inside-out in terms of within/out the US). The term mediation is important. Mediation is how social worlds are created and they’re increasingly created via the internet. Robin Brown observes that “diplomacy is simply concerned with the management of the consequences of the mediation of networks of communication” and that diplomatic relations are experienced as a set of pictures that exist in the media. That is the public is the consumer of a product constructed by the media and diplomats or public diplomats. And this notion of the consumer rather than the citizen is what is most disturbing about these efforts to “brand” political life and experience. Anyone who thinks that “brands” can make a difference and/or should be brought into the space of diplomacy when we’re dealing with an international political context riven with war, genocide, economic failures and over 80% of the world’s population living at or near the poverty line, well, I think people espousing these views need to get out more. Take a vacation to Goma or Kivu.

Making space for publics and counter-publics. Michael Warner has written a sort of geneaology of publics and counter-publics and an overview of the distinctions between public and private. Of course, feminist theory has long challenged the distinction between the to and the arbitrariness that often puts the burden of care on women and so forth. Some subjects are subordinated to others and the ways in which we think about justice, equity, the role of the state have a lot to do with how societies decide what is public and what is private. So, who can be a diplomat? Who speaks for the state? Who doesn’t get to speak in the space of international relations? Which ‘public’ is being spoken for? I think we know the answer. More importantly, how do these constructs constrain our EXPERIENCE of international relations and how might we think otherwise to make a more robust experience of diplomacy undisciplined and constrained by the sovereign powers that be. The last eight years and the violence done in “our names” has also given rise to counter-publics whose slogan is “Not in our name”. And there were many who thought that Karen Hughes toting a plane full of Madison Avenue marketers could be taken seriously…..

These counter-publics are a part of all societies. Youth cultures, metaverses, hacker ethics, queers, etc. all are ways that individuals and so-called subaltern communities can rethink personhood, citizenship and futures. Ziauddin Sardar’s work on Islam, postcolonialism and alternative futures that seeks to decolonize futures from the standard set of methodologies, pundits and epistemologies of the “Futurists” is relevant here. A desire to open up alternative futures–that is what we can do through hacking public diplomacy. Sardar would like to see a more pluralistic set of futures tied to more ethical or moral consequences for those at “the base of the pyramid” and on the receiving end of elite futures/scenario-making. There are many who want to reject the impact that futures work has had on societies given the failures of the quants on Wall Street, but don’t be mistaken. Governments, corporations and large NGOs use futurists to make policies that have very clear effects. The futures field and public diplomacy are caught in a similar bind at times but this opens up opportunities to rethink the field, through an ethos of pluralization. A public un-diplomacy could make a clearing for other voices where radically different discussions could happen. And this is already happening in the Middle East. We don’t need the PR people. Look at the work of Mark Levine on “Heavy Metal Islam or Shahzad Aziz’s In the Land of the Ayatollahs Tupac Shakur is King.

Hacking Public Diplomacy or, to borrow Josh’s term, Un-Diplomacy, might work to democratize diplomacy as well as open space for discussions of how we can democratize democracy when talking about democracy in the Middle East. Rather than using “web 2.0” to empower “public diplomats” and potentially disempower “counter-public diplomats” let’s think about how “web 2.0” can enlarge the circle of debate and take that sometimes-empty-signifier “democracy” and move it in more democratic ways as an unfinished project that the ‘West’ does not define but not relativize it into window dressing for despots. Larbi Sadiki provides many important insights for how we might innovate in a democratic discourse among Arabs and others. An Un-diplomacy would strive to make spaces for those “in-between” the subjectivities of the nation-state clamouring for new experiences and new ways of thinking international relations that happens in the mundane sphere of the everyday. In essence, this is an ethical act as many critical scholars of scholarsInternational Relations have already written about. Time to translate this work into practice and social media, gaming, scenarios work, etc. are very important tools to get us there. I’ll end with a few quotes that I found interesting to reflect upon in this regard. The French political theorist Jacques Rancieres once said, “Democracy began when we said: “We the ones who are excluded, we are the all, we are the people, we stand for universality””. In other words, for our purposes, how democratic is the public in public diplomacy? And remember Michel Foucault in 1981, I believe, standing in solidarity with the ICRC in the cause for the “boat people”:
“Who has commissioned us? No one. There is an international citizenry that has its rights, has its duties, and promises to rise up against every abuse of power, no matter who the author or victims. After all, we are all governed and, to that extent, in solidarity…The will of individuals has to inscribe itself in a reality over which governments have wanted to reserve a monopoly for themselves–a monopoly that we have to uproot little by little every day.” (Thanks to Tom Keenan for writing about this quote here. I actually think asking some critical questions could enable something radically more interesting and exciting than what I’ve seen so far in the “Public Diplomacy 2.0” discussion so far. The work of Joshua and his colleague Rita King (here and here) is particularly interesting and I’m sure there are many more we could draw upon in pluralizing the diplomatic discourse