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How Not To Win Hearts And Minds

By Ilan BermanDecember 15th, 2008

I visited Moscow for the first time in the winter of 2002. After a day of back-to-back policy meetings, I stepped out on the town with a colleague. Our plan was to see the sights, and we headed for Red Square. On the way there, we strolled by a babushka peddling alcohol on the street, beverages displayed in front of her on a dingy blanket. Her hawker’s calls caught my attention, and I remember thinking, hearing her offer sips of beer for sale, that the Russians hadn’t quite gotten the whole capitalism thing quite right.

I was reminded of that episode last week, upon reading the latest offering from DipNote, the State Department’s online blog, about how Foggy Bottom is getting into the online instantaneous communication tool known as Twitter. The leading proponent of this new technology is Colleen Graffy, currently the Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy. On her online page, Colleen posts “tweets” about everything from the bureaucratic to the banal - including, but not limited to, her administrative meetings with U.S. diplomatic personnel abroad and her failure to bring a bathing suit with her on her recent official visit to Iceland.

One is left with the impression that, just like with that Russian babushka in Moscow, something appears to have been lost in translation. After all, public diplomacy and strategic communication are not about total transparency, although that can help gain the trust of foreign audiences. Rather, they are intended to communicate ideas and values to the outside world. When America speaks, the words need to inspire and empower.

That is the enduring lesson of the Cold War, during which Washington’s tools of strategic outreach brought hope to captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain, and over time helped bring down the Soviet Union. Color me skeptical, but I somehow doubt that email blasts about a U.S. diplomat’s frenetic travel schedule will accomplish the same goal against our adversaries today.

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