In David Bollier’s 2003 report on the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Information Technology, he summarizes the conversation coining the term “Netpolitik.” Netpolitik is diplomacy that uses the internet to shape politics using soft power approaches; appeals to story, values, cultural identity, and perception. He breaks his report into three themes: how electronic networks are changing the architecture of power and culture, the internet and the rise of soft power, and international politics as an arena of competing stories. He also touches upon the roles of credibility and legitimacy in soft power – in fact, soft power is derived from credibility and legitimacy within the audience. Let us take Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power as “the ability to get desired outcomes because others want what you want. It is the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion. It works by convincing others to follow or getting them to agree to norms and institutions that produce the desired behavior.”
Towards the end of the article, Bollier introduces a section titled “Toward a New Global Story,” discussing the inclusion and exclusion of nations to the internet, and how internet users are using a language – earlier proven to be separate from governments in the slower process that governments must come to official policy – to create new stories, and aggregate to a new possible ‘global story.’ He goes on to highlight, as had been underscored by participants throughout the session, that the stories told are not always the stories heard, and that even stories passed down from ancient Greece are interpreted differently across nations to emphasize local values – and that these values are often quite different from each other. This demonstrates that understanding the audience, even the audience of one’s own citizenry, is a central role in making oneself understood. What is different about that? Nothing really, it is what communicators get into the business, and why governments and organizations pay communicators, to understand nuance. To reach a goal of soft power amongst neighbors, and even at home, an organization must have credibility and legitimacy, credibility that only those neighbors and citizens can bestow. After reading this article I think that a new approach in Public Diplomacy of listening to audiences could build that valuable credibility. Listening and understanding what the interlocutor is trying to say about themselves, understanding and appreciating their values and interests such that they know they have been properly understood creates relationship and intimacy. Richard Shell in his book “The Art of Woo” writes that credibility is bestowed by others according to the relationship between two actors, and a combination of authority on a subject, competence, expertise, trustworthiness, and character. Respecting relationships by listening to stories builds credibility over time, and credibility leads to soft power. Power wielded wisely leads to legitimacy.
The internet does not create anything new so much as it acts as an instantaneous conduit and force multiplier for stories and events, it doesn’t create the movement, it becomes a tool of the movement. The question is, how can U.S. Public Diplomacy use that tool effectively to prove the State as credible? How can it foster belief in our values among the many disparate actors on the international scene? I posit that in a market over-saturated with talking, listening may be a more powerful tool than telling.
The Second reading by Bollier, “People / Networks / Power” echos the sentiment of listening as a way forward to credibility, especially in a network context. In the ensuing section on the rise of NGOs as “the second superpower,” I think this phenomenon, like the CNN phenomenon offers their own unique opportunities and context in the power network of international politics for states and their issues. Some U.S.-based NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and those that deal in governance and democracy have very close and effective ties with states, but in some cases this can hurt its credibility. The new Government of Egypt recently found NDI workers there during the 2011 revolution guilty of espionage. CNN, too, takes hits on credibility in its close relationship with the USG, both domestically and abroad. I believe this is probably caused by the USG’s model of ‘cooperation’ typified by top-down leadership and direction, rather than a more lateral interdependence seen in networks. How states can learn to work with outside organizations, without more subtly pulling strings of power where separation of powers should be respected is something that must be discovered and practiced with vigilance. No state should wield the power of a Castellian “switcher,” though they must find a way to meaningfully join the new conversations being had or suffer losses at the hands of the new social powers on the rise.