Digital Diplomacy: The Internet, the Battle for Ideas & US Foreign Policy

By Hallams, Ellen | CEU Political Science Journal, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Digital Diplomacy: The Internet, the Battle for Ideas & US Foreign Policy


Hallams, Ellen, CEU Political Science Journal


How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?

--Richard Holbrooke (1)

We are in the midst of a war, and more than half of that struggle takes place on an information battlefield; we are in an information war for the hearts and minds of all Muslims.

--Ayman al-Zawahiri (2)

1. The Digital Age

On 11 September 2001 (9/11), millions around the world watched, stunned, as Al-Qaeda terrorists launched a spectacular attack on the United States, crashing airliners into high-profile targets in New York and Washington DC. The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York were played out in "real-time," captured live on major US news networks and instantaneously broadcast around the world, but they were largely organized and planned in cyberspace. Members of Al-Qaeda communicated through Yahoo e-mail and chat rooms prior to the attacks and conducted online research about the possible use of crop dusters. Images of the attacks, taken on hand-held recorders, digital cameras and mobile phones instantly found their way onto the Internet, spawning a virtual community dedicated to pondering and probing the causes and meaning of what had happened. Three years later, in April 2004, at the height of the Bush Administration's "War on Terror," photographs of US soldiers abusing detainees held at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison were disseminated via the Internet. Although similar incidents had already occurred at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, it was not until members of the US military attached photos taken inside Abu Ghraib to emails that such incidents became the centre of an international storm of protest. In June 2005, Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, unleashed an electronic jihad campaign, posting a 46-minute video entailed "All Religion will be for Allah" on the Internet, beginning regular Internet news broadcasts and posting images of beheadings online. Zarqawi's campaign helped fuel the insurgency in Iraq, further complicating US military efforts to defeat the insurgents. In June 2009, the US State Department contacted the social networking service Twitter and urged it to delay a planned upgrade that would have cut daytime service to Iranians. The request came in the midst of protests following the disputed Iranian elections, many of them coordinated via Twitter and Facebook in what was termed the "Twitter Revolution".

Such incidents highlight the extraordinary impact that the Internet is having on US foreign policy--and international relations more broadly, what Audrey Kurth Cronin has described as the 21st century's "levee en masse:"

   A mass networked mobilization that emerges from cyber-space with a
   direct impact on physical reality. Individually accessible,
   ordinary networked communications such as personal computers, DVDs,
   videotapes, and cell phones are altering the nature of human social
   interaction, thus also affecting the shape and outcome of domestic
   and international conflict. (3)

In a globalized international environment, ideas have become weapons and the Internet the principal means of delivery. As Western military forces have struggled to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda on the battlefield, a growing discourse has emerged on the important of non-kinetic means of fighting radical Islamic terrorism and failing states. Concepts of soft power, public diplomacy and information strategy are viewed as crucial tools for countering radicalism, particularly as states like the US and UK search for more nuanced ways to counter Al-Qaeda's global reach. Moreover, the election of Barack Obama has done much to revitalize soft power approaches to US foreign policy. The concept of soft power was coined by the Harvard academic Joseph Nye in 1990 (4) and further explored in his 2002 study The Paradox of American Power. Nye defined soft power as the ability to set the agenda in world politics by persuading others to want what you want, enticing and attracting them through the force of one's values, beliefs and ideas, rather than coercing them through the use of military or economic power. …

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