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Secretary Clinton, Social Media and the State Department 2.0

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During her landmark trip to Pakistan in 2009, Secretary of State Clinton participated in a nationally televised town hall-style meeting, entitled "Our Voices," with a group of Pakistani women. Clinton fielded tough audience questions on everything from women's rights issues to drone attacks in an environment relatively free from handlers and State Department press officers. At the time, her willingness to engage with Pakistanis in such a public and popular forum led some to question whether Clinton had ever really left campaign mode. A US Secretary of State doing town hall meetings with upset citizens in front of the cameras in Pakistan? Is this the Iowa Primary Part 2?

By bringing her Presidential campaign skills and style to the international diplomatic stage, Secretary Clinton has begun to undertake the next fundamental shift in the way the US does diplomacy in the networked age. 21st Century diplomacy will no longer be defined simply by communication at the highest levels, but by the ability of America to relay its messages en masse to increasingly connected people all across the globe.

From its very inception, diplomacy between nations has been almost entirely about communication between leaders and elites. This makes sense of course in a world in which most individuals have neither the power to affect national decisions, nor the means of receiving or understanding messages from foreign actors. Today, however, globalization, the Internet, cell phones and increased media diversity have, in a relatively short time, exponentially enhanced the ability of large numbers of people to both act and listen. Today, public opinion matters more so than ever before. Governments have only so much control over the information their people absorb and thus even less control over what they think and how they chose to act.

Pakistan, in which a recent Pew survey suggests fewer than 10 percent of people view the United States favorably, underscores the growing, communication driven equilibrium between government power and popular power in the developing world. US agreements with the Pakistani government are continually hamstrung by the reality that Islamabad politically cannot afford to be seen to be cooperating too closely with Washington. Along these lines, the positive effects of American aid are often buried by the populist anti-American rhetoric of the very people who benefit from US goodwill. Communication with the Pakistani people through their government is simply not an option.

When it comes to reaching the world's populations and not just its governments, American diplomats must act, in a sense, as global candidates for office, effectively using mass and social media to interact with foreign peoples at the grassroots level. Facebook, cell phones, Twitter and the diversification of traditional media like TV and radio open almost everyone on Earth to at least the possibility of hearing a well crafted message. The State Department currently maintains a web presence meant to inform about travel restrictions and visa laws, when it could be structuring targeted media strategies aimed at winning hearts and minds. US diplomats all the way to the Secretary level should be the most "accessible," PR oriented professionals on Earth.

All this focus on media isn't to say that treaties or UN agreements no longer matter. The world is still shaped largely by international decisions at the highest levels and traditional diplomacy, and America's foreign policy woes won't be solved by clever media strategy alone. International crises, drone strikes and trade disputes are realities that exist in a world outside Twitter. What is clear however, is that without an innovative, inclusive and media driven approach to American diplomacy through messaging, we have little hope of truly reaching the world's crucial populations. Facebook can't move nations, but it can certainly make it easier. Wars of ideology require weapons based in communication and, in the long run, will be won by dialogue begun online and in Secretary Clinton's town halls, not by force alone.

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