Power to the People: Rebooting Conventional Diplomacy

The story of how President Obama engineered a grass-roots campaign, mobilizing formerly disengaged U.S. citizens with new media and new technologies, has reached almost mythological proportions. Less well known however, is the story of similar grass-roots efforts -- aimed at countering violent extremism -- emerging in local communities around the world.

Unfortunately, these activists often operate in isolation, lacking the web of international or even regional networks that the extremists they oppose have come to rely on. Compounding the problem is the recent framing of our relationships with the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in terms of "who is the enemy" or "talking to the enemy." The administration may be overlooking our natural allies: not foreign governments, but their people.

For the past four years, the RAND Corporation has worked to locate, document, and then to offer assistance to these people. Contrary to what many Americans have been led to believe, since 9/11 ordinary people in conflict zones overseas have not stood frozen on the sidelines while their armies fought, radicals attacked, and politicians exchanged rhetoric. Throngs of young people in Afghanistan turning out for Afghan Idol, rebellious magazine editors in Bosnia, and even film producers in Syria have continued to greet us with "Friend! Where have you been?" rather than "You are the enemy, you must leave!"

The U.S. government doesn't need to give these people a message. They are already "on message." The job of U.S. diplomats and experts isn't to direct these people's efforts but to support them, so these activists can increasingly draw sustenance, inspiration, and most importantly expertise from each other.

Like our fellow citizens at home, people we meet across the world grasp the possibilities of new communications technologies. Officialdom has tried to follow, and so it should, within its limitations.

The State Department will never generate a website that Egyptian teenagers will find cool, or produce a radio station that Iranian students will find addictive. Indeed, few things are more unwittingly comical than a bureaucracy trying to be edgy. And why waste millions of dollars trying, when American teenagers can do the job much better on YouTube for free, when Iranian-American ham radio operators in California already have a huge fan base across their country of origin, or when Iraqi women can stage street theater about violence and reconciliation on their own?

America is a republic -- pioneering, egalitarian, and yes, sometimes naïve. But the country can't make friends by trying to become something it's not. The Islamic world doesn't expect Americans to be fluent in Arabic or discourse knowledgeably about the Koran. In our experience, people like Americans because they are open, generous, curious about the world and other cultures, enterprising and optimistic. It is no accident that the best examples of effective "U.S. diplomacy" we have witnessed in our travels are small initiatives pioneered by young soldiers or middle-aged travelers moved as human beings to reach out to those around them.

We recently attended an innovative forum in Los Angeles titled "Rethinking Counter-Terrorism," hosted by a young professionals' network. Among those who attended were young people from inner city high schools who brought their own understanding of conflict, sectarianism, armed gangs, and volatile neighborhoods. After the forum, they were joined by people of all ages who gathered in a circle well into the evening, discussing how they might best share their experiences and friendship with those gathered like them in some troubled corner of the world.

And therein lies the secret to establishing a new relationship with the Islamic world. Americans can connect with a society that is as diverse as theirs -- a society which, like theirs, is not primarily composed of government officials and policy wonks, but of poets, grandmothers and stamp collectors, aspiring singers and chess players, and video-sharing kids.

Identifying, promoting, and networking a transnational network of countervailing voices will require some of America's best diplomats: citizen diplomats, not from Foggy Bottom, but from the ranks of the American public. In a sense, Americans are all diplomats now. Given the size of the problems faced, that's a good thing; every single pair of hands is needed.

Cheryl Benard and Ed O'Connell are co-directors of the Alternative Strategies Initiative (ASI) at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. For more information on ASI they can be contacted at benard@rand.org and oconnell@rand.org.