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A Surfeit of America: Engaging the World in a Time of Excess

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Surfeit (noun)

1. excess; an excessive amount.
2. excess or overindulgence in eating or drinking.
3. an uncomfortably full or crapulous feeling due to excessive eating or drinking.
4. general disgust caused by excess or satiety.

We live in the proverbial Information Age, but a more accurate assessment might be the Age of Excess. The United States is particularly vulnerable to a surfeit of information, according to a new State Department blueprint for public diplomacy in the 21st century.

There are probably few places left on the planet where people shrug their shoulders and have no opinion when asked what they think about America's role and image in the world. The US is everywhere, be it militarily, culturally through movies, news media, television and advertising, and most influentially of all, through its iconic figures from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama to Madonna and Brangelina. Even American Idol's Adam Lambert is globe trotting these days, not just to promote his music, but also to promote the image of the out and proud gay man in America. He tweeted to his 371,882 Twitter followers that he was fine after an earthquake rattled downtown skyscrapers in Tokyo on Sunday.

So what can the State Department possibly do to expand its public diplomacy influence in the world? Judith McHale, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (needs a shorthand title for sure) points to a focus on women and children for engagement and exchange. Nearly half (45%) of our global population is under 25; women, who make up half of the world, continue to lag behind in economic empowerment and property holdings. The philosophy holds that if the US can do more to engage women and youth through literacy and education programs, then these major demographic groups will become empowered enough to challenge authoritarian and extremist rule. The approach here is Grameen Bank meets Facebook.

It's one thing to recognize the world we face with all its excess information and misinformation. It's quite another to close the gap between truth and lies. You can give a person a Flip video camera with all the best intentions to tell a story, and watch that same person post images that advance the cause of your enemy. Communications technology, like propaganda, which most of the Internet is rife with, is just a tool for change. You can pick up a hammer and build a Habitat for Humanity home and use that same hammer to hit someone in the back of the head. We can't just focus on all the bells and whistles of technology today without understanding personal motives and intentions.

The best public diplomacy for the United States will have less to do with how we craft our own stories from inside the Beltway of Washington and more about how we assist others in shaping theirs. We need to play off our strengths in mass media persuasion by partnering with US companies in the private sector that are concerned about how this excess of misinformation affects their bottom line. We also need to seriously pursue the establishment of a Ministry of Culture or at least do more collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. It's very difficult for the State Department to take the lead in telling America's story to the global masses when it is also responsible for official diplomatic negotiation and security. We have so many war memorials in the United States and a Department of Defense to coordinate our national security. The Chinese now have over 45 Confucius Institutes on American university campuses. Why no U.S. agency to coordinate cultural ties with our global partners like the Japan Foundation, British Council, or Goethe Institute, or Alliance Francaise?