05/10/2010 08:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kouchner's Lament: Misunderstanding the Net


French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a champion of tough-edged humanitarianism, too frequently falls into a linear, knee-jerk approach to global justice causes rather than embracing the complexity of most global problems. Nations are good or bad. We must take forceful action against some country or are otherwise appeasing them. And so on.

Kouchner does not live in nuances, unlike another lesser-known but vital part of France's foreign policy establishment, presidential national security adviser Jean-David Levitte or Levitte's successor as US Ambassador to France, Pierre Vimont. These latter two, and perhaps others in France's national security world, remind one of Brent Scowcroft or Zbigniew Brzezinski -- who are America's leading progressive realists today.

I mention Levitte and Vimont -- not to get them in trouble with the Foreign Minister -- but because they are constructive, geostrategic pragmatists with a sense of opportunity and costs that Kouchner seems to lack.

In a blunt Huffington Post essay today calling for broader international attention to and attempts at protection of cyber-dissidents and those challenging the authority of totalitarian regimes, Kouchner calls for the internet to be recognized internationally as a global commons that bad governments can be punished for violating the norms of freedom and liberty of global netizens.

I like Kouchner (and am a fan of his talented TV media famous spouse) actually, but this proposal is naive and potentially reckless.

Kouchner is right in his HuffPost comments that the web can sometimes help propagate the interests of scandalmongers, help criminal and terrorist networks move their agendas forward, and undermine the liberty of citizens whose every digital move can be spied on and monitored by state authorities.

What Foreign Minister Kouchner neglects is that deception and misinformation were far more rampant in the age of the telegraph, that old-line telephony and snail mail were used by organized crime and exploited by J. Edgar Hoover.

While he mentions positively the fact that more diffuse internet-based citizen reporting makes it "increasingly difficult to hide a public demonstration, an act of repression or a violation of human rights," he doesn't recognize that most "quality journals and news outlets" have long been controlled by editorial cartels -- which dole out space on their pages to preferred providers and only leave a small bit for the rest of the serious policy community to compete for.

The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Powerline, Foreign Policy's The Cable, Daily Beast, Politico, DailyKos, OpenLeft, and many other new media operations and blogs in the US and abroad, even The Washington Note have seriously torn at the jugular of mainstream journalism and the cartels that have served as gate-keepers against too much citizen encroachment.

The internet today -- despite the occasional bouts of disinformation and invented scandal -- is far more of an effective and immediate marketplace of information than the world for which Bernard Kouchner seems to pine.

I am all for protecting, where one can, the interests of citizen bloggers in totalitarian states, but I also know that citizen bloggers and new media operations are often in the sites of democratic governments as well.

I have little doubt that another term or two of Vice President Cheney and his chief aide-de-camp David Addington would have led to further distortions and manipulations of executive authority that would have brought back the equivalent of a "sedition act" in the United States -- used to squelch dissent with the excuse of war. Nations like France, the United States, and most developed nations have the ability today to track the digital behavior and decisions of all of their citizens in their totality.

Kouchner's call for an international body to further reify this capability that is today real but not widely acknowledged in most of the world -- and to divide the world between good and bad managers of this global commons seems to me to be a very complicated and dangerous path.

We may be going that direction anyway -- but Kouchner in his attempt to wave a flag in favor of humanitarian causes -- may in fact be undermining the interests of citizens in nations in the so-called free world.

Individuals and NGOs on the net, it seems to me, have a greater capacity to outrun and outmaneuver the illiberal authorities -- in democracies or not -- trying to cajole, control, or entrap them.

The good that the internet generates overall far outweighs the benefits -- for the time being.

My counsel, offered with respect, is that Minister Kouchner should work harder to recognize that his own facility with issues relating to freedom and control embedded in modern media is riddled with misunderstanding and perhaps lack of experience. He must move beyond the anachronistic yawn that the internet can turn invented stories into truth. Bandwagoning lies can indeed occur -- but the internet can also push back and regularly does. Compare the narrow band focus and homogenization of most mainstream media to the vibrancy and diversity of new media, and it's obvious which is the more healthy choice.

This is not to say that all of what Kouchner recommends is bad -- but to jump in to this topic as he has with such an outdated view of what is happening in social networks, with online video, and hyper-diffuse commentary and journalism can produce as many harmful outcomes as it can antidotes to the problems he thinks he is trying to fix.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons