The State Department this week held a bloggers’ roundtable with James Glassman, Under Secretary For Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and former Chairman of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, the board that oversees the Voice of America.
The VOA News Blog was invited to take part as were several prominent bloggers who routinely write about public diplomacy and strategic communications issues.
The full transcript has now been posted. Much of the session focused on Iran and included a discussion of a recent online exchange between a member of the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team and a senior Iranian official. (You can read that transcript as well.)
Here is the excerpt of our exchange with the Under Secretary:
QUESTION: Mr. Glassman, how can public diplomacy or, as you recently wrote, diplomacy aimed at publics, succeed when, as in the case of Iran, there’s little or no engagement with officials and both governments have essentially sought to demonize one another in the eyes of their respective publics?
UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Well, I think public diplomacy can do things that official diplomacy cannot. And examples of that are, you know, in some countries around the world, for reasons of our concerns about stability, we may not be as officially as aggressive in our support of, let’s say, pro-democracy elements in official diplomacy. But in public diplomacy, we can do that.
So here is a really good example, I think, with what’s happening in Iran. For, in my opinion, good reason, we are – we have been limited in our engagement at the official level for – I think, for very good reason. But at the public diplomacy level, where we are engaging with the people of Iran, we can engage quite a bit and we do. And what’s interesting, I think, about this blogging concept is, you know, people talk about – remember it was the Chinese ping-pong diplomacy or table tennis diplomacy, you know. Well, this is this sort of blogging diplomacy, I guess you could say.
We are – we’re actually – and I think that one of the earlier questions was related to this – we are actually engaging with an official. Now, we’re not doing it in an official way. I want to emphasize that. We are doing it because it provides a window into the public or a way to reach the Iranian public. But I don’t think that these two things are incompatible; that is to say, our policy regarding official diplomacy and our policy regarding public diplomacy. I mean, we are – you know, as you know, we’re now broadcasting seven hours a day into – with VOA Persia -- and I say we, Broadcasting Board of Governors. That’s separate from the State Department. But they are broadcasting seven hours a day into Iran right now.
Behruz Nikzat of VOA’s Persian News Network, also took part and asked about the State Department’s recent launch of Parsloop (www.parsloop.com) as a forum for Iranians around the world to exchange opinions and experiences. “How do you intend to promote this website among the Persian-speaking people and what are your expectations of it? How would you persuade Iranians that the U.S. State Department does not exercise any control over its content?”
UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Actually, I’m glad you asked this question because this is another example of the kind of thing that we’re doing. Your question about how we’re promoting it, I actually don’t know the answer to that. This is – Parsloop is a project of International Information Programs Bureau and it was started before I got here. I think it’s a superb project and I think it is exactly the kind of thing that we are – that we want to do more of. But the specifics of how we’re promoting it, I don’t know. Glen can get back to you on that.
But let me just say this. America.gov, which is our main website for disseminating information that tells America’s story – let’s put it that way – is – we have that – it’s now in seven languages, including Farsi. But we felt that there was more that was needed and so parsloop.com, which is a .com website, it’s not a .gov website, was launched. It is not, strictly speaking, our website. It’s not a United States Government website. But it’s a website that we support and encourage and participate in, and it is a social networking site.
So we feel that when – that if we can be a facilitator of a large conversation such as the conversation that will take place and already is on parsloop.com, that our values and ultimately the kinds of policies that we believe in will benefit. And so that – so we are really focusing on a lot of other projects that have to do with social networking. And let me just say that the war of ideas aspect of this is that our opponents in the war of ideas can’t stand this kind of thing. They use the internet for a completely different purpose. They are broadcasting, exhorting, teaching people how to make bombs, banging them over the head with their ideology, and they don’t want feedback that may be negative. We, on the other hand, are encouraging this kind of conversation with the confidence that people will arrive at the kinds of answers that make the world a better place.