Reuters today filed a story with the headline: “Western embassies on alert as Muslim anger simmers over film”. As I read the news, picked up by all major newspapers of the world, my thoughts go back to the Arab Spring when it started. With the fall of dictators, there was hope all around. Finally, the Middle East seems to be opening up to newer possibilities. I remembered my college history lessons and felt that newer possibilities may not necessarily be what we think or want them to be. A year later, the mood has changed indeed, in US and also in the newly liberated and fledgling ‘democracies’ of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
The recent crisis has actually increased the importance of communications for the United States. It’s a new reality, an uncertain environment. The luxury of stable dictatorships to engage with is no longer there. Unpredictability will reign.
I believe communication and engagement efforts of United States should just focus on 3 things:
- Institutionalize internal ‘dialogue’ on foreign policy: Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster”. Americans, for the power and influence they wield over the world, are surprisingly ill informed and inward looking. Maybe it results in situations where responsible exercise of influence becomes difficult. Maybe it’s time to institutionalise a process by which Americans realise the depth and breadth of their engagement across the world and what it means for the average American. It’s time the West learns to ‘make a point without making an enemy’.
- Do not roll back ‘engagement’: Policymakers should not operate under the premise that being democratic doesn’t mean a natural affinity to American values and way of life. Political systems are reflective of local milieu, and democracy in Middle East will look radically different from, say, in India or US. For example, India and US differ strongly on their approach to 'Freedom of Expression' but both are successful democracies and free societies. This calls for consistent monitoring of conversations and constant engagement The bad news is that in person engagement becomes tougher. The good news is that social media seems to work very well in the Middle East as demonstrated again by the crisis!
- Communicate ‘Access’ and ‘Proximity’: Explain to audiences how an open society enable access to free societies abroad, be it the West or United States, where Muslims have lived and done well. Create narratives for the ‘indivual’ and not ‘sermons’ for their ‘societies’ on how a partnership with the United States can better their lives.