Twitter won’t really help America be more liked

A very revealing essay in today’s New York Times Magazine on the US State Department’s major use of the web, Twitter, Facebook and online tools to push Washington’s agenda globally.

The article is curious for its almost complete lack of discussion about whether Obama administration policies are in fact useful or productive but instead focuses on 21st century technology in the service of the state.

The message seems to be; ask questions but nothing too serious about wars or covert activity:

The underpinning philosophy of 21st-century statecraft — that the networked world “exists above the state, below the state and through the state” — was laid out in a paper in Foreign Affairs in 2009 by Slaughter, before she became head of the policy planning staff. Cohen rereads the paper all the time. Ross gives it to all new U.S. ambassadors. It is crucial to how Cohen and Ross see themselves: equal parts barnstormers and brainstormers, creating and sustaining networks of networks. Ross and Cohen share all their contacts and remain in touch constantly, though they’re often on opposite sides of the globe. (“Jared and I divide and conquer,” Ross says.) Their closeness might come as something of a surprise: Cohen was appointed by Condoleezza Rice and still considers her a mentor; Ross was deeply embedded in the Obama campaign. And they pursued very different paths to the State Department.

One apparent paradox of 21st-century statecraft is that while new technologies have theoretically given a voice to the anonymous and formerly powerless (all you need is a camera phone to start a movement), they have also fashioned erstwhile faceless bureaucrats into public figures. Ross and Cohen have a kind of celebrity in their world — and celebrity in the Twitter age requires a surfeit of disclosure. Several senior members of the State Department with whom I spoke could not understand why anyone would want to read microdispatches from a trip to Twitter or, worse, from a State Department staff member’s child’s basketball game. But Secretary Clinton seemed neither troubled nor bewildered. “I think it’s to some extent pervasive now,” she told me in March. “It would be odd if the entire world were moving in that direction and the State Department were not.” Half of humanity is under 30, she reminded me. “Much of that world doesn’t really know as much as you might think about American values. One of the ways of breaking through is by having people who are doing the work of our government be human beings, be personalized, be relatable.”

But is America any more popular with the world when endless wars continue in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere?

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