The Courage of Our Convictions: U.S. Opportunity in Mideast, Africa Turmoil

If the United States has the courage of its democratic convictions – and patience — the revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East and Africa presents an epic opportunity for sharing our fundamental values.

The core stimulus of these popular uprisings is the universal yearning for freedom, human rights, open and honest government, equal opportunity, and an improved standard of living and quality of life. It represents nothing less than a global generational inflection point: Although nationalism and ideology are certainly in the motivational mix, it is the liberal aspirations of “the young” that are dominant.

We shouldn’t be surprised. There have been prophets.
 
One is Benjamin R. Barber, who predicted this in his 1995 seminal book, Jihad vs. McWorld – How Globalism and Tribalism Are Shaping The World:

“The confrontation of Jihad and McWorld has its first arena . . . [in] the conflicted soul of the new generation. Nations may be under assault, but the target audience is youth.”

Much more recently, David R. Holdridge told us, “Sovereignty is not what it used to be . . . Now the technologies and a youth fed up with war and despair are silently, but inexorably, creating a union . . .  They are, in historic proportions, going online. They are accelerating daily the great trade in ideas over the World Wide Web.”

David knows whereof he speaks. He is CEO of the international civil society organization Bridging The Divide Inc., which has been linking citizen groups in the U.S. with counterparts in the Middle East, applying social media in social services and development missions.

Of course, in the context of the current political revolutions, the Internet coin has another, repressive side: Witness the Iranian regime’s use of the Internet to suppress the 2009 incipient “Green Revolution”; other such regimes have followed suit.

With the Egyptian government’s temporary shutdown of the Internet, for a while it was mainly the courageous and effective reporting by “traditional media” (“traditional” now includes al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya) that kept the world informed of the dramatic, seminal developments in that country. Eventually, social media and traditional media operated in tandem in sustaining the Egyptian uprising.

What Should We Do – And Not Do
We’ve learned, especially from the second Iraq War, that democracy cannot be imposed militarily. Eventually, public opinion prevails. Mark Twain wrote that some think of public opinion as “the voice of God.” And it’s now apparent that even the “soft power” diplomacy of the U.S. government sometimes has its limitations – the perception of interference by a foreign government.

And so, “the courage of our convictions” becomes quite relevant because it may present more effective — although riskier — carriers of democratic values.

One such carrier is the global civil society. Another, arguably, is the global business community. They are related. In one instance, they converge in the uber-civil society institution, the United Nations — long a champion of human rights – and, more particularly, in the United Nations Global Compact, the multilateral organization composed of some 4,000 companies and about a thousand nongovernmental organizations around the world. The Compact’s Human Rights Working Group recently endorsed policy on “how . . . business and human rights should best be taken forward in coming years . . . engaging all stakeholders”.
 
There are, of course, many international humanitarian and economic development nongovernmental-organizations, each with the potential to provide specialized counsel and resources for the evolution of democratic institutions.

The international business community also has a great responsibility and, over time, an opportunity, to help “bridge the divide” threatening global social cohesion. Unfortunately, its commitment has been inconsistent. For example, after an impressive beginning a few years ago, a relevant organization, Business for Diplomatic Action, is now dormant for lack of adequate business support. But its successful 2007-2009 international exchange program, Arab & American Business Fellowship, surely deserves to be resurrected and duplicated many times over.

The need for that kind of initiative may have been best articulated by Middle East expert Vali Nasr in the context of the global existential issue sometimes called “Islam and the West.” In his book, Forces of Fortune, The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Means For Our World, he suggests that today’s global economic integration may eventually trump ideological differences:


“There is a vital but unseen rising force in the Islamic world – a new business-minded middle class – that is building a vibrant new Muslim economy . . . their distinct blending of Islam and capitalism is the key to bringing lasting reform and to defeating fundamentalism . . . They are the people the West can and must do business with.”

I have seen this “bridging” advance during recent Global Alliance visits to Malaysia and Indonesia, but especially during a stay in Turkey. Predominantly Muslim countries, they offer grounds for cautious optimism even as societies continue to erupt in the Middle East and Africa.

A New Role for U.S. Government
All of which is not to say that there is no role in this for the U.S. government. But this role must be hypersensitive to the perceptions, expectations and demands of the citizens, especially the young citizens, of countries now moving toward more truly representative governments.

Our traditional national pragmatism, recognizing the U.S. government’s diminished influence in democratization of these countries, should suggest a new, more diffused risk-reward approach to foreign relations.

The government’s most effective role might well be largely as a facilitator of the many private-sector commitments by civil society and business as well as being a rhetorical champion of such efforts and their outcomes. Embassies, consulates, and other national and international resources might serve this function quite well.

Expert support for this kind of strategy has come from the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy in the university’s Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications. In the Summer 2010 edition of the Center’s Public Policy magazine, Geoffrey Wiseman, in “‘Polylaterism’: Diplomacy’s Third Dimension,” raises the possibility of a greater role for nonstate organizations:

“The overall conclusion I offer to transnational civil society theorists and activists remains cautionary and encouraging. On the one hand, I hold out Hedley Bull’s cautious words about “premature global solidarism” . . . On the other, the evidence I have provided here is grounds for optimism that new ways of thinking and practices are evolving in the transnational public sphere that are suggestive of a future global civil society.”

Such “polylateralism” seems to be a logical extension of Walter Annenberg’s 1971 counsel that “Every human advancement or reversal can be understood through communication.”

This new approach need not be mutually exclusive with other major elements of U.S. foreign policy because critical geopolitical challenges will always remain. Sovereignty will not disap
pear (actually, nations are still being born; Southern Sudan comes to mind.) Spheres of influence will persist. In nations in revolutionary flux, military establishments will often play a crucial role. Culture, tradition and ideology cannot be ignored. Terrorism hovers. Free elections can empower those with whom we disagree.

But a refreshed “people to people” diplomacy now holds promise for addressing the demands of newly empowered citizens in the Middle East and Africa. It will take courage, but let’s give it a chance. Ultimately, democracy, with all of its imperfections, is not something we should fear.

John L. Paluszek is senior counsel at Ketchum specializing in reputation management and corporate responsibility. He is also immediate past chair of The Global Alliance For Public Relations and Communication Management; liaison to The United Nations for The Global Alliance and The Public Relations Society of America; and a member of The Commission on Public Relations Education.