From the Long War and the War on Terror to the Long Change

‘We are not involved in the ‘long war’ or the ‘war on terror’ but the ‘long change’ and only soft power will bring that about’.

So reads the latest report [click here] from Wilton Park, the informal meeting place of invited foreign policy thinkers and practitioners in the English countryside, following a conference on ‘Public Diplomacy: Moving from Policy to Practice’ last month. Even if the phrase does not take hold, it indicates current thinking on how Britain and the US should engage with the world through public diplomacy.

To exercise soft power is to project the attractiveness of one’s own country in order to make other states and societies amenable to one’s political and economic interests. The Long Change will be a change of opinion towards the UK and US and social change in target countries who contain people who don't like us. This is primarily couched as a security issue – making individuals at home or abroad less likely to use terrorist violence against UK/US interests. But the Long Change is also about making foreign publics more disposed to UK/US policies around trade, development, and climate change.

What is new is that this public diplomacy can be done by publics themselves through social media. The clumsy strategic communication officers of the state can stand back. This approach assumes that communication and connection between people across borders through social media can have a liberal, pluralizing effect. But its not clear why people would engage in patient, deliberative, possibly multilingual conversation with people in other countries about controversial political issues. Anyone familiar with the ‘under the line’ discussions on news websites will see how quickly and often the conversation becomes a hostile dialogue of the deaf.

So, perversely, publics must be taught how to be spontaneously deliberative. Forums for ‘global conversations’ will be created, along the lines of the BBC’s Have Your Say online spaces. These will form the ideal of what public-to-public diplomacy is about, for emulation by progressive media around the world. Unacceptable opinions or styles of participation will be moderated out. The mechanism for the long change is us, or what has been called in recent years ‘the power of we’ and ‘we the media’. But any global ‘we’ will have to be carefully constructed and edited.

It is the harnessing of social media tools that mark the Long Change from the War on Terror and Long War. The War on Terror also targeted foreign publics as security threats, following the 9/11 attacks, but relied primarily on military tools to create the liberal countries which would thereafter pose not security risks. In 2006, Brid. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the head of the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), set out his vision of the Long War. The objective of the Long War was to maintain US pre-eminence by organising a global network of forces to deter would-be threats and rivals.

This time, the US-led network would not be primarily military. It would be composed of whatever was felt necessary to win, prevent and defeat threats, through soft power ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns and economic incentives as well as special forces security operations.

However, if the criteria of success in the War on Terror and the Long War was ‘whose story wins’, in Jo Nye’s terms, then the US and UK stories were not winning. The narrative of benign liberal interventionism was contradicted by the realities of civilian deaths and political instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and images from Abu Ghraib prison, all of which reinforced long-held narratives of victimisation and injustice among Muslim publics around the world. The lessons learnt from the mid-2000s were that actions must match words and the story had to be told in new ways, hence Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 (though not followed by actions) and the notion that ordinary people can tell the story, do the diplomacy.

The principle of the Long Change is cultivating long term relationships between publics and between foreign publics and your state. The notion of long term relationships reflects the influence of marketing and branding experts on current public diplomacy practices. I form a long term attachment to a brand of shaving cream or a band if I trust they will always deliver the experience I enjoy, so why couldn’t an attachment to the Cool Britannia and 'our boys' overseas be created?

In theory, all this would be cheap. Creating online forums, and even spreading technology so people can connect, is much less expensive than traditional military tools. In our financial climate, the Long Change would still need to demonstrate value for money. Hence, there would be a need to devise measures of the ‘impact’ of public-to-public communication on, say, political attitudes and behaviour among foreign publics. At this stage of the Long Change, it is not clear what such metrics would be. No doubt political scientists, sociologists, psychologists and media evaluation firms will be asked to partner-up.

We might also ask, who or what is expected to change. At first glance, it appears that foreign publics are the targets of persuasion, based on the assumption that ‘our’ ideas would naturally win in any rational deliberation and the soft power theory that the attractiveness of ‘our’ values will prevail. This is risky and perhaps arrogant. In public-to-public communication, whether spontaneous or staged, perhaps it will be people in the UK or US whose attitudes will change if they begin deliberating international affairs with people in Pakistan or Syria. Other countries and other political groups around the world have their own narratives about the future of the international order, their own readings of history, their own interests to promote. They, too, want to enact long changes. 

And how long is Long? The Long War was to be generational, a second Cold War to defeat a second evil ideology, that of Al-Qaeda. Yet the policies referred to in the War on Terror and Long War began before the 9/11 attacks and endure still, a set of approaches to counter-terrorism and issues like international development, immigration, finance and the regulation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) that became treated as matters of security rather than fields in their own right during the 1990s. To define an era in these broad terms may give focus to foreign policymakers but it is also to implicitly rationalize a set of policies as ‘fitting’ but whose appropriateness we may question.

The Long Change, should it come to pass, implicates social media - and us as users and citizens – directly into international affairs in ways that require very careful scrutiny.