Only recently have our politicians begun to get the hang of social media. President Obama and Hillary Clinton have both appeared on the comedy show Between Two Ferns to sell their policies and boost their image with young people. Donald Trump is prolific with his tweets. But “having a good take on popular culture” is not taking full advantage of the power of digital networks in our world. (UPDATE: Of course, President Obama has led the United States through many developments in cybersecurity and other digital innovations, including the US Digital Service. He is helping start a conversation on artificial intelligence this week in Pittsburgh and recently guest-edited WIRED magazine.)
And powerful these networks are. How quickly cyber attacks and theft have moved front and center into foreign policy. (The US election, still more than a month away, appears to have already been hacked.) What’s more, the connectedness the internet affords allows ideas to cross spaces either geographically distant or previously blocked or just not uncovered– from educational videos from Khan Academy, to discussion threads from a white-power hate group, to the attractive messages from ISIL recruiters.
In order to counter ISIL’s online recruiting tactics, the US State Department has created its own digital division to identify and silence or add context to the alternatives offered by a now embattled ISIL. The secret work of the FBI, NSA, Cyber Command and others aside, this is one of few public steps the United States has taken to engage and compete in a new sphere of the web.
Farah Pandith, a former State Dept senior official, says this should be treated as a proof-of-concept we need to scale beyond toward stopping the appeal of extreme groups to young people:
Based on an “us and them” framework, these groups [ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and others] are savvy and smart in their online and offline marketing. Their consumers are digital natives, share a crisis of identity, and seek answers from Sheikh Google and beyond. Using credible voices from across the planet, we must build like-minded active networks and organize campaigns that crisscross the planet and prevent the spread of the appeal. Fierce attention to religious education and global public pressure on Saudi and Qatar to stop their systematic indoctrination of intolerance for diversity of Islam (not to speak of other faiths) is key. Mobilizing vibrant millennials by lifting up their voices to speak to their peers will catalyze action in new ways.
American has long deployed its soft power in the battle of the ideas, from enlisting Ben Franklin as an emissary to France during the country’s earliest days or Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and the uniquely American sound of Jazz to the Middle East, Southern Europe, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. President Kennedy created the Peace Corps during this time because he knew the power of connecting America’s young people through development work abroad.
I am myself a product of international student exchange and have had my own powerful experiences with the Peace Corps.
Thirty years ago, the Michigan Congressman Philip Ruppe invited my family to his home in Washington, DC. His wife Loret Miller Ruppe was then Director of the Peace Corps under President Reagan. During our dinner Mrs. Ruppe asked US foreign policies after World War II I thought had been most successful. I told her the first two: the Marshall Plan and Occupation policy for Japan. When I said the third is a Peace Corps, she was caught off guard and asked if I was only being diplomatic. I said, No, I had wanted to join the Peace Corps but I could not since I am not American. Instead, I was an active member of the International Student Association.
I had a great opportunity to visit many Southeast Asian countries in 1964 and stayed at the university dormitory including at Saigon University before the escalation of the Vietnam War. Although many young, future Vietnamese leaders disagreed with US policy and the Vietnam War, they had made wonderful friendships with the Peace Corps members. The mission of the Peace Corps is “to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals: To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”
The American people have not fully appreciated the work of generations of Peace Corps volunteers. I have long referred to the inner workings of foreign relations with an automobile analogy: government to government connections provide the gasoline that powers the car of foreign relations, but private, individual connections lubricate the engine, keeping everything moving smoothly. (See more: America Sets Sail : Crossing the Border toward Peace and Hope).
Just like Elon Musk, Google, and others are reinventing today’s automobile, the next president must help reinvent America’s digital connection between its government, its people, and the rest of the world. I recommend that the next president, in the first 100 days, invite 30 young people to the White House for to begin to build from the ground up a digitally-focused Nation Building Youth Corps, a new network of young American voices that takes advantage of emerging information technology and builds on the lessons and values of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and the new United States Digital Service to re-engage America’s young people.
President Obama, in his second State of the Union address, said that we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. The president emphasized that we need to work on developing America as a nation. “Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.” Clearly, the main conduit for ideas in this era is the internet, and so in a sense a strong understanding of its power will help shape our destiny.