Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

In a widely-read white paper published last year, my colleagues and I pointed out that strategic communication operates in a complex worldwide system.  One feature of such systems is that they can develop inertia, stubbornly insisting on interpreting messages in standard ways, practically no matter what the message is.  Such is the case, we judged, with U.S. public diplomacy in recent years.

In such a situation what you need is a disruption, a game-changer, something that will shake up the status quo and shock interpretive systems out of their patterns.  At the time we said that a

disruption that is sure to occur in the next two years is a change in the U.S. presidency. Some see rapid turnover in the Executive Branch caused by term limits as a liability. Be that as it may, it provides a regular possibility for disruption of international relationships and the rhetorical structure of strategic communication systems. The foreign policy of the current administration has attracted a good deal of international criticism, whether deserved or not, so the coming disruption has the potential for a significant impact.

Last night we saw the possibility of that disruption realized with the election of Barack Obama.  To see this you need only to scroll beyond the professional reportage in some newspapers around the world, and look at comments posted by regular folks.  Here are some examples I found this morning:

Well done Barack! Well done America! The American dream is truly not limited to economic prosperity now. But equal opportunities and rights. The world had to wait for quite some time for America to follow what it preached.  (Samuel from Sri Lanka, al Jazeera English)

A great leader inspires and motivates his people to do their best. From watching his various speeches, debates etc, I think Barrack Obama exudes those qualities. Congrats to team Obama and the US. A message of hope always triumphs, may he continue to inspire his country and the rest of the world to bring out their best. (cecellia_t2000, Straits Times)

Every Muslim over the world enjoys this victory! Masha’Allah! [Thanks be to God!] (Riyaz from UAE, al Jazeera English)

I can observe that Obama has managed to shake German politics (local politicians have not yet). It is to be hoped that this trend towards democracy will also impact on German politics. (piopol, Der Spiegel online forum)

Americans have rewritten history by electing Barack Obama as their next president. He represents just what the US and the world needs right now – a clear and positive change. President elect Obama stands for not just the African Americans, but also for a whole new generation of forward-thinking Americans who were tired of the often high-handed and obsolete policies of the previous government. I am hoping that Obama can deliver the much-needed change not just to his countrymen – but also to the World! (Shiuli Dutt Dey from Dubai, Gulf News)

There are many more such comments, too many to list.  They show that Obama’s election itself is good public diplomacy for the U.S., and that it has created a tipping point that is capable of shaking the current system.

At the same time a large number of comments imply that the opportunity is fleeting.  People say they “hope” Obama’s victory will lead to some real change, but they exhibit a skeptical “wait and see” attitude.

Unless President-Elect Obama seizes this opportunity and delivers a game-changer, communication between the United States and citizens elsewhere in the world will quickly sink back into the familiar old patterns–and probably stay there for a long, long time.

UPDATE (4:00 p.m.)

Here is a post from MEMRI giving some reaction from Arabic language media.  All but the al Hayat entry are considerably more pessimistic than the regular folks quoted above.  And how could I resist posting this boquet from Pravda? It’s stated with typical Russian circumspection:

Only Satan would have been worse than the Bush regime. Therefore it could be argued that the new administration in the USA could never be worse than the one which divorced the hearts and minds of Americans from their brothers in the international community, which appalled the rest of the world with shock and awe tactics that included concentration camps, torture, mass murder and utter disrespect for international law. Yet in choosing Obama, the people of America have opted to come back into the international fold. Welcome back, friends!

UPDATE (11/6)

Here is some reaction from the Bad Guy forums, complements of Will at Jihadica.