For a digital Marshall Plan

The "new realist" foreign policy rhetoric of the Bush administration gets tough with recalcitrant foreign governments, but fails to grasp what every Internet-addicted middle-schooler already knows.

In an age of globalized mass communications, America's worldwide engagement must be as much about creating a forum for dialogue as about projecting specific policies. No matter how insightful or "realistic" our own positions may be, we will lose more by trying to force a reluctant world to help itself than by promoting a respectful, popular dialogue toward a more cooperative future. Traditional foreign policy approaches must now be supplemented by a global engagement that reflects the revolutionary changes of the information revolution.

Now more than ever, populations are gathering their own information and demanding more say in decisions that shape their lives. The Internet and increasingly independent small and large media outlets across the globe are transforming relationships between and among individuals, governments, and organizations.

The al-Jazirah satellite television network broadcast throughout the Middle East from tiny Qatar has virtually broken the domestic information monopoly of Arab governments by providing a wide range of opinions that challenge official positions. Media reports and discussions on web-based chat rooms in China earlier this month forced Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to admit that his government was covering up evidence that 42 students in a government school in Jiangxi province had been killed in a fatal explosion while assembling fireworks in their classroom at the behest of their teacher.

This democratization of access to information and communications gives populations a greater potential voice in world affairs and challenges traditional conceptions of foreign policy as a series of relationships between diplomats. Unlike during the cold war years, global engagement now exists between societies themselves on multiple levels. This shift represents the greatest opportunity for America's foreign policy since the Marshall Plan - and we are missing it.

Despite America's tremendous cultural, political, and economic power, a dangerous resentment against America's cultural dominance and perceived political arrogance is brewing abroad. The recent State Department report "US Image 2000: Global Attitudes toward the US in the New Millennium" uses polling data to describe a widespread and increasingly popular distrust of American leadership and a growing perception in many foreign countries that the United States arrogantly interferes in their domestic affairs. These perceptions are costly to the US and make it much more difficult to build necessary coalitions to advance policies that promote trade, development, and the rule of law and face global threats such as AIDS. America's world leadership and ability to address global problems will be diminished if these perceptions are allowed to grow, or if foreign populations perceive the US government as trying to stiff-arm them to follow America's lead.

America must now reassert its global leadership by promoting deep and crosscutting dialogue as a centerpiece of global engagement. Placing dialogue at the center of our foreign policy would require that we put considerable human and financial capital, both public and private, into helping connect the world's poorest populations to the Internet - a digital Marshall Plan to allow them the most basic participatory tools. This initial investment must then be followed by sustained action around the world to train local populations on how to best use the Internet and to support the development of indigenous Internet content.

The digital divide is not, as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has claimed, the equivalent of the "Mercedes divide." Overcoming it will help the world's most disadvantaged populations gain greater self-sufficiency and voice, and bring them into processes that can address problems at their root that, left unchecked, will someday face us all.

A global dialogue approach to foreign policy would recognize that the US government must interact respectfully with increasingly powerful civil-society groups and must do more to make its case to foreign populations. The cause of Middle East peace, for example, will be hampered so long as popular opinion in that region remains so divided. Working with civil-society groups and others to foster mutual understanding may, in the long run, prove as elusive as influencing the political outcome, but it is just as important and deserves equal attention. Dialogue is key to this critical effort.

American businesses and civil-society groups should be encouraged to play a bigger role in dialogue promotion. American corporations with factories in the developing world should be encouraged to make Internet access available to their workers. Civil-society groups should do more to train people on the ground about how access can translate into empowerment. Government, business, and nonprofit leaders operating internationally should repeatedly stress America's commitment to dialogue, alongside enduring principles and sensible policies, as a central element of America's global mission.

The US paved the way for establishing multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, which have brought the nations of the world together for decades. This commitment to dialogue between states must now be expanded to embrace dialogue between societies. As disease, weapons of mass destruction, pollutants, refugees, and ethnic conflicts continue to disregard political boundaries and challenge traditional, state-focused notions of national security, we must recognize that our security is strengthened by respecting and empowering our partners, even those critical of us, and supporting global dialogue to address shared challenges.

Jamie Frederic Metzl, a former National Security Council and State Department official, is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an International Affairs Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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