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New world requires new strategies

Democracy and digitalization make urgent demands. How, and how fast, can the US adjust?

By Staff writer / September 26, 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dances with Emille Phiri, chair of the Lumbadzi Milk Bulking Group, at the end of the Secretary's visit to the group in Lilongwe, Malawi, Aug. 5, 2012, on the first ever visit to Malawi by a US Secretary of State. At center is US Ambassador to Malawi Jeanine Jackson.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Washington

When Syria was hit by the tide of change sweeping across the Middle East in the spring of 2011, US Ambassador Robert Ford left behind the comfort and isolation of his Damascus embassy office and took to the streets.

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He stood with the Syrians demanding change from their authoritarian leader and delivered a message of American support. He used the Internet to connect with groups he could not physically reach. Even after the revolution turned violent and Ambassador Ford was called home, he turned to Facebook to inform the Syrian military that the United States and indeed the whole world were watching, and that those committing crimes against humanity would be held accountable.

Ford was practicing a new diplomacy his forebears of just a decade or two ago would have hardly recognized, a kind of international statecraft that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton likes to say will be practiced "as much in work boots as in wingtips."

It's the kind of diplomacy the US must practice more, experts say, if it is to further its interests and spread what it considers to be universal values in a world of expanding democracy and a diffusion of power beyond governments to communities and organizations. But it is also a problematic and even risky form of engagement, as recent anti-American violence across the new democracies of the Middle East suggests.

US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens epitomized the people-oriented approach of this new diplomatic style (see story, page 34). But the fact that he lost his life in an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi is already dampening efforts to put US diplomats in closer contact with local populations.

For centuries diplomacy was the stuff of (mostly) men in a few seats of power receiving information from abroad and communicating positions back to others in power, friend or foe. That began to change post-World War II, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet empire. The shift accelerated with the rise of new countries and powers, of new technologies facilitating global communication.

"The traditional diplomacy of governments and aloof statesmen handling everything behind the scenes no longer exists, and it's been replaced by the 24/7 world of media coverage, social networking, and people pressing their demands in every part of the world," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State who now focuses on South Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The factors behind this swift change in the practice of international relations are indisputable: "Democratization, globalization, digitalization," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was in charge of policy planning under Secretary Clinton before returning to Princeton University in New Jersey last year to teach.

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