Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Technology, Risk and Facebook's Dating Service

Facebook, thanks for providing the perfect demonstration of my recent paper on risk communication and technology, presented at WeRobot2018. In starting a new dating service, Facebook shows exactly the cluelessness that I worried tech world had about public attitudes.

Full disclosure, I really like Facebook. I enjoy it immensely and there is a decent chance readers will find this post through Facebook. Further, on the whole I am a fan of new technology, we've seen great things happen in recent decades. My paper is a bit of a cri de coeur to tech world urging them to consider public perceptions so that when they do something ill-advised they don't face backlash that stymies innovation.

Let me start from the beginning.

Communicating Risk
Robots, that is, in the words of the inestimable Laurel Riek, are: physically embodied systems capable of enacting physical change in the world. This change, either locomotion or manipulation, means this systems will be able to do harm. The paper includes an in-depth taxonomy of vectors of harm robots may do. Further, many, although not all, robots are directed by non-deterministic algorithms, which means that they may act in unpredictable ways. (The tragic Uber self-driving vehicle accident is an example.) On the whole, these systems have enormous potential to bring benefits, but that must be balanced against the potential for harm.

To make informed decisions about using and interacting with robots, people need essential information. Ensuring people have this information is the role of risk communication.

The paper begins with a summary of risk communication, a well developed field. There has been extensive research on risk communication and public health and environmental issues, as well as the subfield of crisis communications. There has been extensive research about how to best communicate probabilities, what type of language to use, and what mechanisms are most effective for reaching audiences. This is not to say it is a settled science, much of the work is intuitive and every issue and situation will require new approaches.

Further - and this is big - people vastly overestimate how well they understand others and how well they are understood. This, from my cursory reading, is central to communications theory and makes all of this really hard. A communicator might think they did a bang-up job, but the key points recalled by the recipient were not what was intended.

The obvious conclusion is that the robotics industry should start studying this field and figure out how to apply it. But there's more (and I'm coming back to Facebook - even though they aren't building robots.)

Risk Perception
But there's more. A lot more. The risk communication process described above is a rational cost benefit analysis process. But that is not how people make decisions. Certain types of risks and benefits loom large in people's minds out of proportion to their probability. The classic case is terrorism, which your TerrorWonk will readily point out is much less likely to kill someone in the U.S. than a car accident. But this offers little comfort, people understand car accidents and feel they have some control. Terrorism is poorly understood, uncontrolled, and potentially catastrophic. Terrorism, in particular, inspires dread because there is an active adversary behind it.

It would be easy to dismiss these concerns as irrational, but also unwise. Paul Slovic, one of the giants of this field, wrote:
Perhaps the most important message from this research is that there is wisdom as well as error in public attitudes and perceptions. Lay people sometimes lack certain information about hazards. However, their basic conceptualizations of risk is much richer than that of experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments.
Donald MacGregor, of MacGregor-Bates Applied Decision Concepts, put it more bluntly, telling me:
Familiarity with the technical risk analysis can breed contempt for those who don't share the same views of risk. 
This is where businesses, industries, and governments can get into trouble, when they do not consider these perceptions of risk a failure can lead to a "signal" event that triggers public concern of catastrophic impact. The classic case is the nuclear power industry. They did not consider seriously the potential of an accident, did not engage in serious risk communication, and when Three Mile Island occurred the public was frightened. Even though the accident did no real damage, the public perception shifted quickly and nuclear power development was effectively halted in the United States.

In the paper I discussed how robots, because they are perceived as having agency and because their actions may not be well understood may trigger high levels of perceived risk and could trigger a signal event. I'll go farther and say that tech world more broadly is not immune to this possibility.

A Matter of Trust
Effective risk communication relies on trust. If the communicator has trust, the audiences will hear their message and bear some risks. Trust however is very hard to build, requiring extensive two-way communication. It is also very, very easy to lose.

My concern is that tech world is assuming a high level of public trust. Facebook (remember them) has the famous slogan: move fast and break things.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told an audience at MIT: Instead of spending all day worrying, why don't you wait until there's a near miss... Let's not translate that worry into premature constraints on the innovators....

In tech world the belief appears to be that when inevitable failures occur, the public will understand. But this reservoir may not exist and when signal events occur, there will be broad regulatory and public backlash.

Back to Facebook
That brings us back to Facebook's dating service (I don't doubt, by the way, the company's ability to do some effective analytics on this). After the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, the company is under increasing scrutiny. That scrutiny is not going to be limited to the issues around the 2016 election, it will extend more broadly into what Facebook does with the data it gathers. They are, to their credit, making some moves to better meet privacy concerns.

Given this situation is now a good time to consider a bold new endeavor that leverages very personal information? Further, there are going to be incidents of violence and harassment linked to this dating service - this is a matter of percentages, given the unfortunate and terrible reality of violence against women. Even if Facebook does a masterful job and is incredibly effective at screening out those with violent tendencies (and this is very hard to do), their algorithm will not be perfect.

When this happens Facebook is very likely to be held responsible. Their arguments that they have done everything possible to protect the participants in their dating site will not sway and angry public. When they appeal to the public on the basis of the good they've done, Facebook may find that it has few friends.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Bullying Friends: On Tariffs, Norms, and Canada

I started this post last week, then life and events overtook it. Foreign affairs world went nuts, with the ousting of Tillerson and McMaster. Daniel Drezner, of course, said the same thing I say below, but better. He was more analytical than I am. I'm more emotional, and kind of upset about this, so I'm posting it anyway.

Michael Corleone followed the dictum, "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."

This administration has inverted the strategy to: Suck up to your enemies, and piss off your friends.

The administration's tariffs are terrible economics, terrible foreign policy, and awful for our security policy. I won't reiterate the arguments on the economic front, others have made them. On foreign policy more broadly, besides annoying friends, it could spark a trade war which will hurt workers, and it undermines the World Trade Organization - the linchpin of a global trade order that the U.S. established. Finally, trade relationships underpin and strengthen security relationships.

Saying that the tariffs are bad for our relationships with allies is a bit vague. These relationships are not simply a two-dimensional thermometer - how much do they like us? These relationships are complex and multi-dimensional. It isn't that this drives the temperature down, rather, it breaks the thermometer.

Consider Canada
I am generally and genuinely interested in Canada. Regular readers (should I have any) will know that my favorite novelist, the late Robertson Davies is Canadian. I don't read him for his thoughts on world affairs or even Canadian politics, but it has given me some modest insight into the national character of our great neighbor to the north.

This has led me to muse on Canadian history a bit, granted, through an American lens. On a visit to Ottawa, I went to the Canadian War Museum and got a bit of the alternative perspective.

When the President announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, the impact would have fallen disproportionately on Canada (in great part because the U.S. and Canadian economy are so tightly integrated.) Faced with blowback, the White House announced an exemption for Canada and Mexico - with the caveat that Canada and Mexico renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So the U.S. will play hardball, using the steel tariffs as leverage in the NAFTA negotiations. There are a lot of specific problems with this strategy. First, we claimed the tariffs on a rarely used national security basis, using at leverage in a trade deal undercuts our case before the WTO. Second, it may not be a terribly effective negotiating tactic since NAFTA is hugely complicated and will take some time, so a gun to the head is not helpful. Further steel is not that big of a component to the Canadian economy (or ours) so if forced to, Canada will take a hit on steel on behalf of other industries that have more at stake.

But something bigger and more unpleasant is going on.

Partnership or Vassal
Our flags wave to the same winds.
Imagine a firm with two partners. One partner is wealthier and a bigger part of the firm than the other, but it is still a partnership. The lesser partner is a valuable contributor. The two partners work out most issues equitably. The issues aren't just financial, they work side-by-side so all kinds of things would come up and have to be dealt with. At the same time, with such proximity, there are warm personal relations between the two partners, they help each other with non-business issues. When there are contentious issues, say profit distributions, the two sides agree to an independent arbitrator - precisely to avoid tough negotiations that could add ill will to their relationship.

Now imagine the bigger partner suddenly starts playing hardball with the lesser partner. How will the lesser partner feel. Will that make other issues between them difficult? Will they start squabbling over cleaning the office kitchen or parking spaces? Maybe the lesser partner has few options and will remain, but bitter, less cooperative.

Would that be worth it?

Canada Looks South
My parents were just up in NYC and saw the Tony award winning play Come From Away. It is about the town of Gander, Newfoundland that took in over 6000 passengers on 9/11 when U.S. airspace was shut down. My parents were deeply moved and reported that the applause was thunderous. Canada has our back. Remember the movie Argo, how Canadian diplomats rescued Americans during the Iran hostage crisis?

This is not to say that we don't do good things for Canada too. Every year the city of Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston to honor the aid sent after an explosion in Halifax Harbour killed 2000 and devastated the city.

More than that, on a personal level, at least on the surface, Americans and Canadians share vast cultural affinities. Of course, if one delves deeper, differences emerge, but there is enough commonality for an easy relationship.

At the same time, it is not all sweetness and light between us. The close relationship between the U.S. and Canada took time to build. The U.S. invaded Canada - twice. First in the Revolutionary War and second in the War of 1812, in which we sought to liberate Canada from the yoke of tyrannical England. The Canadians preferred to choose their own yoke, and defeated the American expedition. The War of 1812 is fundamental to Canada's national narrative. Yet, the Canadians were courteous enough to send ships to Baltimore Harbor for the 200th anniversary of that war. At the Canadian War Museum, the exhibit notes that the United States had some legitimate grievances with the United Kingdom.

It isn't just a threat of state invasion that concerns Canada, they are also worried about stuff that bubbles up from their great neighbor to the south. While the U.S. worries about Islamist terrorists infiltrating from Canada (and it happened.) The Canadians are pretty concerned about living next to a giant open air firearms market. Worries about U.S. weaponry making havoc are a serious concern for Canadian security analysts, and it also pops up in Canadian fiction.

It is not a completely hypothetical concern. After the U.S. Civil War, Irish veterans formed the Fenians, a secret society that sought to take Canada by force and hold it hostage for Irish independence. Between 1866 and 1871 the Fenians carried out a number of raids and fought pitched battles with hastily formed Canadian militias. Efforts to coordinate the response hastened the establishment of the Canadian confederation.

Deep in their hearts, Canada has a certain distrust of the United States. It is buried under a huge reservoir of good will, but we should have no illusions and not simply take this good will for granted. But that is exactly what we are doing.

Trust and Justice
The U.S. and Canada have a - perhaps the - model of international comity. Despite its massive power, the United States does not simply force its will on Canada, our relationship is cooperative. This is the U.S. at its best. The U.S. that built the modern liberal international order, that surrenders some of its own power in order to win allies and become yet more powerful.

In The Republic, Thrasymuchus states that strong was what the strong say it is. Plato, speaking through Socrates, says that there is justice and ultimately those who claim it but do not practice it will suffer consequences. At its best - and we are not always at our best - the U.S. embodies this. In our bullying Canada, we take a step towards our worst selves and that is the America the world will see and remember.

Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be?

It is neither smart nor nice and it is not the U.S. I want.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Amazon in DC-area is bad... for America

I'm not a NIMBY.

I don’t want Amazon to come to the DC area. But this isn’t personal. It will probably make traffic worse and it will drive up real estate prices – but I already own a home, so I can cash out. (And I don't have a particular problem with Amazon or any of the technorati - they aren't as smart as they think they are, but really, who is?)

My issue is that if Amazon comes to the DC area (three of the final twenty locations for its new second HQ are in the Capital Region) it will have ripple effects on the U.S. government and the country.
Amazon could turn DC into a jungle!

DC area real estate prices are high, not as high as the Bay Area, but high. Amazon, with its infusion of high-paying jobs, both from direct hires and the attendant businesses that will start or expand in its wake, will push real estate prices much higher. The backbone of the greater DC area is civil servants, government workers. They are compensated well, but not extravagantly. Even the very, very top-level government salaries (with some specific exceptions)are well below $200,000 – certainly enough to be comfortable, but not remarkable by tech world standards. A steep rise in real estate prices will make it difficult for government professionals – civil servants who have valuable skills and could find alternative employment – to get by. They will find more lucrative professions, exacerbating the existing brain drain of experienced civil servants. Of course, these rising real estate prices will also be bad for the less well-compensated – mid and lower level civil servants, teachers, and, well, everyone else. This broader effect will be bad for the region, but for the nation as a whole, losing talented civil servants could be devastating. Further, young people may be further dissuaded from entering public service.

At the same time, one area where the U.S. government faces ongoing and severe challenges is attracting tech talent. Having Amazon in the neighborhood will create extremely lucrative opportunities that talented tech workers will find difficult to ignore. But government needs for computer science talent, from programming to theory to data science are significant. National security is one particular field that will suffer, but they are not alone. Managing and processing complex networks and enormous amounts of data is critical for agencies to serve the American people. But anyone who shows much talent – particularly if real estate prices are rising – will find the siren song of Amazon tough to resist.

Finally, the DC area, on the whole is already wealthy. The stability of government work insulated the region from some of the worst fallout of the great recession. This isn't to say there aren't wealth gaps and problems, but frankly Amazon might make them worse - not better. Anyway, the DC area does not need this – lots of other places in America do.


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I don't blame local politicians for pursuing Amazon, and the online shopping behemoth will probably not factor the good of the country in its decision. But here's hoping...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Robots are coming, but maybe not to consumers

Reading coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show, it does not appear that the robots left anyone terribly impressed. We all have images of Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons, which effortlessly and with little instruction just does all the housework. The reality is that this is not coming any time soon. Folding laundry turns out to be really, really hard. So the Consumer Electronics Show features a lot of wonky systems that don't work very well. Gadget junkies may be entranced, but regular consumers don't need an expensive toy that will take longer to get to do a task than it would take to just do the task. (If we enjoy that kind of frustration we can just try to get our kids to do their chores.)

Rosie won't be coming today.
Consumers want devices that, with limited set-up, work. Robots, autonomous systems, are run by machine learning algorithms - that means they have to learn. Learning means they have to be taught, it also means they will make mistakes. Who the hell has time for this kind of thing?

For some applications, this can work. Smart thermostats are an example. Preferences are not that hard to learn and mistakes are not catastrophic. But think about a smart refrigerator that could inventory your food, recommend meals, and order necessities. This sounds great, but then consider the problems in implementation. For starters, in a typical home there might be a dozen places where food is stored - not just the refrigerator. Now you need smart pantries and spice cabinets, etc.

Let's imagine that this smart home can monitor your food supply, make recipe recommendations, identify when items are needed and then order them. This would actually be pretty great. There would be hiccups of course, plus the system would have a lot of pretty personal information. There might be a time consuming learning curve as you taught it what recipes you liked and what kind of food you wanted to have around. But it could work. It might even be fun.

But here's the ugly secret. The thinking is relatively easy. The sensing is very hard. Presumably all of the food going into your smart home has some sort of electronic marker allowing your kitchen to record it. Then there will be a bevy of sensors to follow the consumption path of each item. This is a lot of sensors and a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. Then you would need to teach it what was a priority. (Order pasta when we are down to one box etc.)

It is all theoretically possible, but there are so many things that can go wrong and working with it might be more trouble than it's worth. You can just scan your fridge and pantry and make a shopping list in a lot less time.

But that doesn't mean robots aren't coming.

Serious Users
This smart refrigerator or kitchen is not worth your time. But a hospital refrigeration system for storing blood and medicine is a different story. The hospital already has a staff and systems for monitoring these things. The value of the items in question are very high - both in cost but also in consequence (you need to have the right supplies on hand and usable.)

If a hospital recognizes that there will be significant gains in efficiency using a smart refrigeration system, they can make the investment both in money and time to learn the systems and blend their existing processes in with the system's functionality. Hotels, restaurants, and a vast range of other organizations might also be willing to make this investment. Managing food inventory is a huge issue for the hospitality industry.

One can imagine lots of other smart systems that might not be worth the effort for a home, but would be for a large-scale enterprise. This will lead to an iterative process. The first enterprises to purchase the smart refrigeration system would probably be larger (maybe not the biggest) and have some experience integrating new technology. In turn the vendors would also learn what it took to meet customer needs and be better positions to market their systems to more conservative buyers. In time the technology would become commonplace, lowering costs (again both financial but also in the time required to learn the system) and - at some point - maybe becoming a consumer product.

At this point the autonomous systems in questions are not there. The models will need to learn, but at the same time we need to learn the models.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Trumpest in a Teapot: On the new U.S. Embassy in London

In typical "presidential" fashion, that man in the White House tweeted that he would not go to London to open the U.S. Embassy, because we got a bad deal on the Embassy.

Maybe if it had more gold? New U.S. Embassy in London
Now this does little for State Department morale or Anglo-American relations. It is entirely possible that the "bad deal" is a convenient excuse for skipping a trip in which the president would be greeted by large, loud, unhappy crowds and unpleasant meetings with frosty British counterparts. Although he does fawn over royalty, this trip would probably not feature golden orbs and the queen would not be gauche and let him fondle the royal sceptre.

But let's take the president at his word, he thinks we got a bad deal on the Embassy. That does not mean that we did (the details are not public.) It is also an open question as to whether or not the president's judgment on what constitutes a good deal -- even in real estate, where he is supposedly an expert -- is very good. Consider this snippet from a profile of Trump confidant Tom Barrack:



But let's pretend the U.S. got a bad deal on selling its old Embassy and building the new one. Does it matter? Is it an issue worth the president's time and energy?

I chided candidate Barack Obama for promising to go over the budget line-by-line. It is a waste of time. Spending a day to kill some minor initiative and save a little money is not a terrific use of the president's most valuable and limited resource - time.

Of course the president could delegate this to the Secretary of State, that just eats up the Secretary of State's time and energy - which is also in short supply.

(No doubt at this point readers - should I have any - are asking why this is in TerrorWonk about national security rather than VeepCritique, where I talk about presidents and stuff. We're coming to that.)

But there is something else going on. If Embassy construction issues are raised at the presidential or even secretarial level that will engage their counterparts in the other country - who will not appreciate having this relatively minor issue on their desk. But, if the U.S. insists, they will consider it, but now it becomes another card in their hand. If they help the United States on this issue, they will expect certain things in return. 

Most importantly, however, U.S. relationships with other countries exist in time and space. Our relationship with any given country is not a one-off, it continues. A thing done in the past affects what happens in the future. At the same time, what the U.S. does in its relations with one country shapes how other countries see the U.S. So if the U.S. is seen as nickel and diming its closest ally over an embassy, to save maybe a few hundred million dollars (which in the context of a multi-trillion dollar budget is chump change) that will have a cost. The U.K. will see us differently (we have a special relationship, but we dare not take that for granted - it can fray.) Other countries too will see us differently, and change their behaviors accordingly.

On the other hand, given this president's penchant for impulsive actions in highly volatile situations that could have disastrous consequences - maybe it would be for the best if he focused real estate deals.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Balancing Pakistan...with Iran?

The illustrious Christine Fair has an article in Foreign Policy discussing what's going on between the U.S. and Pakistan entitled Pakistan Has All the Leverage Over Trump. The title pretty much tells you what you need to know. If you are going to fight a war in Afghanistan you have to get there (it's landlocked.) For us, right now, Pakistan is the way to get there. Unfortunately their priorities do not match ours. Fair writes:

One can argue that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan when it went to war with Pakistan, one of the states most committed to undermining U.S. efforts there. Whereas the United States wants a stable Afghan government that can resist its predatory neighbors and keep Islamist militants out of the government and prevent these militants from using Afghanistan as a sanctuary to train, recruit, and plan terrorist attacks in the region and beyond, this is precisely the Afghanistan that Pakistan wants.
Fair (who, full disclosure, I know, like, and admire) notes that Obama ran into this reality as well and - as Trump is doing now - tried to use U.S. aid as leverage over Pakistan. Obama went further, threatening, and to a limited extent carrying out military strikes on Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistani behavior has not really changed. Hanging over this, Fair observes, and I've thought about it as well, is that Pakistan also threatens us through its very fragility. That is, if we don't support Pakistan financially it could become a nuclear armed-failed state awash in Islamist terrorists. (Nightmares anyone?)

Fair points out, as she has for years, that there is an alternative to our logistic dependence on Pakistan, a route into Afghanistan starting at the Iranian port of Chabahar. Fair notes that Iran was willing to work with us after 9/11 but we rebuffed them. But now things may have changed:
But most Americans recoil at the suggestion of cooperating with Iran, arguing that Tehran is a potential nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Needless to say, Pakistan is an actual nuclear-proliferating sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, Pakistan is actually more dangerous than Iran: Tehran’s terrorist proxies are regional menaces rather than the international, hydra-headed scourges cultivated by Islamabad.
Under the Obama administration, the United States made unprecedented progress in thawing relations with Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which opened up at least the possibility of exploring the idea of moving supplies from the port in Chabahar.
I am not as sanguine as Fair about Iran's behavior. Their record as supporters of terrorism is pretty extensive and their activities across the Middle East represent a strategic problem. Even if we did recognize Iran as the lesser evil to Pakistan there are formidable domestic constituencies heavily opposed to this opening. Further, a number of our allies in the Middle East really, really do not like Iran. Would we want to upend our relations with them so we could fight in Afghanistan? Tough call.

Do we even want to be fighting in Afghanistan. There is a strong argument that our continued presence there is a case of the sunk costs fallacy - we can't quite because we've already invested so much. There is the concern that if leave and the Taliban take over (as seems likely), Afghanistan will again become a locus for international terrorism. I'm actually less worried about that. 9/11 happened, in part, but global attention was not on international terrorism. Now it is and while various counter-terror capabilities might need to be expanded, that's way cheaper than fighting in Afghanistan.

My argument for staying in Afghanistan would be the humanitarian one. The people of Afghanistan did not ask to be the crucible on which the Cold War ended or for their own resulting decades of civil war. Things there are very bad now, but there have also been remarkable gains (at least in some parts of the country).

There is another reason, besides enabling the fight in Afghanistan, to turn to Iran. That is Pakistan itself. It is, as I've written, an international basket-case. Without serious reforms it is difficult to see how it can face its multi-pronged economic, social, and environmental challenges. If we don't need Pakistan for other foreign policy goals, we are in better shape to try to influence Pakistan itself, we change who has leverage. For Pakistan the core issue, from the very founding of the state, has been its conflict with India. This obsession helped enable the Pakistani military to dominate the state, making vast claims on the nation's resources - leading to or exacerbating the various structural deficits threatening the state itself. Can we push and prod Pakistan into new directions? Maybe, probably not - but unless we decouple them from our Afghanistan policy moves in that direction don't stand a chance.

And what of Iran? There is stuff doing there, I don't claim to have any insight whatsoever. Can they lead to new opportunities? Not really soon. We don't know where this will lead. Could we get a new Iran that can become a close ally and utterly changes and recounces its past behavior? Maybe, probably not. Can we get an Iran that we can do pragmatically do business with? That seems more likely, but working with them will require adroit diplomacy both with Iran, other players in the region, and domestically.

Time will tell.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Writing Mad: Our Failed Public Diplomacy Campaigns

I try to affect a mild analytic tone in my writing here (which probably doesn't get me many readers.) But today I can't, I am really mad. On Christmas, The Washington Post ran this story on how the U.S. bureaucracy could not pull together an effective response to Russian information operations.

Here is are two critical clips, but by all means, read the entire article.


Above, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy had a creative idea for leveraging the fantastic content generated by the American entertainment industry as a public diplomacy tool to counter the Kremlin. But, the material is already under contract and it just couldn't happen.



Here again, a clever official at State has a plan to use cutting edge social media analytics to build networks to counter Kremlin propaganda networks. Great, but State cannot carry out public diplomacy on the American people, so it couldn't happen.

What made me so angry?
Am I mad at the State Department lawyers who wouldn't permit the project to go ahead? No, they are there for a reason. Our bureaucracies operate under constraints that reflect our values and priorities. 

Let me step back.

Since 9/11 I have gone to hundreds of think tank events, public forums, and other events where the great and good explain the world. I've even spoken at a few of them. All of them talked about the need to fight "The War or Ideas" or "Counter the Narrative." 

At one, discussing ISIS, about two years ago I said: "I've gone to so many of these events over the past fifteen years ago and everyone says we need to win the war of ideas. But we still haven't really committed to doing anything about it."

The speaker observed that ISIS propaganda works differently from al-Qaeda propaganda, so past efforts aren't effective.

My rejoinder was, "Fair enough, but that's like talking about needing snow tires when we still haven't bought a car!"

The speaker acknowledged my point. It isn't that State was blindsided by Russian propaganda. They were, but that is going to happen. It isn't that we probably shouldn't have dismantled our public diplomacy infrastructure after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, we shouldn't have, but we were feeling good about ourselves.

It is that - and I've written about this before - despite talking about it, we still have not established the bureaucratic infrastructure for effective public diplomacy. Given time, work arounds can be developed to bureaucratic constraints. If the U.S. government had really been working these issues (not the individuals - who are trying - but the institutions) then there would have been a range of ideas and capabilities available. They might need to be repurposed from countering radical Islam to countering the Kremlin, but at least there would have been frameworks already established. 

Failure of Leadership
Ultimately, to get results investments need to be made. It is that simple. Yes there is political turnover, but plenty of agencies have sufficient resources to build and maintain capabilities regardless of political leadership. DOD maintains a vast range of capabilities regardless of who is in power. If we want effective public diplomacy we need the personnel and the funding to create ongoing, continuing capabilities - sort of like the infrastructure we have for financial sanctions.

We often hear that U.S. public diplomacy has difficulty adapting to new media. Fair enough, but if the resources are there, then they can have people looking over the horizon at what is coming next. If they are completely overwhelmed by their inboxes there is no time. Further, with resources they can break the bureaucratic log-jams. Doing this requires people, to do research, attend meetings, and brainstorm work-arounds.


A corollary to this is that public diplomacy is a strategic afterthought, off in a corner. That reduces synergies. If public diplomacy is understood as a central, critical element (DIMEC? the C is for communications) other components of the U.S. government can contribute. 

I am still pissed that almost a decade ago we deported the brother of Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafez Saeed. The brother, a Muslim cleric in Sharon, Massachusetts, desperately wanted to stay in the U.S. and was much loved in his town (the rabbis went to bat for him.) Talk about a potential public diplomacy asset!!! But instead we deported him and he signed on with his brother.

But unless there is real bureaucratic heft behind public diplomacy, other agency prerogatives - such as Justice's desire to convict people - will prevail.

None of this stuff is easy. There are a lot of other priorities. But really, we've had a decade of complaining about this issue and no action.

I'll write about this later, but State has its own basket of fundamental structural problems.

And no real public diplomacy effort is likely in this administration where the entire State Department is being defenestrated, the very concept of diplomacy is not understood, and our president's toxicity is spoiling our world-beating brand.

Still, I'm mad about this ongoing failure.