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HAMPTON STEPHENS

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THE BUSH administration's latest budget contains a significant increase in spending on ''public diplomacy" -- government-sponsored programs to communicate with the citizens of other countries through the media and cultural and educational exchanges. The increase has been met with a sigh of relief from foreign policy watchers who believe public diplomacy is an essential pillar of American ''soft power" and have watched that pillar slowly crumble since the end of the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the US Information Agency led America's public diplomacy assault, broadcasting Radio Free Europe to Soviet Bloc states, broadcasting the Voice of America throughout the world, and sponsoring numerous alternatives to state-sponsored media in nonfree countries. The agency was dissolved in 1999 and its programs absorbed into the State Department, where critics say long-term public diplomacy efforts have been starved for attention in a department culture that is focused on short-term solutions to immediate crises.

After flat funding for public diplomacy over the last decade, the president's fiscal year 2006 budget request would increase spending on broadcasting, education, and cultural exchange programs by about 15 percent, to $1.08 billion, according to the State Department.

This is no doubt a good sign. However, as the bureaucracy belatedly gears up to spread the message of liberty as an alternative to extremism and tyranny, there is evidence to suggest that independent, grassroots efforts to nurture democratic ideas in some of the world's most repressed societies are gaining momentum and could make old-style public diplomacy irrelevant. While the latest US-sponsored public diplomacy efforts, such as the new Arabic television station Alhurra, rely on decidedly old-media formats, the Internet appears to be the medium through which future international political opinion will be influenced most significantly.

In most foreign countries, traditional media like Al Jazeera -- against which Alhurra, established in February 2004, is designed to compete -- is the place most citizens get their political information. However, the particular characteristics of the Internet and Web logs make them fertile ground for alternative political cultures to take root, especially in countries where the state attempts to control access to information. With their use of the Internet for organization and for communicating their ideology to new believers, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have already demonstrated the power of networks to spread political movements. Less publicized so far is the growing use of the Internet by democrats to foster liberal culture in repressive countries.

In Iran, for example, there are more than 75,000 active Web logs written in Persian, Iran expatriate Hossein Derakhshan, who now lives in Toronto and is a central figure in the Iranian blogosphere, told an audience at Harvard University's Internet and Society conference in December. Derakhshan says Web logs are the most trusted information medium among Iran's citizens, of which 70 percent are under the age of 30. He believes it is only a matter of time before blogs become a major political force.   Continued...

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