The White House on September 27 announced the nomination of Acting Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson. This is good news for the U.S. and the region; she is precisely the right person for the job. Her confirmation hearing is not yet scheduled, though she is not expected to face major difficulties (unlike several other recent nominees for Western Hemisphere positions).
As often happens with any change of leadership, goals and strategies will be reconsidered. This change-of-guard moment provides a great opportunity for the Obama administration to come forth with an idea, an initiative of its own—something that isn’t cribbed from the Bush administration—and to make its mark on the region. After all, it has been popular parlor talk that what is needed is a major initiative and a clear strategy for the region. Time is ticking.
One smart idea comes in a report issued by Sen. Richard Lugar’s office last week, Latin American Governments Need to ‘Friend’ Social Media and Technology. It outlines an innovative strategy to advance U.S. goals, namely through social media and technology. Because governments that embrace new media technology are shown to be more responsive to their citizens and more transparent, the report argues, the U.S. has an interest in Latin America’s technological development. And, “[a]t a time when U.S. political influence is waning in the region, it is clear that U.S. driven technological trends could redefine relationships with many countries in Latin America,” writes the report’s author, Carl Meacham, senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer. And a good way to regain some of that influence is by leveraging technology—in part because it’s an industry in which we lead, Meacham says.
If you haven’t read the Senate report, The Washington Post summarized its major recommendations: “...in order for the U.S. to expand social media use in Latin America, it should help allow public or private entities to set up software engineering training programs and establish IT literacy and outreach programs. The report goes on to recommend that the State Department support local technology developers in creating language translation programs, since only 12 percent of the Web’s content is in Spanish or Portuguese.”
The report advises that companies focus on low-bandwidth infrastructure, while developing content that can be used with slow connection speeds. That is where the greatest needs and demands are—and where the money is.
But, in this time of budget-cutting, spending more federal money on any foreign affairs project—particularly one developing another country’s Internet infrastructure and literacy when our own needs attention —is unlikely to go anywhere.
I pointed this out to Meacham, who responded that this wasn’t about spending more U.S. money overseas. “Instead, it’s about empowering people in other countries to become technologically connected and savvy…We can do this by facilitating connections between U.S. companies and Latin American governments so that the two can work together to innovate, create new markets and strengthen civil society's ability to shape their own communities," he says. A win-win for all involved.
As Latin America is one of the fastest growing export markets for the United States, it makes sense for the U.S. to help encourage tech companies, like Google, Facebook and Twitter, to become more active in the region. The U.S. strategic interest in playing a “matchmaker” of sorts between the region and private companies is to promote Internet freedom and to ultimately use improved technological connectivity to advance our broader regional objectives, such as strengthening democratic values.
Currently, the U.S. government uses social media sites to explain U.S. foreign policy, to engage global audiences and to develop “partnerships with citizens in achieving shared goals: citizen security, strong democratic institutions, inclusive economic prosperity, and clean and secure energy.” Here, the report cites Roberta Jacobson, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, in response to questions for the record submitted by Sen. Lugar on June 30, 2011.
One example of the State Department’s social media outreach is Iniciativa Emprende, a Facebook page designed for online youth interested in starting their own businesses. With currently 27,000 members from Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and other countries, it promotes entrepreneurship and the open exchange of ideas, according to the State Department. Given that this page was just launched recently, the growth potential is enormous.
Another specific project is State’s TechCamp, which brings together civil society representatives from various countries with technology experts to “brainstorm on how technology can be used to address real world challenges,” according to the State Department. State held one in cooperation with Uruguay’s government this month.
More broadly, the department and all the embassies in the region are also actively using social media to connect to a regional audience. Regional embassies presently boast about a half of a million Facebook friends.
Beyond using social media sites and platforms to explain U.S. foreign policy and engage global audiences, how else can the U.S. government use new media tools to strengthen democratic values and bolster free-trade principles?
The next assistant secretary needs to mainstream these twenty-first century tools into our statecraft and public diplomacy—and coordinate activities across the department. In other words, pick up and expand where former Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela left off.
We also need to ramp up our data collection and research on the impact of social media and technology on fostering democracy in the region, particularly Venezuela. And that will require action from the top.
Meanwhile, in the immediate term, Meacham’s recommendations on social media should be a focus and questioning point for Jacobson during her confirmation hearing.
*Liz Harper is a contributing blogger to AQ Online based in Washington DC.