Monday, May 31, 2010

Reflections: Strategic Citizen (Updated)

I started this blog to explore a few ideas. They represent a particular time in my life, that time is over and I have moved on. Some of those ideas are more a product of that time and aren't really relevant to me now, others though were the basis of where I've gone with my thinking since. Many of my views have changed and this blog doesn't really reflect where I am at today, although many things remain the same. One theme of this blog that really captured my imagination during this time was the Strategic Citizen.

I came up with the idea of the Strategic Citizen because I was frustrated with the ongoing failure of the Bush Administration to implement a campaign of ideas against radical Islamists and for America. It was in Feb. 2005 that the idea occurred to me that because of advances in communications technology ordinary citizens could run sophisticated campaigns of ideas that in the past would have been the sole province of government agencies. And it was in 2006 that I came up with the term "strategic citizen" as an effort to capture this idea in a couple of words. During the years leading up to this I had been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug and was saving up money to start a media business and was always looking for an entrepreneurial solution to problems. It was also a time when I had been reading the essays Glenn Reynolds was writing for TechCentralStation that would become the basis of his book Army of Davids, when there were a lot of discussions of decentralized networks, spontaneous social orders, and of course the rise of the blogosphere that empowered ordinary individuals and challenged existing old-style media companies. It was also a time when Al Qaeda itself was demonstrating that it could run media campaigns without the large governmental bureaucracies that too many people in the US felt were necessary. Al Qaeda used off-the-shelf technology and decentralized networks to successfully disseminate their ideas and influence perceptions. Why couldn't ordinary Americans do the same? It was obvious to me that we could. I thought it was a good idea and tried to persuade other people that while not everyone could serve in the military or work in intelligence, law enforcement and diplomacy, they could become participants in the war of ideas and have a positive impact in a way that had never been possible before. But with a few exceptions, no one was interested or they didn't believe that it would work, despite the evidence that it was already working for our adversaries. In retrospect I probably should have done more to champion the idea, maybe set up a website dedicated to it and written longer pieces to flesh out the idea. But at the time I was trying to start up my business and that absorbed most of my energy and attention. I was trying to live up to the idea I was championing and become an entrepreneur and strategic citizen rather than just talk about it. Unfortunately I ran out of money before I was able to make enough money. But I learned a lot from that experience and plan to build on that as I pursue the next iteration of the business. I still think the Strategic Citizen was a good idea but in order for its potential to be realized I had to persuade other people to buy into it and take action and I was never able to do that. In the end though it doesn't really matter. And it doesn't matter that the federal gov't was never able or willing to get its act together in public diplomacy/strategic communication.

Addendum: The first time I wrote about the citizen-directed idea campaigns was in February 2005 in a comment at the now defunct Daily Demarche blog. Unfortunately the comments are no longer accessible, all that remains is his comment on my comment. I was most definitely not referring to "pen pals" when I talked about "citizen diplomacy." Nor was I suggesting that government sponsor anything.

Phil advocates "citizen diplomacy", and says "We Americans should be our own advocates." This is an excellent idea with a long standing tradition- we used to call folks who practiced this pen pals. Is there any reason the government can't sponsor modern day pen pals via the internet? It's a small thing, to be sure, but that is what large successes are built on. Michael adds to this thought: "This is a two way road. We are all on it. But we can not even get this message straight in the US let alone in the world. I like the idea from Phil's idea: "citizen diplomacy". We Americans should be our own advocates. It is not about the dollars but what we do with the dollars." Well said. Engaging any interpersonal problem at the individual level is the quickest way to root out misconceptions.

The first time I used "strategic citizen" was in a comment on a Fourth Rail post in April 2006.

Perhaps we need to develop the concept and skills of the "strategic citizen". The citizentry is not hermetically sealed off from the war. Third parties don't have to be hostile. With our entrepreneurial culture and today's technology there is no reason why "strategic citizens" can't create friendly non-governmental organizations and media that can take an active role in this new kind of warfare.