The Permanent Campaign Has No Borders

Instead of pre-packaged messages broadcast overseas, building the capacity of local media and investigative reporters promotes transparency and creates a culture of democratic activism.
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Why stop here? What started in America can spread across the globe. Having demonstrated the massive power of digitally connected social networks to transform the political landscape, the Obama campaign has reinvented the architecture of democracy. Entrenched power centers and special interests will retain substantial influence, but newly mobilized cyber citizens will increasingly define the national agenda. The four-year cycle of electoral politics will give way to the Permanent Campaign.

In the Permanent Campaign, partisan politics are not replaced by bipartisan compromise; they are transcended by post-partisan ad hoc coalitions built around issues. The Rovian politicization of government was a petri dish of inbred incompetence. David Axelrod's shock troops came together to bring about change, but they are more tactical than ideological. The Bush universe was static and inflexible; the Obamian is technocratic, open source and responsive. Politics in America will never be the same.

But neither will it be in the rest of the world. The unprecedented attention and passionate interest in the US election ensures that people everywhere will learn the lessons of Obama's victory. The 2008 election dramatically reverses the global narrative. Osama mania may begin to be replaced by Obama mania. The idea that the son of an African man could become president of the United States is certain to inspire the youth of the developing world. Whereas President Bush tried to impose democracy on the world from the top down and bring regime change by force of arms, Barack Obama's campaign can spread the virus of grassroots activism through the same kind of participatory media that fueled his campaign.

A smart, power-driven foreign policy has the potential to infect closed societies everywhere with the germ of freedom. To take the maximum advantage of this transformative moment, however, the new administration will have to do a radical makeover of the post-WWII, Cold War era United States public diplomacy apparatus. The foreign broadcasting budget swelled to $650 million dollars after 9/11. Arab language satellite television and radio stations were launched, but they failed miserably to gain an audience. Small wonder. People everywhere prefer getting their news from local sources. Al Jazeera's English language channel similarly failed to penetrate the American heartland.

In our hyper-connected digital world, governments cannot compete with YouTube in defining the narrative about international events. "Official" sources of information have little credibility. The government's role, rather, should be one of facilitating the growth of independent media and the unfettered use of the Internet and mobile phone technology. With a tenth of the budget spent on foreign broadcasting, US media NGOs have trained tens of thousands of journalists and helped start thousands of independent radio and television stations. Content management systems in Farsi have allowed new online and print publications to proliferate in Iran. Schoolchildren in Egypt are being taught how to use the new media tools. An SMS text news service is spreading across Sri Lanka. Independent radio stations are broadcasting programs about gender and tolerance from inside the tribal areas of Pakistan, and a network of radio stations has been established throughout Afghanistan -- all with relatively small amounts of US foreign assistance funds.

The principles of applying smart power to international relations are the same as the community organizing strategies that Barack Obama honed on the streets of Chicago. Instead of pre-packaged messages broadcast overseas, building the capacity of local media, independent bloggers, citizen journalists and investigative reporters, promotes transparency and creates a culture of democratic activism. Providing people with the tools to get the information they need and a voice that can be heard strengthens local communities and empowers public citizenship. The message can no longer be controlled. Information breeds freedom.

The Permanent Campaign is a dynamic model that poses a threat to authoritarian regimes everywhere. The hunger for change is not confined to America. If Barack Hussein Obama can succeed in overthrowing George W. Bush, then democracy is demonstrably real and people everywhere, no matter their race or identity, can start saying, "yes we can." President Obama can facilitate the spread of democracy without even mentioning the word. By championing the cause of information access as a universal human right, Obama will spread the Permanent Campaign to every corner of the earth. The technology for viral organizing is there. Two-thirds of the world has mobile phones and two billion people are online. This information space is vastly different than the tightly controlled airwaves of the Cold War era when our foreign broadcasting system was born. A new foreign assistance strategy that supports the growth of local independent media and universal access will restore American leadership in the cause of freedom. In the information age, the Permanent Campaign has no borders.

David Hoffman is President of Internews Network, a non-profit organization that has worked in over 70 countries to empower local media worldwide.

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