Clinton: Balancing foreign policy and social media

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

  • Published
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 15 Feb 2011

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been a strong advocate for internet freedom - and in her second major speech on the issue she described the internet as the public space of the 21st Century.

In an address in Washington, she said it had become the world's "town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house and nightclub".

This is language that will no doubt speak to young users all over the world.

But when Mrs Clinton said the US supported this freedom for people everywhere, she mentioned only countries like China, Syria, Burma and Iran - rivals and foes of Washington with a poor record on freedoms.

But Arab allies which also censor the internet heavily, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, were not specifically named, although the message was no doubt directed at them as well.

American officials insist the issue is raised often in private and in public but the "naming and shaming" of allies is a delicate affair for Washington.

And when Mrs Clinton announced that the state department would award $25m (£15m) to help support the development and dissemination of technologies that help push back against internet repression wherever it occurs, it is likely that dissidents in countries like Kuwait or Saudi Arabia expect to benefit too.

Balancing act

Earlier in the day, President Barack Obama called on Arab countries to look at Egypt and understand that they had to rule by consent and to reform quickly.

But while it was a fairly direct appeal for change to autocratic rulers, again, there were no names mentioned.

Washington has to strike a delicate balancing act as it promotes values, whether the freedom of speech, or the "freedom to connect", as Mrs Clinton called it.

With both the expanding possibilities of the internet and the opportunities created by the upheaval in the Arab world, the US is trying to stay nimble, harnessing change while fending off the dangers to its own interests.

But whether in the Arab world or on the future of the internet, Washington is trying to formulate policies in mostly uncharted territory.

So Mr Obama's message to Arab rulers seemed to be an attempt to encourage quick reforms in the region, to avoid the upheaval of another massive popular revolt and the uncertainty it brings with it for both the Arab world and for US interests there.