Diplomacy is back.
During its first six years, the Bush administration disparaged diplomacy. It refused to negotiate a nuclear weapons deal with North Korea, declined to allow U.N. inspectors to continue to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and ignored the Iraq Study Group's recommendation to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria.
Over the last few months, however, this attitude has begun to change. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has embraced shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and brokered a nuclear weapons deal with North Korea. Across the aisle, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi braved White House objections to visit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has reiterated his long-standing desire to visit Iran.
This return to diplomacy is welcome. However, to someone who has spent a significant portion of his career as a political consultant working internationally - often in turbulent countries attempting to make the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy - this conception of diplomacy seems strangely pinched.
Diplomacy in today's interconnected world should suggest more than sitting face-to-face with foreign leaders in formal anterooms. Instead, it should mean focused, data-driven attempts to understand and mobilize public opinion in countries whose conduct is vital to the interests of the United States.
We've done it before. In Mexico and Serbia in 2000 - and again in the Dominican Republic and Ukraine in 2004 - nongovernmental organizations and Western governments mounted subtle and successful efforts to secure free, democratic elections and, in the process, thwart anti-Western leaders. Those techniques are particularly effective in pseudo-democratic regimes, such as the ones that currently govern Venezuela and Iran. Here's how such an approach would work.
Pay attention to public opinion. Some of the most pressing problems facing the United States today can be attributed, at least in part, to its failure to take public opinion seriously.
In Iraq, even a rudimentary understanding of Islamic insurgents and the various sectarian factions continues to elude the United States. As journalists such as George Packer have pointed out, surveys and public opinion research should have featured prominently from the beginning.
The same hindsight can be applied to Iran. In 1997, a Western-oriented reformer, Mohammad Khatami, became president. His success would have transformed Iran and benefited the entire world. Yet the West allowed Khatami to fail and was then caught off guard when he was replaced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fundamentalist demagogue intent on securing nuclear weapons. As the United States considers how to respond to Iran's nuclear program, we would do well to spend as much time monitoring Ahmadinejad's domestic favorability ratings and cultivating pro-Western sentiment.
Ensure that the winner wins. Democracy does not always produce results favorable to the United States: The terrorist organization Hamas' recent electoral triumph in the Palestinian territories attests to that. Yet on the whole, the United States has been well served by ensuring that the people who win elections take office - and hurt when it has ignored election fraud in sensitive parts of the world.
In 1992, the West stayed quiet and allowed Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic to steal the election. It was a decision that would cost the Balkans tens of thousands of lives. Similarly, during the 2004 election in Venezuela, the West turned away from compelling evidence that incumbent President Hugo Chavez had committed election fraud, an oversight that ensured an avowedly anti-American leader continued control of the largest oil supply in the Western hemisphere.
Embrace exit polling. The best way to establish or protect democracy in difficult circumstances is to promote credible, outside polling, particularly exit polls on Election Day. Multiple, well-funded exit polls can help remove the temptation for incumbent governments to commit fraud, as in Mexico's successful transition from one-party rule in 2000.
Applying the strategies of public opinion research abroad is not a panacea. Indeed, the experience of countries such Venezuela under Chavez demonstrates how cleverly authoritarian regimes can misuse polling and political communications. All the more reason for the United States and other like-minded allies, be they governments or NGOs, to mount winning campaigns.