Maps of China
Despite vows to overhaul public diplomacy, there are few, if any, signs of progress in that direction. The reasons for the failures of public diplomacy since President Bush took office are many. First and foremost, public diplomacy, as well as diplomacy itself, has been set aside by the White House and the Pentagon. What seems to matter most to this administration is force, not negotiations or communications with foreign publics. America’s ability to influence the world through its achievements and ideals appears to be passé to Bush and his advisors. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, we have been told that we must focus on fighting terrorists, rogue states, and all those who are against us. There is no room for the soft power of diplomacy, traditional or public.
Second, Bush’s efforts—if you can call them that—at public diplomacy haven’t been properly integrated into his policy as a whole, with the result that the messages are out of sync with or irrelevant to what the administration actually does. As one NPR commentator put it: “We are sending our gathered might to the Persian Gulf to make the point that might does not make right, as Saddam Hussein seems to think it does. We cannot leave in power a dictator who ignores his own people. And if our people and people elsewhere in the world fail to understand that, then we have no choice but to ignore them.” The White House’s new Office of Global Communications is supposed to be repairing this gap between policy and message. But the world, and I’m sure the State Department’s Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs staff as well, is as confused as ever about what the administration is up to. Everyone is confused because the policy and the message don’t gibe.
The third reason for the failure is that the formulation of a downgraded public diplomacy by Ms. Beers and her staff showed a real lack of imagination. She obviously was incapable of penetrating the mentality of people in countries other than her own. The ability to empathize with other cultures—which was the aim of the highly successful Fulbright educational exchange program—was clearly not her cup of tea. Instead she managed to insult foreign audiences with pathetically superficial videos on U.S. values.
Public diplomacy is too often confused with propaganda. Of course, it would be naïve to think that propaganda is not an element in public diplomacy. But the trouble starts when propaganda is used stupidly instead of being presented in a coherent and credible argument. Propaganda is a bad word in our country, so branding was substituted for it during Ms. Beers’ tenure. It was considered to be “marketing a point of view.” But pubic diplomacy is not branding for the simple reason that public diplomacy deals with a country, not a product. And unfortunately, the administration has attached one idea to its branding—that America is the world’s last superpower. Public diplomacy properly presented would never make such a dreadful mistake.
What do we need to do to reestablish a productive public diplomacy program? First, in the words of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, we need an “attitude lobotomy.” The administration somehow must get out of its parochial shell and view the world in a more sophisticated way. Second, we need to look at the future instead of focusing so much on the current needs and reestablish our cultural presentation programs that are based on our long-term interests. Third, we should reestablish our cultural presentation programs—the sending of artistic and musical presentations—especially to countries that view American culture as a violent one, as depicted by Hollywood. Fourth, we should train more area experts who become thoroughly familiar—including the language—of particular parts of the world, especially the Muslim world. We did this in the case of China, and the results have been positive. But too often our foreign service officers are shuffled around from country to country without their gaining sufficient expertise in any one country to be really effective.
My final hope is that there will be a serious attempt in the private sector to establish the Islamic equivalent of the National Committee on United States–China Relations. The national committee’s record over the past thirty-six years in working with the government—and in many cases setting an example for the government—in establishing positive and friendly relations with China has been remarkable. In this organization's history is an incomparable example of how public diplomacy can improve cross-cultural understanding, and its work should serve both the government and the private sector as a model to imitate and follow.
Of course, the Islamic world is smaller in numbers than the Chinese world, and it is scattered among many nations. Still there is always the possibility that a creative variation on the Nixon-Kissinger strategy in opening up our relations with China might work with Islam. In any case, the vital need is to know each other better.