The Pause That Refreshes: Some Thoughts on Obama and Public Diplomacy
Persons interested in foreign affairs -- among them the distinguished former Foreign Service officer Pat Kushlis; the noted scholar of the Middle East Professor Marc Lynch; the well-known blogger Matt Armstrong -- have suggested that the Obama administration is not moving fast enough in organizing its public diplomacy. The Department of State defines public diplomacy as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences."
My initial reaction to the PD experts' sense of urgency, as a former US diplomat, was to share it fully: We must do something big for PD after Bush! It must be done right away!
But my view has changed somewhat, as a result of an enlightening luncheon the other day with Bruce Gregory, Professor of Media & Public Affairs of George Washington University, who was one of the authors of the widely acclaimed Defense Science Board report on public diplomacy (2004). In my opinion, it was the best report among the dozens on the subject after 9/11, because it convincingly argued that US policies, and not solely our government's marketing of them, were largely to blame for our low international reputation. Its statement that "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies," was widely quoted in the press but had little impact on the Bush administration.
Bruce -- who believes deeply in the importance of PD (as I do) -- observed that during the Bush years public diplomacy became a tainted term. I fully agree with him. To many overseas, American PD -- which the Bush administration misused, I would suggest, to justify the war against Iraq and other overseas misadventures -- has come to represent simple-minded PR or crude propaganda.
Professor Gregory's point about American PD's loss of international reputation leads me to think that perhaps the Obama administration should avoid loud, self-serving announcements to the world that it will be engaging in various types of PD "new initiatives" (indeed, should it?) which would remind many foreign publics of the uncoordinated, condescending, parochial PR Potemkin villages of the Bush years.
These naive, highly hyped Bush-entourage efforts putatively to change hearts and minds of the overseas "natives" reinforced the belief -- held in many parts of the world about what is perceived to be an imposing, imperial America -- that the United States tries to "sell" unpopular policies through misleading and sophomoric marketing/manipulative techniques.
Among such Bush-era undertakings, advertised throughout the globe, were "branding" the U.S.; establishing a new USG-supported television station for Middle East audiences, Alhurra; undertaking "listening tours" by the Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy; preaching American "values"; developing media "rapid reaction" units; proclaiming a PD-oriented "diplomacy of deeds"; twittering away à la Colleen Graffy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Guantanamo apologist; and fighting the "war of ideas" through the internet social networks (the so-called Public Diplomacy 2.0, the brainchild of James Glassman, the last PD Under Secretary of State in the Bush administration).
Perhaps some of this Bushian PD mindless frenzy had some positive impact overseas. But, essentially, it was about an insular White House, initially uninterested in public diplomacy because of its instinctive dismissal of the outside world, wanting to "catch up" in converting foreign "aliens" to be pro-USA after 9/11 so that Americans would feel "safe" ... and vote Republican.
So (allow me to be cynical), the public diplomacy of the Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs serving the former administration (there were four of them) longed, above all, to win favor with GOP politicos by demonstrating they were doing "something new" to push Bush-all-the-way -- not only in other countries, but (quite blatantly) in die "homeland" itself.
The true intent -- as I see it, I hope erroneously -- behind the Bush-faithfuls' message: to tell the President and his entourage that "they (foreigners, Americans, whatever) will love you even more [hate you even less?] as a result of what we are doing."
But I would repeat -- seeking to follow Professor Gregory's train of thought, if, I hope, he will allow me -- that, given the unpopularity of Bush's unilateral, aggressive policies abroad (and, as a consequence, of the PD that "justified" them) these "new initiatives" were all viewed with varying degrees of skepticism, if not derision and hostility, by overseas audiences. Alhurra is perhaps the best example of a project gone wrong; it continues to have little appeal in the Middle East, and is considered essentially a propaganda mouthpiece for the US government.
Obama's appearance on Al Arabiya -- his first formal interview with the press as President -- has been characterized by many American media as a public diplomacy coup for the new administration (note, however, that George W. Bush also spoke on that Saudi-financed regional station). Significantly, this Obama PD success -- how lasting it will be is hard to tell -- was achieved without a new PD Under Secretary, nor by engaging in a self-promoting new USG PD initiative. And, equally significant, it did not use Alhurra, the gem (for a brief moment) in the Bush PD crown, as a vehicle to "get our message across."
The Al Arabiya interview does (one hopes) suggest, however, that the new administration's policy-makers are aware of the importance of world public opinion. This sensitivity to the mindsets of other nations is, I believe, the most important element in making US policies understandable and acceptable overseas.
But during these hard economic times, with thousands and thousands of Americans out of work, more taxpayer dollars going to PD "new initiatives" is by no means an automatic solution to America's overseas "image" problems. Nor are idiotic bureaucratic turf-wars among government agencies (e.g., the State Department and the Department of Defense), based essentially on "who's going to to get the money to do PD," of any real value to the Republic.
If the new administration has indeed thought along these lines, I say "right-on." Let American policies and the United States of America -- warts and all, including Hollywood vulgarities -- speak for themselves, without hype or spin. To be sure, the USG should support time-tested exchange programs (by many not considered PD in the first place) that make a long-term difference in improving international understanding, much to the benefit of American (and global) interests. The Fulbright program, a two-way discourse in the best sense, comes immediately to mind.
But what we don't need, above all, are Bush-like loudspeakers, on the internet or elsewhere, cheerleading the global masses into going gah-gah over the "land of the free and the home of the brave" or leading the charge in a so-called endless "war on terror" against the "islamofascists." The world will welcome such a lowering of our government's voice. It will be a pause truly refreshing to humankind, far more, I would venture to say, than Coca Cola itself.
"Reputation, reputation, reputation! O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial."
--Cassio, in Shakespeare's Othello
"Surtout, pas trop de zèle."
"Simplify, simplify, simplify!"
--Henry David Thoreau
--"Hitler's Terrible Weapon: Publicity"
--Headline in The Washington Post, February 11