Monday, March 2, 2009

Smart Power In, Public Diplomacy Out?

Smart Power In, Public Diplomacy Out?

John Brown

Washington D.C. is a city of buzzwords. After 9/11, the “global war on terror” was à la mode. But fickle Americans grew tired of this term, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself, who said he preferred the Marxist-sounding phrase “global struggle against violent extremism” (G-SAVE). As for the new administration, it appears that “war on terror” will not be part of its lexicon. In his January 27 interview with Al-Arabiya President Obama did not mention this phrase, George W. Bush's apparent legacy to the language of Shakespeare.

The new team on the banks of the Potomac has promised change, but it too employs buzzwords to characterize its foreign policy. The phrase of the day -- true, it was in circulation before Obama was elected -- is “smart power.” In The Daily Beast, a trendy new online daily, Rachel Sklar writes (February 14) that “[t]he reigning philosophy in Washington is Smart Power—a subtle combination of brains and the wisdom to use them to get things done. Hillary Clinton embodies Smart Power.”

The smart-power guru is Joseph Nye, a former Clinton Defense Department official and Harvard professor informally designated Ambassador to Japan, according to news reports. In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times (January 21), he writes that:

Smart power is the combination of hard and soft power. Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. America can become a smart America -- a smart power -- by again investing in global public goods, providing things people and governments of the world want but have not been able to get in the absence of leadership by the strongest country. Development, public health and coping with climate change are good examples. By complementing U.S. military and economic might with greater investments in soft power, and focusing on global public goods, the U.S. can rebuild the framework that it needs to tackle tough global challenges.
In her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Clinton echoed Professor Nye’s words:
I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called "smart power," the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy.
She added:

This is not a radical idea. The ancient Roman poet Terence, who was born a slave and rose to become one of the great voices of his time, declared that "in every endeavor, the seemly course for wise men is to try persuasion first." The same truth binds wise women as well.
In the Obama administration’s smart-power world, where does public diplomacy (PD) -- defined by the State Department as "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- fit in? Early indications are that PD, even if it won’t take a back-row seat, won’t be a no. 1 priority. To be sure, President Obama is concerned about world public opinion, as his interview on Al Arabiya on January 26 indicated. So is development-focused Secretary Clinton, demonstrated by her February very “public” Asian tour. But will Obama and Clinton push for grandiose-sounding “new initiatives” and heavily funded programs in public diplomacy? At this point, it appears that they will not, for several reasons.

The Campaign

First, consider the long presidential campaign. Public diplomacy was certainly not at the forefront of the national debate. The main concern of Americans, and especially after the Wall Street/mortgage meltdown, was the economy, and Barack Obama realized this, which is why he got elected. To be sure, he didn’t neglect foreign affairs entirely, and even spoke to 200,000 persons in Berlin to demonstrate that he intended to be a global leader. And he occasionally made references to public diplomacy. In an August 1 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center -- a “living memorial” to the President who took foreign public opinion perhaps more seriously than any of his predecessors -- Obama stated that:

I will also launch a program of public diplomacy that is a coordinated effort across my Administration, not a small group of political officials at the State Department explaining a misguided war. We will open 'America Houses' in cities across the Islamic world, with Internet, libraries, English lessons, stories of America’s Muslims and the strength they add to our country, and vocational programs. Through a new 'America’s Voice Corps' we will recruit, train, and send out into the field talented young Americans who can speak with -- and listen to -- the people who today hear about us only from our enemies.
But such declarations on public diplomacy by Obama were rare, despite his recognition of the need for global engagement. While running for president, he seldom used the term, which even today remains something of a mystery to many Americans. The same is true of Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Promises to emphasize or reinvent public diplomacy are certainly not what gave the Democrats control the White House and Congress. No wonder, then, that it’s not a pressing issue for the new administration right now.

The Missing Under Secretary

Second, at the time of this writing -- over a month after Obama’s inauguration -- a new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has yet to be named. This has caused concern among the small number of persons that emphasize the importance of PD in American foreign policy. Professor Steven Corman, one of the most astute commentators on the topic, lamented in his COMOPS Journal (February 12) that:

[T]here are reasons other than rushing into new message campaigns to have an Under Secretary in place. … We are all looking for signs that things are going to change and that PD is going to get the priority it deserves. Unfortunately, all the signs are pointing in the opposite direction. So even putting the programmatic and organizational matters aside, there is an important issue of symbolic leadership here.
Rumors are that the former president of Discovery Communications, Judith McHale -- who, as Al Kamen of The Washington Post points out (January 23), is a longtime Hillary friend and donated $109,600 to Democratic politicians and campaign committees -- will eventually fill the PD seat at Foggy Bottom. To some observers, the selection of someone with no “excess of diplomatic experience,” in Kamen’s words, reflects the administration’s lack of real concern with public diplomacy. As Professor Marc Lynch -- his name is widely associated with public diplomacy in Washington circles, given how much and how wisely he writes about the subject -- commented, somewhat bitterly, in Foreign Policy (January 23):

This [McHale as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs] would be a terrible, terrible selection. I don't know Judith McHale at all, and obviously have nothing against her personally. But the position of Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should go to someone with experience in and a vision for public diplomacy, and who will be in a position to effectively integrate public diplomacy concerns into the policy-making process. Appointing someone with no experience in public diplomacy but with a resume which 'involves selling a message' has already been tried: the first post-9/11 Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers, whose tenure lasted only 17 months (October 2001-March 2003), focused on 'branding' America through television advertising showing happy Muslim-Americans, and is generally considered to be an utter failure. … [D]uring the primary I had noted Clinton's inattention to public diplomacy.”
Helle Dale, a foreign policy specialist affiliated with the Heritage Foundation and the author of numerous articles on PD, observes in The Washington Times (February 4) that:

In terms of the public diplomacy institutions of the U.S. government, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in charge of … [she] had little to say on the subject, devoting only a few paragraphs to public diplomacy in her written testimony. Furthermore, in the reported choice of Judith McHale as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, the Obama administration has chosen someone from the rank of its major donors with Hollywood background, but with no diplomatic experience. Sending out the president to talk will be a powerful public diplomacy strategy for the new administration, but much more will be needed in the long run.
The absence of a sitting PD Under Secretary is joined by reports (cited By Carolyn O’Hara in Foreign Affairs, January 29) that “[w]here the R folks are going is anyone's guess, but it's presumably the far-from-coveted 6th floor -- hardly a good message to send about the importance of public diplomacy under a new administration.” This, no doubt, is causing shivers in the heart of the public-diplomacy staff ("R Bureau") at Foggy Bottom. Nothing concerns government servants more than what kind of physical space they occupy in the pecking order of the Bureaucracy.

Help not Wanted

Third, take Obama’s Al Arabiya interview and Clinton’s Asian tour. It is not insignificant that these “smart-power” moves were undertaken without an Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs on the job. The Obama and Clinton entourage clearly does not feel an urgent need to have a high-ranking State PD functionary/political appointee to demonstrate America’s renewed commitment to global engagement and listening to the world. The success of these two undertakings -- they were widely praised in the American and overseas press -- can be seen as evidence that the White House and the State Department intend to move the needle of foreign public opinion in America’s favor without overly depending on the head of the “R” Bureau at the State Department. And a number of commentators pointed out that the president chose not to use the US Government funded Alhurra television -- one of the PD initiatives of the Bush administration widely criticized for its failure to attract viewers -- as the channel to address Middle East audiences. A slap in the face to one of the public diplomacy initiatives undertaken under the watch of the 43rd President? It certainly appears so.

Don't Care Much about History

Finally, consider public diplomacy from a historical perspective. PD -- some prefer calling it propaganda -- flourishes in times of global war. That is when the US government is willing to commit people and money to “win” the “battle for hearts and minds.” In World War One, Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), which was served by more than 150,000 people (yes, 150,000!), as the CPI’s head, George Creel, pointed out in his How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information that Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe (1920). In World War Two, the Office of War Information (1942-1945) came into existence, even if Roosevelt was not as enthusiastic about propaganda as was Wilson. During the Cold War, when the term “public diplomacy” was coined in the mid-1960s (by Edmund A. Gullion, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University), the United States Information Agency (1953-1999) was established, partly because the State Department did not want to get its delicate hands dirty by engaging in propaganda, which some traditional diplomats still look at with disfavor (“a dangerous weapon, being all too apt to backfire or recoil,” writes Sir Harold Nicolson in the 1961 epilogue to his classic Diplomacy).

True, the U.S. is now engaged in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these are regional conflicts. Obama, reflecting the national mood, intends to pull US troops out of Iraq. The new administration is giving strong indications that it is dropping the term “war on terror” -- effectively ending a “war” that, during the Bush years, justified the need for “new PD initiatives” ranging from the so-called "diplomacy of deeds" to youth camps in the Middle East teaching the natives about American values. So, if history is any guide, it is unlikely that public diplomacy will enjoy a significant resurgence during the “peaceful” Obama years -- if they in fact remain relatively “peaceful.”

Muddling Through

What is most likely is that public diplomacy, qua public diplomacy, will muddle through at the State Department for the next few -- if not many -- years, without highly hyped "innovative" programs -- and to some, superficial and propagandistic -- à la Bush confidante Karen Hughes. Judging from her statements thus far, Clinton will:
  • continue to object to the creation of USIA-like “independent” PD agency, as she made quite clear to Congress;
  • support the use of the internet and cyberspace “social networks” in PD (the so-called “Public Diplomacy 2.0” hyped by James Glassman, the last of the four PD Under Secretaries of State during the Bush years);
  • emphasize the use of science in public diplomacy (a departure from the faith-based approach of the Bush administration);
  • give support to the Peace Corps as a way to improve relations with the Muslim world;
  • attempt to establish, as promised by Obama, new overseas "America Houses," although budgetary and security concerns may complicate such efforts;
  • stress women's issues;
  • focus on education perhaps more as a "development" than an "exchanges" tool (in her hearings, for example, Clinton noted that "[t]he president-elect supports a global education fund to bolster secular education around the world," but she has made made little reference to traditional, "purely" academic exchange programs like the Fulbright program, established thanks to the Senator from Arkansas in 1946);
  • and, eventually, appoint someone to "run" PD at the State Department (making sure s/he does not get too much publicity, at home or abroad, as Hillary does love the limelight).
Meanwhile, committee-written and often unreadable government-funded reports on how to improve PD may continue to appear (there have been dozens since 9/11), however at a slower pace than during the past few years, given the reports-fatigue of persons with a special interest in public diplomacy, doubtless shared by the small number of other taxpayers still concerned with this matter at a time economic crisis.

Of course, niche interest groups like people-to-people advocates and well intentioned NGOs will argue that public diplomacy is crucial, especially if they handle it themselves (USG funding welcomed, however, especially at a time of, repeat, financial crisis). Arts advocates want a cabinet-level secretary pushing for cultural diplomacy, citing the Obama/Biden camp's "A Platform In Support Of The Arts" (see, however, the article in Indiana Daily Student [February 25], "Secretary of culture?," which notes such a position is not needed and adds that "[m]ost Americans can’t tell the difference between a Jackson Pollock and a monkey throwing paint on a canvas”). Undaunted by such anti-cultural outbursts, some members of Congress, some of them influential, will, as Indiana Senator Lugar is currently doing, advocate US cultural centers overseas, calling for more funding for public diplomacy programs.

Quo Vadis PD?

So PD will by no means disappear; and some of the PD-related steps outlined by Clinton are not insignificant. They certainly are in tune -- but not quite, given their stress on "development" -- with public diplomacy's programs of information, education, and culture, all of which, are, arguably, propagandistic to varying degrees. Doubtless, the Obama administration will not drop the politically useful rhetoric -- also used during the Bush administration -- praising PD exchanges and cultural events overseas. After all, who can be against "mutual understanding," except the jihadists?

But the “smart-power” elite is looking far beyond (below?) public diplomacy to “reboot” (another buzzword du jour) America. The focus -- unlike the public diplomacy practiced by Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs during the Bush administration -- appears to be on improving the policy itself (rather than selling it) and on concrete economic/social/educational/ecological achievements (rather than PR). (Some would argue, however, that the appointment of a non-diplomat, non-academic Judith McHale as PD Under Secretary would be a Hillary-type replication of the naming of marketer Charlotte Beers and politico Karen Hughes to this post. And Obama and Clinton are concerned about their "image" no less than Bush and Rice were, although in more nuanced ways that go beyond "Mission Accomplished"-type spectacles -- or that are at least choreographed in somewhat better taste).

Most important, however, is that the war on terror is being gradually abandoned as a "reality," and so simple-minded Bush-style PD/propaganda -- whose worst manifestation was the build-up to the Iraq War -- has lost much of its appeal as a foreign policy tool, including among the Pentagon's "strategic communications experts."

This being the case, the Obama administration is making a departure from the role and nature of public diplomacy during the post-9/11 Bush years. The future will tell what final shape -- if any -- it will take. For now, however, it appears that the American government's voice overseas, while still not exactly enlightening, will lose much of its brashness and self-glorification. It will sound less like base propaganda, and that is not to be regretted.
The final version of this paper is scheduled to appear in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. Comments are most welcome. Meanwhile, the author would appreciate it if the article were not posted elsewhere, as it is still a work in progress.


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Matthew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew said...

Thanks for the link. I'm actually applying to Georgetown University, and if I get it, I'll be sure to look out for your lectures!

As for my post, I worry that public diplomacy limits a country's flexibility in international negotiations. Public diplomacy should be used to constrain the flexibility of the opposite party by rallying public opinion against their demands; it should not have the effect of constraining one's own ability to push one's agenda. I appear to have stumbled on something I should think on a little bit more!

I actually met an active member of the USFS about two months ago; he's an alumnus and we spoke at length about his experiences. He's currently posted as the military liaison to NATO in Brussels.

- Matthew from Free Exchange

Hoots said...

I don't know if this constitutes public diplomacy, but last July, well before the outcome of the campaign was locked in, I found a detail buried deep in the swelling mass of Obamamania that grabbed me. (What was that line from Jerry McGuire? "You had me at 'Hello'")

I put up a post about it at the time thinking I had found something important, but no one else seemed to notice.
You are among the few people who may be able to wade through it with understanding.

Obama and the arrest of Radovan KaradzicTo my surprise, one of the kids whose blogpost was quoted in the piece left a comment in July, eight months after it was posted.

I enjoy your blog a lot. Your notion of playful diplomacy is way long overdue.

Hoots said...

I was looking over last year's posts about the same time, and here is another item of interest, Manchild in the Promised Land.
I can't recall any candidate planting diplomatic seeds so far in advance of an election. Most Americans never noticed, although the rest of the world seemed to catch every nuance. But I guess that's nothing new.

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