Saturday, March 21, 2009
To be sure, "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences" -- the State Department's definition of public diplomacy -- is on Obama's and Clinton's agenda. Consider the President's appearance on Al-Arabiya and YouTube as a way to "reboot" a dialogue with the people of the Middle East and their leaders. And, aside from her own very "public" recent visit to Asia, we have the statement of the Secretary of State at her Congressional hearing that education is an important tool in societies' development.
Bush-era Public Diplomacy
But "public diplomacy" -- as a panacea for our government's failure to find support in the outside world for its policies -- has lost its Bush-era luster. Initially ignored by the previous administration, public diplomacy got front-page headlines when the White House, criticized after 9/11 for its neglect of foreign public opinion, decided that America's low prestige overseas was a problem that needed to be fixed through public diplomacy.
First came "branding" expert Charlotte Beers, who resigned as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Diplomacy and Public Affairs for reasons of health. Then entered Karen Hughes (Hurricane Karen, as she was known in the White House, at least before Katrina), the PR confidante of our 43rd president, who engaged in various "new," widely derided, public-diplomacy "initiatives."
James Glassman, the clever war-of-ideas advocate who followed Ms. Hughes, hyped the Internet as a way of bad-mouthing those "who hate us" through third-parties (his most memorable quote of his brief tenure: "Think of it this way: we're Coke; they're Pepsi. Our job is not to get people to drink Coke in this instance, but to get people not to drink Pepsi").
And let's not forget the countless, ponderous inside-the-beltway think-tank, committee-produced reports on how to "improve" public diplomacy so that the world would like -- and be like -- us. The worse, most bureaucratically written, of them all was the Djerejian report (2003), which the media greeted like the Ten Commandments coming down from Mount Sinai.
So, during the past few years, public diplomacy was taken oh-so-solemnly by the American political elite and chattering classes, who hoped, with some exceptions, that public diplomacy could somehow "sell" disastrous, unpopular policies under the previous president. And, of course, provide public diplomacy "experts" with government funding on how to make the world love us "again."
The New Team
Now we have new team in Washington, which is making a haphazard effort to change these Bush policies -- not significantly enough, in my judgment -- and adopting a new, less sanctimonious, tone in speaking with the outside world.
Meanwhile, Bush style public diplomacy -- an unholy mixture of propaganda, PR, branding, tactlessness, silly "new initiatives," and getting public diplomacy officials at the State Department to "implement its programs" -- appears to be, thank God, history.
But not completely: Consider the flap over the DVD set Obama presented to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a "gift" or the "reset" button Secretary Clinton offered to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Just the kind of insensitivity to the cultural details of diplomacy -- which public diplomacy supposedly focuses on -- that marked the "cowboy-style" of the previous administration.
Still, despite these USG faux pas, Obama provides an opening to restore one of public diplomacy's greatest qualities: that, while getting the human details right (will Obama's staff learn from its protocol mistakes?) it does not take itself too solemnly and realizes its own limitations.
Public diplomacy is not a substitute for wise policy, although it can help shape policy. It cannot automatically make the world love -- or respect -- us (should it?). It does not necessarily lead to "mutual understanding" (Karadžić, the butcher of Bosnia, studied poetry as Columbia University). Its use of the latest media -- including internet social networks -- doesn't necessarily make the USG "communicate" with foreign publics in a "mind-changing" way (nothing wrong with twittering, but are messages limited to 140 characters really that significant?).
But public diplomacy, at least from the perspective of this former practitioner of the trade overseas for over twenty years in countries far different from the United States, can help avoid embarrassing, damaging situations for the U.S. abroad by being tuned in to local mores.
And public diplomacy can perhaps make a difference in promoting "realpolitik," that nebulous term, or the US "national interest," that equally nebulous term, on certain occasions.
There are endless anecdotal examples of so-called public diplomacy "successes." Allow me to be generic. The mayor of a small town from a "Third World" country comes to America under a USG-sponsored International Visitor program and realizes that Americans are as human as he is. A reader of the US Embassy website in Central Asia discovers the "truth" about American foreign policy. An eighty-year-old in Russia still remembers listening to Willis Conover's jazz programs over VOA and thus loves America.
The list can be as long as those implementing such programs want them to be. ... But anecdotes are anecdotes, and "objective studies" are ... "objective studies."
Public diplomacy, like all human activities, does not produce miracles. Leave that to the Almighty, if She exists.
At its best, public diplomacy's "successes" with overseas publics, whatever they may be, are, I would suggest, based on its recognition of its (or, more accurately, of those practicing the trade) own limitations in "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences."
Public diplomacy's practitioners -- among them American diplomats overseas -- know that they are dealing with human beings who cannot be "measured" as to how they have "changed" to support American interests as a result of US public diplomacy -- simply because human beings cannot be measured, given their humanity. Or so I would venture to say, if so allowed by "strategic communications experts."
To try to convince supposedly budget-conscious staffers on Capitol Hill that US public diplomacy deserves funding -- for, at the very least, preventing diplomatic gaffes -- while admitting that it's not a cure-all for our "image problems" is, of course, difficult at this time of economic crisis. But acknowledging one's limitations is at least honest and credible -- what public diplomacy, at its best, should be all about.
Enough of solemnity.
Friday, March 20, 2009
[March 23, 2009]
Director, VOA Public Relations
Your blog post of Friday, March 20 [SEE BELOW] implies President Obama, in his address to the Iranian people on Nowruz, bypassed U.S. international broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the two U.S. government broadcasters that provide news and information directly to Iran.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The White House provided VOA, the largest Persian-language broadcaster, with Obama’s three-minute taped address in advance, embargoed for release at 11:30 p.m. Thursday EDT. VOA provided the tape to its sister broadcasters, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Radio Free Asia (RFA); Middle East Broadcasting Network (Al Hurra TV and Radio Sawa) and Radio/TV Marti.
By the time the embargo was lifted, the Obama video was posted on http://www.voanews.com/, www.voanews.com/persian/, and VOA’s partner YouTube channels as well as on other U.S. international broadcasting sites.
VOA reaches more than 29 people million people weekly with its Persian News Network – satellite television, radio and Internet. RFE/RL runs Radio Farda which broadcasts into Iran.
Over the weekend, PNN received and broadcast emails from inside Iran, many of them praising Obama’s speech. In one, Arash said he was pleased with Obama’s “message because he (Obama) actually recognizes the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The writer also said he hoped Iran’s leaders “will study Obama’s speech and make a good decision.”
In his remarks, Obama talked of a “new beginning,” saying he hoped Iran, the United States and other nations would form constructive ties. He also praised Iran’s “great and celebrated culture.”
VOA has the largest combined radio and television audience of all international broadcasters in Iran, with one in four adult Iranians tuning into a VOA show at least once a week. VOA broadcasts seven hours of television daily, repeated in a 24-hour format, and five hours of radio. Broadcasts are available round-the-clock on the Internet at http://www.voapnn.com/.
A Note on Obama and YouTube
President Obama's decision to address Iran -- its population and leaders -- via YouTube rather than a US goverment-supported media network (VOA, RFE/RL, Radio Sawa, Alhurra television) could be yet another indication (in the wake of his Al-Arabiya interview) that the new administration intends to "send its message(s) to the world" not through the public-diplomacy structures that were put in place during the Cold War and "the war on terror," but rather through private (or foreign) media that are not tainted by the crude propaganda that all too often has characterized USG outreach overseas, and particularly during the Bush years.
Obama goes on the Leno talk-show to speak to the American people, and on YouTube to address Iranians. To state the obvious: He is looking beyond traditional/official news media to make his administration's voice heard at home and overseas.
Meanwhile, no Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has been named. Has that position become a bureaucratic dinosaur?
"Smart Power In, Public Diplomacy Out?", I recently suggested. Obama's address to Iran on the occasion of its new year could perhaps be another piece of evidence that this may be the case.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
A recommendation suggesting the ideal person to fill the post of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department, coming from a private citizen who has publicly given “ten reasons why we don’t need an Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,” may seem like an oddity if not a contradiction.
But I feel, as a former Foreign Service officer, that perhaps I should voice my preference, since we Americans aim to live in a democracy, even if voters do not select State Department officials. Also, I’m following the example of several esteemed PD commentators, all far wiser than I, who have expressed their written opinions on who should be the next key PD point person at State.
My choice, which I believe few reasonable persons would disagree with:
Ambassador William Rugh.
Why? Because he is, in my view, the ideal un-Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Yes, I do mean un-Undersecretary, given the recent Under Secretaries chosen up to now.
Let me explain why.
First, take a look at his bio:
U.S. Department of State (Ret.)
William Rugh was a career Foreign Service Officer for 31 years, 1964-1995. He had several assignments abroad for the U.S. Information Agency including as Public Affairs Officer in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In Washington he was Assistant Director of USIA for the Near East, North Africa and South Asia 1989-1992, having served in that same bureau 1971-1972 as Senior Policy Officer and again 1973-1976 as Deputy for Near East and North Africa. He received the Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy in 1991, and Presidential Awards for Meritorious Service three times.
His Foreign Service assignments abroad also included one as Deputy Chief of Mission, at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus 1981-1984, and two as Ambassador: to the Yemen Arab Republic 1984-1987, and to the United Arab Emirates 1992-1995.
After retiring from the Foreign Service, he served from 1995 until 2003 as President and CEO of America-Mideast Educational and Training Services (AMIDEAST), an American non-governmental organization that promotes understanding between Americans and peoples of the Middle East through education and training, with offices in a dozen Arab countries.
He is now a consultant to AMIDEAST and a member of the Executive Committee of its Board.
He is also a Trustee of the American University in Cairo, a member of the Suffolk University International Board of Advisors, and an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Mr. Rugh holds an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins and a PhD in government from Columbia University. Between 1987 and 1989 he was Adjunct Professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, where he taught courses in public diplomacy and U.S. Middle east policy. He is the author of a number of books, book chapters, articles, and opeds on issues relating to the Middle East and to public diplomacy. His books include Diplomacy and Defense Policy of the United Arab Emirates (2002), Arab Mass Media (2004) and American Encounters with Arabs: the "Soft Power" of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab World, (2005)
His articles have appeared in the Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy, the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reform Bulletin, the Global Media Journal, and elsewhere. His opeds have appeared in Arab and American newspapers.
How many recent Under Secretaries have such qualifications?
Instead, for the past eight years, we have had:
I am simplifying, at the risk of appearing unnecessarily hostile to the above honorable individuals, all of whom served the Republic as they knew best.
Unlike them, however, Dr. Rugh brings the right credentials for the job.
I hope he will not object if I list -- in a cursory fashion -- his qualifications to run American public diplomacy (indeed, he is far more qualified to describe his achievements than I):
To repeat: I vote for Bill Rugh as Under Secretary -- or others like him with his talents and wisdom (although Bill is, needless to say, unique) -- because our country, in its dealings with foreign public opinion at this critical time, needs a knowledgeable professional, not a rebooted replica of the inadequate Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs we have had up to now.
Full disclosure: Some years ago, when Bill was working on one of his books, he was kind enough to share his thoughts on his project with me over lunch at a Greek restaurant. He picked up the tab; I had forgotten my wallet and could not contribute to the festivity.
In addition to his many virtues, Bill is forgiving of the absent-minded.
Monday, March 2, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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).
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.