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Public Diplomacy and National Security:
Lessons from the U.S. Experience

Bruce Gregory

Excerpts from Small Wars Journal, 15 August 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Seven years after 9/11, the nation's leaders agree. Public diplomacy is crucial to national security and must be improved. These calls for change sound strikingly familiar. The 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy also urged "effective public diplomacy" – "a different and more comprehensive approach" in "a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism." ...

What is Public Diplomacy?

Public diplomacy is now part of a global conversation. It has many different meanings and "no one size fits all." The term strategic communication is gaining traction. Some see it as more inclusive than public diplomacy and more descriptive of a multi- stakeholder environment. For most analytical and practical purposes, however, the two terms can be used analogously. For example, in 2007 the State Department issued a U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication without offering a distinction.

Public diplomacy can be viewed as an instrument with analytical boundaries and a few broadly applicable characteristics. Public diplomacy describes the means by which states, associations of states, and non-state actors understand cultures, attitudes and behavior; build and manage relationships; and influence opinions and actions to advance their interests and values. Public diplomacy differs from education, journalism, advertising, branding, and public relations. However, it imports methods and discourse norms from civil society, and it depends on deep and diverse relationships with civil society to succeed. Public diplomacy operates though actions, relationships, images, and words in three time frames: 24/7 news streams, medium range campaigns on high value policies, and long- term engagement. Its tools range from electronic media to cultural diplomacy to "the last three feet" of personal communication.

The World of Public Diplomacy Has Changed

Despite great differences between the hot and cold wars of the 20th century, the underlying factors that shaped the practice of public diplomacy were similar. States dominated international relations. Non-state actors were few in number. "Big ideas" were secular struggles between authoritarian and democratic worldviews. Media and communication systems used analog technologies. Hierarchies were the principal organizing structure in society. National armies fought on battlefields with industrial age weapons. Armies still cross borders, but it's a different world. States are not what they used to be. Governance is provided increasingly by political actors above, below, and around the state. Thick globalism, non-state actors, a mix of secular and religious "big ideas," digital technologies, and new forms of communication have transformed the old world order. Network societies challenge organizational hierarchies. Attention – not information – is today's scarce resource. And we confront insurgents and terrorists in a new paradigm of armed conflict fought within civilian populations by contestants with local and global reach.

U.S. public diplomacy's principles and methods are rooted in 20th century models of communication, governance, and armed conflict. Five lessons from recent experience point the way to strategic change.

1. Abandon message influence dominance. Responses by U.S. officials to the attacks of 9/11 assumed that failure to communicate effective and consistent messages was the central problem in American public diplomacy. Soon after 9/11, the White House created an Office of Global Communication to "ensure consistency of messages that will promote the interests of the United States abroad." In 2002, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice created a Strategic Communication Policy Coordinating Committee "to develop and disseminate the President's messages across the globe." The top public diplomacy recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission stated: "The U.S. Government must define what the message is, what it stands for." In 2006, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley created a new interagency Strategic Communication Coordinating Committee. Its purpose: "to disseminate the President's themes and messages across the globe in the most effective way." And the mission of the Counterterrorism Communications Center headquartered in the Department of State was "developing messages and strategies to discredit terrorists and their ideology."

The message influence strategy holds that public diplomacy is primarily a matter of deciding on the right message and disseminating it to others consistently and often. This strategy overlooks two important considerations in how people create meaning. First, they interpret messages through their culture, history, language, influence relationships, and personal needs. Second, people make assumptions about the intentions and motives of communicators. And they do so in complex mediated environments that we often do not understand. As Arizona State communications scholar Steven Corman astutely puts it, "The message influence model assumes, incorrectly, that communication is the transfer of ‘meanings from person to person' and that the message sent is the one that counts." Decades of communication research demonstrate that "the message received is the one that really counts." ...

2. Change the framing narrative – from the hedgehog to the fox. The distinguished scholar Isaiah Berlin wrote famously that the hedgehog knows one big thing, the fox many things. U.S. leaders framed their response to the attacks of 9/11 overwhelmingly as one big thing – a "war on terror." According to the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, this war is a "battle of ideas" with an "ideology of terrorism," an ideology in which "Islam has been twisted and made to serve an evil end."

The global war on terror became a master narrative for America's strategy and its public diplomacy. It defined a problem. It set the agenda. It identified the source of security threats. It conveyed moral judgment. And it offered solutions. But this narrative has had far greater consequence for stirring anxieties at home than for effective public diplomacy abroad. Many experts now question militarizing counterterrorism other than to deny safe haven. It fosters moral outrage and gives glory and warrior status to terrorists. It falls short as public diplomacy, because it allows terrorists to frame the discourse to advantage. Many are also skeptical of democratization as a centerpiece for public diplomacy in a "war on terror." That terrorism occurs in democracies is only part of the problem. Espousing democracy at the point of a gun in Iraq, support for authoritarian regimes where election outcomes are preordained, and turning away from election winners in Gaza and Algeria undermines credibility and democratization's value as a separate enterprise. Grounding public diplomacy in contested interpretations of religion is problematic as well. It puts the U.S. in an arena of religious war it seeks to avoid. Why should Western leaders tell Muslims what is or is not extremist or moderate Islam? The Princeton Project on National Security concluded "The best way to start is to take Islam itself out of the equation." ...

3. Leverage knowledge, skills, and creativity in civil society. To make public diplomacy smarter and better, we must take collaboration with civil society to a new level. Thoughtful voices are calling for an independent, non-partisan Congressionally-funded center for global engagement to attract experts with knowledge, skills, and creative imagination. Groups as diverse as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Defense Science Board, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies have recommended such an entity.xiv

Their proposals differ in detail, but they reflect a growing consensus: much of the expertise needed for effective public diplomacy is outside government. A focused and networked center for global engagement would attract those reluctant to be identified with government agencies, and provide a "heat shield" to safeguard independent advice from the special pleadings of government organizations. This center would provide expertise on cultural influences, media trends, social and psychological forces that shape human behavior, and communication strategies. Academic, scientific, and research communities have needed expertise in languages, cultures, and knowledge domains. The commercial sector has an edge in media production and information technologies. The center would tap into these domains and respond quickly to unexpected events. As a central clearinghouse for expertise and professional resources, it would increase government-wide capacity and situational awareness in time-sensitive environments....

4. Emphasize net-centric actors and actions. Tribal cultures dominate U.S. public diplomacy: foreign service officers, broadcasters, cultural diplomats, military officers, democratizers, and other practitioners who operate competitively in hierarchical organizations. Hierarchies and concentrated expertise have their place. But technologies and social structures now favor networks and flexible practitioners – boundary spanners rather than gatekeepers.

Public diplomacy needs risk takers: flexible practitioners who will operate in the space between state and non-state actors on multiple issues in changing patterns of interaction. They must adapt quickly in a world of new media, networked allies and adversaries, and events with unforeseen impact. This will require changes in recruitment, training, and execution with requisite incentives and penalties in career systems – in short, transformation in organizational cultures. This is not your grandparent's public diplomacy. Public diplomacy also benefits from networked actions – what some call a "diplomacy of deeds." Providing health care, education, economic opportunity, and help after disasters can engage others more effectively than words. A recent Defense Science Board study on Strategic Communication looked at a range of such initiatives: One Laptop Per Child, an effort to provide poor children with durable, inexpensive laptop computers; Sesame Street's international co-productions; Developing Radio Partners, an NGO that supports community radio stations in developing countries; and government activities ranging from Fulbright scholarships, to the Peace Corps, to the Navy's hospital ship visits....

5. Rethink government broadcasting and adapt to new media. U.S. international broadcasters responded to 9/11 by creating the Arabic-language Radio Sawa and the Al Hurra television networks, and by shifting attention to Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. They used the "war on terror" to make the case for more funds, and Congress was quick to comply. The broadcasting budget is roughly equivalent to funding for all State Department exchange and information programs.

U.S. broadcasters compete with Al Jazeera and other global media, successful local broadcasters, and a Web 2.0 world of interactive media and user generated content. In broadcasting, greater market density creates a higher signal to noise ratio and higher costs. With few exceptions government signals in information rich media environments are no longer competitive. Decisions on the future of one-to-many government broadcasting will require strong leadership and independent research on media trends and broadcasting's impact, not just on market share.

The Internet is not only breaking the broadcasting model, it is changing all mediated public diplomacy. The Internet's "long tail" – a few dominant sites with an unlimited number of smaller sites transmitted at almost zero cost – vastly increases user choice and content creation. Open source software enables wiki applications. Viral connectivity spreads information like an epidemic with multiplier effects through different media forms. New social media – YouTube, MySpace, chat rooms, video games, and virtual worlds – are changing media habits, especially among the young....

Beyond Terrorism

Americans "discover" public diplomacy in wartime. They mount campaigns against single threats with myopic intensity – Nazi Germany, communism, and the "war on terror." It is an episodic pattern of commitment in which instruments of public diplomacy are allowed to rust when the war is over only to be "rediscovered" when the next challenge occurs....

We run a considerable risk if we focus exclusively or even predominantly on a "war of ideas" or "war on terrorism." The global "strategic buffet" is enormous and varied – nuclear proliferation; climate change; failed states; the growing power of states in Asia; threats from non-state actors other than terrorists; famine, disease, and genocide in Africa; global pandemics; trade; and emerging scientific, environmental, and energy issues. Where are the varied and adequately resourced public diplomacy strategies for these challenges? Americans must learn from experience. They must learn to think and act like foxes, not hedgehogs.

The full text (PDF) of the article is found on the Small Wars Journal Web site.

Bruce Gregory is an adjunct assistant professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on public diplomacy, media, and national security. During the 2008-09 academic year, he also will teach a graduate seminar on public diplomacy at Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service program and a course on strategic communication at the U.S. Naval War College. He is a member of the Defense Science Board's 2007 and 2004 Task Forces on Strategic Communication, the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Public Diplomacy, the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, and the Public Diplomacy Council. He served on the National Defense University's faculty from 1998-2001 where he taught courses on public diplomacy and national security strategy. From 1985-1998, he was executive director of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Previously he served in various headquarters positions in the U.S. Information Agency.

He is the author of "Public Diplomacy: Sunrise of an Academic Field," in Public Diplomacy in a Changing World: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616, March 2008, 274-290; "Public Diplomacy as Strategic Communication," in James J.F. Forest, ed., Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century, Vol. I, Praeger, 2007, Chapter 17, 336-357; "Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication: Cultures, Firewalls, and Imported Norms," a paper delivered at the American Political Science Association Conference on International Communication and Conflict, August 31, 2005; and "Public Diplomacy and Governance: Challenges for Scholars and Practitioners," in Andrew F, Cooper, Brian Hocking, and William Maley, eds., Worlds Apart? Exploring the Interface Between Governance and Diplomacy (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming September 2008).

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