Public Diplomacy Is Not the Answer

A PublicDiplomacy.Org Essay

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Barry Zorthian,
Partner, Alcalde & Fay

With all due respect for James Glassman, the Public Diplomacy he advocated in the Washington Times recently as the key to improving this country's standing overseas, would put us on the wrong track. Over the past several months, many other voices have urged the same approach. However, as promising as this may seem, Public Diplomacy is not the answer to reversing the low level in public opinion abroad to which America has fallen as shown in polls by such credible sources as the Pew Research Center. At least not as Public Diplomacy is being practiced by this Administration.

Glassman is the highly respected principal author of the Congressionally-mandated Djerejian Commission report on Public Diplomacy, probably the best of the many task force reports and recommendations that have been produced since 9/11 on this need for more effective communication of America and its foreign policies to other peoples. As the members of that Commission know all too well, that report along with the many others has disappeared into the labyrinth of Washington policy making with hardly a ripple.

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While all contain some reference to the importance of foreign policy, the emphasis in most of these reports has been on that part of Public Diplomacy which might be better described as cultural diplomacy: more exchanges; more dialogue; more intercultural understanding; more broadcasting; more projection of our "soft" power. All this based on the underlying thesis that if "they" only knew us better - our values, our basic goodness and benign intentions, our openness, our democracy - "they" would be more responsive to our approach and actions.

Certainly, more support and resources for these programs are needed to make up for the damaging reductions of the post Cold War Nineties and greater understanding of American values by others would be helpful even though much of the world is already aware and appreciative of American values. There are those who dislike our culture and concepts but most approve and simply ask "Why doesn't America live up to those standards itself?". However, their major shortcoming in current circumstances is that these cultural programs at best produce long-range results and have little relevance or effect on our current standing overseas.

The crux of our problem lies elsewhere. One is tempted to paraphrase Charlie Brown and say "We have met the enemy and they is us.”

Traditional Public Diplomacy, at least as most advocates have understood it has another basic and, in current circumstances, a much more critical element, political diplomacy if you will: participation in the determination of foreign policies and actions and in the subsequent  articulation and projection of the message - the "in on the takeoffs as well as the landings" role - presumably the rationale behind the 1999 merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department.

Yet, when questioned as to participation in policy making, the last two Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy, the highest ranking official position for this area, each separately replied in effect "We don' t do policy ". Both in turn left their posts prematurely. In this Administration, they did not take part in the takeoffs and sometimes one senses not even in the landings.

In this age of intense worldwide reaction resulting from instant communication and global media, foreign perceptions depend largely on and are a response to the substance of our foreign involvement - our policies, their articulation and projection and the actions we take to carry them out . With Public Diplomacy thus limited at this point largely to what are long-term goals, the task of taking into account the impact and effect of our national actions falls squarely on the principals who conceive and determine foreign policy.

There is little doubt that in the modern world, the reaction of foreign peoples and in due course of their governments, is critical for the successful conduct of our foreign affairs and should be an essential element in determining policy and implementation at all levels of responsibility in our government structures, both civilian and military. So it is a real factor for our leadership to take into account as it speaks out, takes action, deals with the media, both domestic and foreign.

"Arrogant, single-minded and insensitive deployment of power and enforcement" Unfortunately, what we see today too often is a disregard - it may be disinterest - of this aspect in our policies and actions and  too often what seems almost a disdain for "the opinions of mankind ". Instead, we seem to go out of our way to project an arrogant, single-minded and insensitive deployment of power and enforcement - at least, that is the image that is received by foreign audiences from our words and actions.

Too many in the world have come to believe American foreign policy is biased, based on double standards and on serious misjudgments about the world we live in, that it serves only the selfish interests of this country and that it is basically hostile to their own aspirations and interests.  Iraq represents only the most visible and dramatic example of the nature of our problems.  There are times when one might argue that the less said about our policies, the better. Certainly, these are not problems that can be overcome in their present state by expanded Public Diplomacy cultural programs. We do little through such efforts to persuade our world audiences to change their reactions..

What is really needed for improved foreign impact and responsiveness to the United States is a comprehensive overhaul and fine tuning of our foreign policies and actions with the interests and aspirations of other peoples in mind. Our goals may be valid. It is our methods and approach that need change. What we must bring to bear is a whole new mindset that leads to substantial modifications. Only then is there a chance that in due time with the benefit of effective political action and communication, backed up by the long-range programs of Public Diplomacy, will those Pew poll figures return to the high levels they enjoyed in the past. Which would certainly serve the ultimate interests of our country.

Those who cannot or will not make such adjustments, many of them architects of our current approach, would serve their country (and their President) well by moving aside and leaving the field and the pursuit of our national interests abroad to others whose vision goes beyond a hard-nosed thumb-in-your-eye approach to our relations with the world. Does this mean abandonment or dilution of America' s security and interests? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary; it would further those goals. We're not doing too well right now. Let ' s try a changed approach.

There are many among the supporters of this Administration both inside and outside the government who are both qualified and capable of carrying out such needed changes and whose commitment to our national security and interests cannot be questioned. In assuming such responsibilities, they may even be able to help restore the essentially bipartisan foreign policy which marked this nation's actions for more than fifty years. And who knows. A change along these lines may not only improve our posture on the world stage but may even help this Administration achieve its goals in November.

Barry Zorthian is a Partner in the Washington Government and Public Affairs firm of Alcalde & Fay and a former senior foreign service officer who was in charge of the communications effort in Saigon for four a half years during the Vietnam War.
Reprinted with permission.

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Updated: 12 June 2004.
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