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Dog Food, Diapers, Diplomacy

Donna Marie Oglesby

Address to
St. Petersburg West Rotary
19 February 2003

Reprinted with permission

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It would not surprise me if you found the title for my remarks today more than a little frivolous given the current state of global events. NATO appears to be on the rocks, the French Ambassador, standing up to U.S. Iraq policy in the UN Security Council got an unprecedented round of applause last Friday, and the streets of Europe and some major cities of the United States filled with a millions of protesters over the weekend making physically evident what they have been saying in polls for months -- that more than 70 percent of Europeans oppose war against Iraq at this time.

Such an outpouring of public opinion in opposition to American policy toward Iraq makes it extremely difficult for foreign leaders to respond positively to U.S. requests for assistance. As is clear to Prime Minister Blair in Great Britain -- where one and a half million people took to the streets in protest and only one in ten British favors his support of American policy -- he may well pay a political price for his alliance. In Italy, Spain and Turkey surprisingly large crowds voiced their opposition to their governments being part of the shrinking coalition of the willing that the Bush Administration is counting on to disarm Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein by force if necessary.

Given this turbulence in American foreign relations, a speech entitled "Dog food, Diapers and Diplomacy" seems a bit ridiculous to me as well so I hasten to clarify that the title for my remarks today is taken from a comment made by a senior State Department official at a meeting I attended on public diplomacy in Washington D.C. this past October. In a pitch for resource support, he complained that the State Department lacked the necessary resources to “market” American foreign policy to foreign publics. He offered -- as his benchmark for comparison -- the $222 billion dollars routinely spent by U.S. corporations marketing products such as dog food and diapers on a global basis.

When we look back at this low point in global respect for and support of American leadership on foreign policy some will justifiably argue that we didn't spend enough money trying to get them to see us as we see ourselves. I would like to suggest that wasting nearly two years trying to "market" foreign policy like dog food and diapers is the more likely culprit.

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Understand, inform and influence foreign publics

I left Washington in 1996, retiring from a 26 year career engaged in the conduct of public diplomacy for the United States abroad. Then, we defined public diplomacy as the effort to "understand, inform and influence foreign publics in the pursuit of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans, their institutions and their counterparts abroad."

We knew then, as we had known since Edward R. Murrow was the Director of USIA during the Kennedy Administration that the fundamental purpose of public diplomacy is to create a climate of public opinion abroad within which foreign leaders can respond positively to American foreign policy initiatives. We knew then, while publics do not make foreign policy, they do constrain the options their governments may consider in pursuit of their national interests.

We, of course, were The United States Information Agency -- an agency dedicated to the single purpose of engaging publics abroad on behalf of American policies, ideas, and culture. The central idea of USIA -- that of respecting public opinion and engaging foreign publics -- seemed superfluous to the American triumphalists in the giddy "post historic period" of the 90's when America was seen to have won the cold war and to have conquered the world with our ideas of peace, democracy, and free markets. As a consequence of this "end of history", USIA was eliminated in 1999.

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Then came September 11, 2001

State Department absorbed most of the public diplomacy functions in a bizarre reorganization scheme criticized from the start by all public diplomacy professionals. Pressed by shrinking budgets, the State Department closed many American cultural centers and libraries abroad, eliminated positions dedicated to press and cultural affairs and downgraded the positions of those who remained. By 2001, the United States devoted less than 4 percent of its overall international affairs budget (about $1 billion divided equally between broadcasting and other information and cultural activities) to engaging foreign publics on behalf of its interests and values. Then came September 11, 2001.

Suddenly, it seemed that our ideas of peace, democracy and free markets were being contested in a most brutal way. We learned that we were hated by some who wanted to destroy us and that these barbaric few were supported by many others who -- while not inclined to violence in anyway themselves -- rather enjoyed seeing America bloodied and humbled. The "whys" came in a torrent. Why did this happen? Why do they hate us? What were they thinking?

Perhaps if we had continued our efforts to try and understand foreign public opinion following the elimination of USIA [While U.S. corporations annually spend some $6 billion surveying overseas consumers, the U.S. government has spent only $5 million a year conducting polls of foreign public opinion.] we might not have been surprised to learn that a majority of the people surveyed in nine Muslim countries (by Gallup in 2002) have a poor opinion of the United States, don't believe Arabs carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks, and consider the U.S. war in Afghanistan morally unjustifiable.

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True dislike, if not hatred, of America

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey released December 4, 2002 by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press adds to our understanding of the depth of the antipathy towards us in the Muslim world. While favorable opinion of the United States has fallen in the last three years across the globe, markedly in Europe, true dislike, if not hatred, of America is concentrated in the Muslim nations of the Middle East and in Central Asia -- today's areas of greatest conflict. Sizable percentages of Muslims in many countries with significant Muslim populations also believe that suicide bombings can be justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. While majorities see suicide bombing as justified in only two nations polled, more than a quarter of Muslims in another nine nations subscribe to this view. The United States is seen to be such an enemy of Islam justifying the attacks on September 11 and those to come.

As these suddenly apparent hostile attitudes toward America became clear over the fall of 2001, many in positions of power in the United States attributed them to our failure to communicate. Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, for example, was perplexed enough to ask in a Washington Post op-ed "How can a man in a cave in Afghanistan out communicate the world's leading communication society?"

Holbrooke was not alone in his puzzlement. "I'm amazed that there is such a misunderstanding of what our country is about," President Bush said in October 2001. "We've got to do a better job of making our case." To make the case, President Bush appointed Charlotte Beers, to the position of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive who made her name selling Uncle Ben's rice, took office in October 2001. In the face of intense criticism of her lack of experience in foreign affairs, the Bush administration hailed her background. "We are selling a product," said Secretary of State Colin Powell, who selected Beers. "We need someone who can rebrand American foreign policy, rebrand diplomacy."

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A country as a brand

In case you have not heard, the newest idea in Oz is that a country is a brand. And, as with any other brand, people have associations with the nations they know. If the brand isn't selling well because the associations people make with the brand are not positive, it is time to repackage or rebrand the product. [The product is what it is, of course. It is the image of the product that gets a face lift.] Such thinking has the Polish Foreign Ministry flying a kite over the k in "Polska" to transform the nation's image from "cold, sadness and vodka" to "youth, playfulness and hope." (New York Times, 12/01/02) Spain, it is said, has succeeded in rebranding its image from "Franco, the Spanish Civil War and Don Quixote" to "wine, movies and art" all through the kind of advertising campaign knowing as "emotional branding."

Undersecretary Beers took her rebranding of America as a product very seriously. During a presentation at the National Press Club in December of last year, she spoke of the United States as "an elegant brand," but a tough sell in the Islamic world where the United States is increasingly seen as an indifferent and arrogant bully. Had she take the time to cast her eyes toward Europe, she might have noticed the rise of a similar perception. Instead, she focused her energy and not a few dollars on a slick campaign of television spots for the Muslim world. The campaign -- an attempt to convince them that the United States has a happy and well integrated Muslim population of its own and is not anti-Islam -- was a quick and obvious failure and has now been abandoned.

Beers doesn't create foreign policy -- she is quick to say when challenged on the content of the message -- her job is the package the message for more effective communication. The Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, in other words, does not work to engage foreign publics in discussion of American ideas or ideals. Engagement is, of course, an iterative process involving an attempt to understand in order to persuade. Absent careful attention to the perspectives held by others, there is no strategic communication -- by which I mean purposeful communication in the political realm. Instead, the Bush administration spent the first post 9/11 year in office trying to construct a positive image of the United States for consumption abroad.

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Image reshapes our very notion of the truth

And, an image, as Daniel Boorstin so prophetically warned us in his 1961 book, The Image: A guide to Pseudo Events in America is synthetic. It is a value-caricature that displaces the ideals themselves. It reshapes our very notion of the truth. In time, by thinking in terms of images and not ideals, we deceive ourselves writes Boorstin, "When the gods wish to punish us," Oscar Wilde might have said, "they make us believe our own advertising." We do not need to be spending taxpayer money to create images and send them abroad. It is the very flood of commercial entertainment images from America that has caused much of the resentment in the first place.

While the under-funded State Department was misdirecting its public diplomacy efforts, the well funded Defense Department was also in the business of projecting images of a resolute America to audiences abroad. Intended to convince Saddam Hussein and other hostiles that the United States was ready willing and able to take the fight to them, the media was flooded by DOD generated images and stories intended to scare the enemy into collapse without the need for real war.

My colleagues at the National War College say the military well know that in today's world much of the battle is psychological and takes place in the "media space" -- they are so aware of this that they call the media a "battle space" and tried to create an "Office of Strategic Influence" in DOD to co-ordinate the activities. Because of its Orwellian title -- and leaked plans to spread disinformation in Europe -- the office was squashed. Some suspect it war reborn as the Office of Global Communication in the White House itself on January 21, 2003.

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More than a little ankle is showing

The problem with psychological warfare in 2003 is that in a global age there are no discrete media audiences. Rhetoric intended to intimate Saddam Hussein, scares publics Europe into believing that America wants war regardless of provocation. Scared publics in Europe constrain their governments' willingness to ally with the United States in this effort. British Foreign Minister, Jack Straw complained about his continental counterparts distancing themselves from the Anglo-American initiative. He said, they should know, "You can't show any ankle in an operation like this." More than a little ankle is showing today. Deep divisions in the international community and strong skepticism of American leadership now make war more likely than it might have been had our NATO allies and the UN Security Council joined us in making credible the threat of force against Iraq.

In 2003, we are not engaged in a virtual battle with hostile forces. 9/11 was not a movie. As we watched it on that clear September day, most of us thought it had to be a movie. So used to living in a virtual world of pseudo-events, celebrities, "reality shows," docudramas and infotainment, we thought -- at first -- this is not happening. But, it did happen. And, it will happen again. Ironically, publicity is the very oxygen terrorism needs to thrive. The attacks on 9/11 were assaults not simply on the United States but on a world in which the United States considers itself the central, indispensable nation (in the words of former Secretary of State Albright.) I have no doubt that Saddam Hussein's Iraq, like Al Quaeda, is hostile to the United States. Its interests and values are antithetical to our own, and its intentions far from peaceful.

Still, an effective American response cannot be simply the use of force, psyops, and a barrage of images of "America the good." It must be a revitalized commitment to the realization of a true liberal international system based on democracy and the rule of law. We need to recognize that the democratization of the globe that we worked so hard to achieve following the end of World War II -- while incomplete -- nonetheless has resulted in the multiplication of democratic countries across the globe -- 121 by the count of Freedom House. Our Cold War success in solidifying democracy abroad means that public opinion is empowered to the extent it has never been before.

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More than ever we need to recognize that public opinion matters

Now, more than ever we need to recognize that public opinion matters. This is not to say that our national interests should be held hostage to foreign opinion. But, it is to insist that we ignore foreign public opinion at our peril.

Governments in democratic societies do respond to the views of their people or they do not stay in power. That means we need to work hard to inform people abroad of our views and try to influence the way they think about issues we care about. This is not the job of advertising or psyops; it is the job of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is best conducted on the ground abroad by language qualified professionals who establish personal relationships of trust with opinion leaders in foreign societies. Persuasion occurs, as Edward R. Murrow, used to say in the last three feet where image is stripped away and genuine communication about ideas occurs.

9/11 may have ushered in a period of nationalism and consequent bipartisanship at here at home but it ushered in a period of intense politics on the global stage. We used to say about American foreign policy that politics stopped at the water's edge. Perhaps we need to begin to understand that in 2003 politics begin at the water's edge. If that is the case, it is time to can the idea of marketing foreign policy like dog food and regain a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.

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Currently, Diplomat in Residence at Eckerd College, where she teaches courses on international relations and American foreign policy, Donna Oglesby has over twenty-five years experience in cultural and public diplomacy culminating as Counselor of the Agency (USIA) from 1993-1996.

She is the recipient of numerous awards including: the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange Award for Outstanding Service; USIA Distinguished Honor Award; the Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and a Presidential Honor Award.

In addition to being faculty at Eckerd College, Professor Oglesby is a member of the Tampa Bay Committee on Foreign Affairs, and a member of the Public Diplomacy Council. Articles by Donna Oglesby on cultural and public diplomacy have been published by the United States Institute of Peace and the Foreign Service Journal.

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Updated: 4 April 2003.
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