OP-ED: US' image will improve only when our foreign policy does

Before America once again wastes millions of dollars to "win the hearts and minds" of people who hate it, someone must tell the emperor - Uncle Sam - about clothing.

Before America once again wastes millions of dollars to "win the hearts and minds" of people who hate it, someone must tell the emperor - Uncle Sam - about clothing.

And before we saddle the State Department's next undersecretary for public diplomacy with the task of "delivering our message," Americans must face up to an axiom of effective PR as simple as it is brutally frank: "It's the policy, stupid!" Two seminal meetings last week - one in New York City, the other in Washington, DC - offer guidance and hope. The meeting held at UN headquarters brought together communications and diplomatic experts to address "Beyond War and Terrorism: Rebuilding Global Communication Links." At the invitation of the PRSA's International Section, the symposium speakers - UN leaders, American and foreign journalists, PR experts, former ambassadors and academics - were unanimous in urging that future American public diplomacy be based on more realistic assessments and objectives. It is policy - and related action - that matters most in successful PR. Recent opinion polls tell us that it's current American foreign policy, not traditional American values, that is unacceptable to many people in the Middle East. Marc Lynch, assistant professor of political science at Williams College, told the UN meeting that on a recent trip to the region he found that American public diplomacy was based on 10 fallacies ranging from misunderstanding of the "Arab Street" to an apparent belief by American leaders that a show of power will ultimately win Arab support. At the Washington, DC meeting, held by the National Inter-religious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East, 32 prominent Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders met to push the US into vigorous and visible support of the "Road Map" to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. As reported by New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels, the religious leaders spanned the spectrum from evangelical Christians to Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbinical associations, to the nation's two largest Islamic religious organizations. The group's statement outlined "12 urgent steps for peace." "Several people at the news conference," Steinfels noted, "were struck by the fact that Jewish leaders were most outspoken on the need for action by Israel and Muslim leaders on action by the Palestinians." Moreover, the religious leaders promised to use all the communications instruments at their disposal to build a broad movement "urging that the White House and Congress make pursuit of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement a priority and a 'moral imperative.'" Foreign policy formed in part by responding to the opinions of the people it affects is at the core of successful public diplomacy. However, even that kind of reciprocal relationship-building requires the skilled and committed global-communications capability that America has sorely lacked in recent years. In her new book Madame Secretary, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright writes that in folding the remnants of the US Information Agency into the State Department in 1999, "we succeeded in placing public diplomacy at the heart of public policy." The statement is arguable. US public diplomacy is now but a pale shadow of the effective, comprehensive and long-term effort of the USIA in earlier administrations. In the 1980s, Harold Burson - who has wisely noted that PR has evolved from "delivering the message" to advising on sound policy and responsive action - chaired the USIA's private-sector PR committee. In JFK's administration, iconic journalist Edward R. Murrow ran a robust and vital USIA. Murrow's biographer, Alexander Kendrick, tells us in his book Prime Time that since Murrow "had taken the USIA directorship not as an administrator but, as he hoped, a participant in policy-making, he endorsed Kennedy's view of the USIA as a direct policy tool." Kendrick also gives us a piece of Murrow public-diplomacy philosophy as relevant and compelling today as when it was delivered, not during a "war on terror," but during the equally threatening Cold War: "The skillful propagation of poor policy would merely intensify error." Murrow, of course, was right. And America has paid dearly for forgetting his advice. It's time to recall it - and apply it once again.
  • John Paluszek is senior counsel of Ketchum and the PRSA's liaison to the United Nations.

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