War, Peace, and Diplomacy

The US is trying to jump-start its public diplomacy initiative as the conflict in the Middle East heats up.

The US is trying to jump-start its public diplomacy initiative as the conflict in the Middle East heats up.

A lot has been written over the last year about America's military buildup; less noticed is the parallel reinvention of its public-diplomacy machine. America's capacity to nurture its image overseas - dangerously neglected since the end of the Cold War - is once again among Washington's highest priorities. But rushing a handful of new spy planes off the assembly line is child's play compared to jump-starting a bureaucratic function that has lain fallow for 10 years. Public diplomacy used to be a game played between governments, but the rules changed while America sat on the bench. With the introduction of 24-hour news networks, the internet, and cell phones, governments were taken out of the equation. Today, the target audience for international diplomacy is the man on the street. And the US has spent the past year figuring out how to reach him. "We had a great deal of experience during the Cold War influencing academics, journalists, performers, and cultural elites, but in those days if you influenced the elites, they in turn would influence the broader mass of public," remembers Harold Pachios, chairman of the US Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy. "Since then, we've had a communications revolution. So now, after September 11, we're really starting all over again." Hence 2002 saw everyone from congressmen to CEOs pitching their ideas for improving America's image around the world, particularly with Muslim countries: ads, radio broadcasts, cultural exchange programs, leaflet drops, and misinformation campaigns. One journalist even famously suggested we "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." Several ideas, one purpose Some ideas have been better than others, of course. But the big story in public diplomacy over the past year hasn't been the quality of the ideas so much as the sheer amount and scope of them. Some of those ideas have already been successfully implemented. Others were quickly forgotten. Surprisingly, the latter group includes some of the initiatives that once seemed most promising. A high-profile effort between the White House and Hollywood, for example, ended before the curtain was ever lifted. Presidential advisor Karl Rove met with MPAA boss Jack Valenti last November to discuss how Hollywood could help "sell" America. Valenti responded by culling together a committee of 40 high-powered studio execs to brainstorm the idea. But other than sending a handful of celebrities and movies to troops in Afghanistan (which State Department officials eagerly point out is not public diplomacy so much as standard war-time troop entertainment), the effort has yielded nothing. Likewise, an intended collaboration between the Ad Council and undersecretary of State for public diplomacy Charlotte Beers fell flat. The council announced shortly after September 11 that it was meeting with Beers to discuss a possible overseas ad campaign. On its own, it produced a handful of PSAs for domestic consumption, and the State Department did indeed send some if its own advertising to Arab countries. But nothing ever came of the collaboration. Back in March, Representative Henry Hyde (R-IL) introduced the Freedom Protection Act, a bill designed to increase spending on public-diplomacy efforts and launch a handful of new initiatives, including foreign-journalist training and a series of exchange programs. Having passed the House, the bill now awaits Senate attention, something it won't likely get when Congress reconvenes this month for a catch-up session. Representing the far side of the public-diplomacy paradigm was the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Information (OSI), a proposed effort to spread misinformation in foreign countries. Pentagon officials say the OSI's intended purpose was to combat anti-Western propaganda, but it ended as a cautionary tale of good diplomatic intentions run amok. Thanks to a strategically timed leak to The New York Times, the OSI was torn down before it could ever be established. Other efforts, however, have been implemented with impressive speed and success. Radio Sawa, already on the air in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq, brings Western acts such as Eminem - interspersed with regional favorites - to millions of Middle Eastern teens, 24 hours a day. It also broadcasts global news with a distinctly Western viewpoint. The $30 million effort by the US Broadcasting Board of Governors has quickly become one of the most highly rated networks in the region, and is poised to expand quickly into other Middle Eastern countries. The State Department, America's customary launch pad for public diplomacy, took the first steps in turning itself around this year. Undersecretary Beers summoned every public-information officer from every American embassy around the globe to Washington for three days of training and morale-boosting - an effort that reflects the new focus on street-level media relations. Plus, a program called American Room breathed new life into cultural exchanges, bringing American theater and music to more remote regions of Muslim countries. The private sector gets involved The private sector got in on the act in a number of ways as well. A group of communications executives recently submitted a report to the Council on Foreign Relations endorsing the creation of something called the Public Diplomacy Institute (PDI), a private-sector offshoot of the State Department designed to carry out public-diplomacy initiatives sans red tape. "The reality is that the bureaucracy has got challenges in terms of working through these programs," says Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick Worldwide, and a member of the group that compiled the report. "One of the best ways the private sector can be involved is to help carry out some of the administration's broader public-diplomacy plans." But the effort most anticipated by diplomats is the White House Office of Global Communications (OGC). Borne of the International Communications Coalition (ICC), a global quick-response network of media relations centers set up by the White House and the British government shortly after September 11, 2001, the OGC promises to do two things diplomats sorely long for. First, it will provide the kind of high-level, 24-hour attention to overseas communications that only a White House department can provide. But more important would be its role as the sole proprietor of America's varied public-diplomacy efforts. With so many campaigns coming from so many sources, the fear is that the message will get muddled. "The government's message to foreign audiences should come from the White House," says Pachios, who served as deputy press secretary under President Lyndon Johnson. "Most implementation would be done by other agencies, but the coordination of messages needs to come from the President." Of course, no examination of US public diplomacy in 2002 would be complete without considering the Iraq factor. The US may be quietly telling the Muslim world we want to be friends, but the President is speaking much more loudly about our interest in taking down Saddam Hussein - whether the rest of the world helps or not. Bush has even launched a handful of diplomatic campaigns aimed at convincing not just the Muslim people, but Europeans, that Saddam is a threat. So it begs the obvious question, can we simultaneously make war and peace in the Middle East? Maybe, says Pachios. "Ordinary people in Arab countries wouldn't mourn the death of Saddam Hussein," he explains. "The problem is that people in the Middle East think there is an anti-Muslim, anti-Arab bias in our government and in our policies. So they put everything in that context." Overcoming that, he says, means thinking about public diplomacy when formulating foreign policy, not just when selling it - an idea that some, though not all, members of the Bush administration have embraced. "We have a Secretary of State who understands that [public diplomacy] should not be an afterthought, and we have some very good communications people in the White House who don't think it should be an afterthought," Pachios says. As for the others, he chooses simply to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow: "I have great hope they will soon want to consider public diplomacy at the takeoff rather than at the crash-landing of foreign policy." ------------- Key players in American public diplomacy Colin Powell Secretary of State Even before September 11, Powell was eager to reinvigorate his department's diplomatic capabilities. That eagerness has helped light a fire under the issue. Charlotte Beers Undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs The Bush administration's day-to-day director of overseas relations - and a lifelong Madison Avenue bigwig. She has taken a great amount of heat for eschewing traditional diplomatic tactics, but she retains the strong backing of the White House. Tucker Eskew Head of the White House Office of Global Communications After supervising the International Communications Coalition for the White House, he is back in a lofty post that should make him the coordinator of all things diplomatic in the Bush administration. Harold Pachios Chairman of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Appointed by President Clinton in 1994, Pachios is best described as America's public-diplomacy oracle. His post is strictly advisory, but when Pachios' commission talks, the State Department listens.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.