ANALYSIS: US pauses for thought in its overseas diplomacy efforts

The US' image in the Muslim world is sinking despite the efforts of the State Department, which may have to change the way it works to have an impact

The US' image in the Muslim world is sinking despite the efforts of the State Department, which may have to change the way it works to have an impact

"The bottom has fallen out of support for America in most of the Muslim world," reads the latest survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Osama Bin Laden is trusted to "do the right thing regarding world affairs" by more than half the population in Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, and Jordan. In none of those countries do more than 8% of people express the same faith in President Bush. Taken at face value, it's bad news. But when you consider that the State Department (DoS) has devoted more money and attention to public-diplomacy efforts in these regions in the past two years than anywhere since the Soviet Union's collapse, it's a sign that something's not working. Of course, it would be naive to suggest that public-diplomacy failures deserve all the blame. Even the most aggressive diplomatic efforts can only get a country so far if its actions don't support the message. Any VP of corporate communications will tell you that. Nonetheless, Congress is turning to the DoS in search of answers. As they see it, America's image-polishing campaign in the region should at least have eased the downward trend by now, if not reversed it. They want to know why the dial keeps moving in the wrong direction. Turning to the private sector Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House subcommittee that controls the DoS' purse strings, has ordered the creation of an advisory group to explore the problem, led by veteran Middle East diplomat Edward Djerejian. Wolf wants the group staffed by private-sector media and PR experts who can look over the efforts of the past few years and help develop "new approaches, initiatives, and program models to improve public-diplomacy program results." Faith in private-sector wisdom is all well and good, but it's worth noting that that same faith got the DoS where it is today. Congress and the diplomatic community had stars in their eyes in October 2001 when Charlotte Beers, the former Ogilvy & Mather CEO often referred to as the Queen of Advertising, took the DoS' top public-diplomacy post. Once again, we were putting our best salespeople to work selling America, just as we did in WWII. Soon Muslims would love US foreign policy the way Americans love The Gap. But it didn't turn out that way. Beers' international ad campaign, "Shared Values," was deemed a failure almost from the beginning - a $15 million failure at that. Beers left her job for health reasons in March, but calls for her resignation began long before that. "I think what Charlotte Beers did with the ads was worth a try, and I can see why they did it, but obviously it failed," says Charles Dolan, who recently left his post as vice chairman of the US Advisory Commission of Public Diplomacy (USACPD), and is now an SVP in Ketchum's Washington, DC office. Dolan reflects the attitudes of many when he suggests that the mix of private-sector creativity and government methodology don't always lead to the imagined result. "In a sense, it just takes so long to get these things done, by the time the ads got on the air, the issue had changed." The ads were focused on convincing Muslims that Americans don't hate them, but "the whole issue of whether Muslims were being mistreated in the US was in the past by then. The material was dated," says Dolan. Other problems with the campaign abounded. TV networks - often state-owned - in some of the prime target countries refused to carry spots at all. Then, when news of the American "propaganda" efforts hit the street in those countries, it only strengthened resentment. The ad campaign wasn't the only initiative launched under Beers, however. Radio Sawa, the new US-backed Middle East radio network, has found great success with its mix of popular music and news, becoming one of the highest-rated networks in the region. And a 24-hour TV news network modeled on Sawa and CNN is now in the works. Other initiatives such as cultural exchanges and youth outreach are also considered to have met expectations. All have been given time to help move the dial, but all failed equally to do so. Or did they? Veteran diplomats point out that public diplomacy isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. Two years is hardly a blip on the timeline of international relations, they say. "Public diplomacy is not something where you just turn the spigot and everybody changes their minds," cautions Harold Pachios, recently reappointed chairman of the USACPD. "It takes time." No instant gratification Part of the problem, warns Pachios and others, is an overemphasis on immediate, measurable results. TV ads are nice, but they don't help change attitudes long-term. And public diplomacy is a long-term game. "What we need to do over a long period of time - it doesn't happen in weeks or even months - is undertake a variety of activities to attempt to create an environment where the publics in these countries can at least see US policy in context," Pachios says. "We want them to understand our motives." Not that Pachios or anyone else is complaining about Congress' request for a review. On the contrary, many would like to dig a little deeper. As Newt Gingrich pointed out in an April speech that rattled nerves in the diplomatic community, the DoS still operates under a number of Cold War laws and restrictions that need to be updated or outright repealed. One such example is the Smith Mundt Act of 1948. Intended as protection from domestic propaganda, this law forbids the State Department to distribute the same media in America that it does overseas - be it radio broadcast, book, or press release. It's a restriction made irrelevant by the internet and the merging of the domestic and foreign press - no longer can anyone expect what he or she says overseas to stay overseas and vice versa. But the law remains, and honoring it can twist America's image-makers into some compromising positions. For example, the DoS produced a collection of essays about America shortly after September 11 entitled Writers on America: 15 Reflections, largely considered the most cerebral of America's recent attempts at Muslim outreach. Some of America's most acclaimed authors, including US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, contributed to the book. But Writers was intended for overseas distribution, and was therefore banned in America, thanks to Smith Mundt. The foreign media learned of the ban, and news of it preceded the book's arrival overseas. "Essays on Being American Banned in the US," read UK newspaper The Observer. The assumption overseas was that Writers was pure propaganda. Why else would the United States forbid its own people from reading it? In the end, Writers went unread. Tens of thousands of copies sat unwanted on embassy shelves around the world. And once again, news of US propaganda attempts helped fan anti-American sentiment among the target audience. Critics point to Writers as just one example of an obsolete law undermining the DoS' attempts to operate on a 21st-century playing field. Djerejian, still compiling a list for his nascent review group, acknowledged the need to update old laws at the DoS, but stopped short of promising to attack them. "I have no doubt that once we analyze what's been done in that part of the world in the past few years, these structural issues will come up," he says. "In terms of new initiatives, the question will inevitably rise, 'Is the structure in place adequate to move forward in new ways?'" But the DoS' structural problems are a mystery to most private-sector PR experts. So if Djerejian's review group is going to tackle them at all, they'll first need to accept a humbling irony: Maybe it's the private-industry types who could learn a thing or two from the diplomats.

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