"When in the course of human events … a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that [Americans] should declare the causes that impel them …" - The Declaration of Independence
In a few days, President George W. Bush will have a historic opportunity to open a new era in public diplomacy that can help set the world on a course toward greater mutual understanding and, perhaps, even peace.
The President’s analysis of General David Petraeus’ report on the military and political prospects in Iraq will be addressed, of course, primarily to Americans. But a global audience – especially Muslims around the world – needs to hear a fresh new U.S. foreign policy Declaration of Intent that is more fundamental and long term.
Why? Because a great gap exists between international favorable opinion of Americans and the rejection of much of American foreign policy. And because today, in countries around the world, public opinion is a powerful influence on government policies and the success or failure of radical, violent extremists.
What is at stake is the critically-important “vital center” of international public opinion, particularly among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. The West must work to help grow the mainstream, non-violent majority within Islam and, over time, shrink the violent extremist minority within it.
The Power of Words
Playwright Tom Stoppard has told us of the power of well chosen words:
“If you look after them, you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos… If you get the right words in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
What kind of words could possibly nudge this troubled world toward greater mutual understanding?
As a starter, here are three messages, which could be stated categorically – and subsequently repeated many times over, that the President might well consider:
The U.S. and the West are not in a conflict with Islam. We respect Islam as one of the world’s great religions and cultures. We are in conflict only with violence in international, and national, affairs.
The U. S. will withdraw from Iraq as soon as it fulfills its responsibility to the citizens of that country. We seek neither territorial nor resource advantage as a result of our presence there.
In what is now clearly a multi-polar world, we welcome cooperation from all countries, multi-lateral organizations and other institutions in resolving the region’s complex challenges and the other regional conflicts that divide us.
Words and Deeds
However, as in the classic understanding of public relations, we must avow that words without associated deeds can be thin reeds and that policy and performance trump communications per se. Again, the President might consider that even as we work for sovereignty, security and reconstruction in Iraq, the U.S. will:
-Re-double its commitment to cultural and informational exchanges with citizens of other countries. This long-term program, under the direction of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, will significantly increase the number and variety of citizen-to-citizen interactions that were so constructive in international relations under U.S. Information Agency auspices.
-Withdraw, in responsible mode, from Iraq when a basis for long-term peace and stability exists in that country.
-Increase cooperation with The United Nations and all nations and institutions committed to ending violence in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
In these public diplomacy efforts, and others that will surely come forth, we should seek not conversion of Muslim public opinion but mutual understanding. Candor requires acknowledgment that in recent years the U.S. has made serious misjudgments in addressing the divide between Islam and the West. We must begin anew, or at least on a different plane.
In his recent book, Journey Into Islam, Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, has provided the mission for this endeavor in this citation: “How can peoples of different appearances, mutually unintelligible languages, and dissimilar ways of life get along together?”
No small, or new, challenge. But it is now the question of our age, and it is a question of global proportions. To fail to address it is to risk more carnage, untold grief, and global tragedy.
John Paluszek is Senior Counsel at Ketchum, Past President of The Public Relations Society of America, and PRSA’s liaison with The United Nations. His comments do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations with which he is associated.