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Public Diplomacy Chief Points to Growing Role in Shaping Policy

Interviewee: Karen P. Hughes, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
August 28, 2007

According to opinion surveys, the image of the United States worldwide remains dismal, especially in the Muslim world and among European allies. Karen Hughes, the U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, says she has taken steps to improve the country’s profile by initiating more interaction between U.S. diplomats and global media, expanding educational exchanges with the Muslim world, and spurring U.S. humanitarian responses in Latin America and elsewhere. “Public diplomacy is currently more integrated in policy planning than it has been at any time since it was merged into the State Department,” Hughes says.

You are charged with explaining and advocating U.S. values to the world and yet you still see these public opinion surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center or the German Marshall Fund that show very low views of U.S. policy. How do you improve the U.S. image when it’s tarnished by the war in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay?

Well, first we have to recognize that this is a long-term generational challenge. We didn’t get into this situation overnight and we won’t change the polls overnight. In fact, I knew when I accepted this job that the likelihood that those polls would change in the range of a couple of years was virtually none. The people’s impressions of America are a very complex tapestry that is woven by a lot of different artists. Much of the world was not happy with our decision to go into Iraq even though President Bush made that decision on what he thought was not only our national security interest but also the broader security interest of the world.

It could be lyrics from a pop song from America that maybe a young person likes and their parents don’t like. As I travel the world I find a lot of parents, particularly in conservative countries in conservative cultures, feel assaulted by America’s pop culture. But on the other hand, American pop culture is very appealing in some cases to young people across the world. Your impression of America could be based on—in much of the Middle East for example—the fact that we are perceived as rightly supporting Israel, but we are not given much credit for supporting a Palestinian state, which is also our policy. We support the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel.

A majority of the U.S. public diplomacy budget goes for international broadcasting, especially for satellite TV and Internet ventures to the Muslim World. What do you see then as the purpose of this U.S.-funded media?

Well, I believe it is important that we offer credible news and information about America and our policies and our values across the world. As you know, the Broadcasting Board of Governors [BBG] is an independent agency. It was created independently by Congress, to be independent from influence of changes of administration or political influence in government. I serve as one of nine members of the Board. I represent Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice on the board as one of nine members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. But our public broadcasting is no longer directly under the control of public diplomacy.

The new U.S. strategy for public diplomacy and strategic communication includes advice you have for the Broadcasting Board of Governors that they might want to consider covering “newsworthy events” sponsored by government agencies. Does that challenge the firewall that separates broadcasters from government influence?

I personally believe that if our taxpayers are funding communication vehicles to communicate with the world that, yes, there is a firewall to protect our journalists, but I don’t believe that that firewall means that the other government officials should not be able to recommend programs. For example, you could have a town hall program, and I believe we should have had a town hall program last year during Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. I believe we should have convened a town hall program where Lebanese citizens could talk with Arab-Americans for example and communicate so that we could have an exchange of information. That is not undermining any firewall or sacrificing anyone’s independence. That’s a program suggestion.

I believe, and I believe my fellow colleagues on the Broadcasting Board of Governors believe, with our new chairman Jim Glassman, that we should provide a platform for debate for those democracy advocates, for example in the Middle East, to have a venue to get on our airwaves and to have a debate and to talk about improvements they want to make in their societies and their countries.

Alhurra was recently the subject of some controversy on the issue of interviewing members of Hezbollah. Are you pushing for more editorial rigor perhaps on some of these stations?

Absolutely. Alhurra made some serious mistakes in its management, its former management. It made some serious mistakes in violating editorial policies that it had but apparently weren’t being adhered to and so, absolutely, we need strong editorial policies. 

Radio Farda and Radio Sawa are relatively new, but there are some public diplomacy veterans who continue to question the wisdom of the music-heavy formats for them since they reach two very important audiences—Arabs and Iranians—but there is more time devoted to music than there is to news and information. Is that something that is being reconsidered?

Well, we are having a BBG annual retreat meeting planning session this September. We will be discussing issues like that. In the case of Radio Sawa, for example, it does have a music and news format, and I have heard from our public affairs professionals in the field working in countries where Radio Sawa is being played that they feel it is effective because it does have seven hours of news and information a day and because the blend of American and Arabic music that it plays is in itself a message that the two cultures can co exist. We can always look at the proper mix, but I think it’s important, particularly at a time when there is a great deal of choice in the environment, that we offer a program that’s listened to.

On the issue of policy, when [former CBS correspondent and U.S. Information Agency Director] Edward R. Murrow was involved in this process, he said it was important for public diplomacy experts to be involved in the policy takeoffs rather than the crash landings.

Which is why I participate in all of Secretary Rice’s most senior meetings in policy discussions, and I am in her first meeting every day and in her end-of-the-day meeting every day, as is my staff. Public diplomacy is currently more integrated in policy planning than it has been at any time since it was merged into the State Department. For example, I’m able to come back from a trip to the Middle East and say to Secretary Rice and President Bush that there is distress, that people don’t feel we’re actively enough engaged in pursuing the peace process and trying to get Palestinian and Israeli leaders together to talk about issues affecting the daily lives of their citizens, and also to talk about a political horizon. And so, I’m able to make the case with Secretary Rice that I think we need to be much more engaged. And she, as you noticed, has convened meetings and brought the leaders together. This fall, we’re having an international meeting to discuss progress toward a two-state solution. I’m able to, I believe, to have an impact.

Assistant Secretary Tom Shannon and I traveled to five Latin American countries and we heard that because of the media focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, people in Latin America feel that America is not paying attention to them even though President Bush has nearly doubled our development assistance to Latin America. And so, I advocated and recommended that we send the very visible U.S. Navy ship Comfort to Latin America, and it’s now in the midst of a twelve-nation tour providing health care. I believe it was approaching almost a couple hundred thousand patient encounters.

One of your credos has been “rapid response,” whether it’s in communications or U.S. disaster relief. How has “rapid response” worked at this point?

We have done a much better job of getting our U.S. government officials out on the air to tell America’s story, to describe our policy, to be present in the mix. When I arrived at the State Department, there was an unofficial policy that our ambassadors had to get pre-clearance from Washington before they could engage with the media. Because of time differences that basically meant often they didn’t respond to the media. We actually had a situation where there was some bad natural disaster in one country and the ambassador felt that he couldn’t speak out and express America’s sympathy. I have totally changed that policy, and not only encouraged but also tried to provide information to help our ambassadors get out and be America’s face and voice and presence in the countries where they serve our country. We have now made public diplomacy a criteria in the evaluation of every single Foreign Service officer and every ambassador. That’s a major change because we went through a period in 2003 and 2004, we were involved in very difficult policy decisions and no one was out describing them on the airwaves.

We have dramatically increased our presence in Arabic, on Arabic stations. We have set up regional hub operations to recognize the increasingly regional nature of the media today. We have two fulltime Arabic speakers now in Dubai whose job it is to get on Arab media and explain America’s policies and values and communicate our position on issues of importance to the Middle East.

There was a recent Washington Post article suggesting President Bush was a dissident in his own administration when it comes to democracy promotion. Are you finding an internal struggle for some of the things you are trying to do in public diplomacy?

Actually, I have been encouraged to find broad bipartisan support. I have worked very hard to increase our budget and participation in our public diplomacy programs. When I arrived in 2005, the year before, we had twenty-seven thousand participants in our education and exchange programs. This year we will have forty thousand and I am working on a budget that I hope will take the number to over fifty thousand. We’ve increased our funding. Congress has been very supportive of the need, as has the president and the Office of Management and Budget. For the first time ever this year I made the argument that public diplomacy was a national security priority. People said that when they asked me to take on this role and I held them to their word and said, if it’s a national security priority, then it ought to be funded in the war on terror supplemental [funding measure]. We won $50 million in new funding for public diplomacy, a big infusion of new money that I used to launch a new program this summer. It’s a youth-enrichment program that is designed to reach young people eight to fourteen, which is a population we previously had never reached in a comprehensive way.

It is very important, I think, when we are trying to counter violent extremists and their efforts to radicalize young people. It’s very important that we reach younger audiences and so we use that emergency supplemental funding to launch these summer camps this summer and we have touched more than six thousand young people in thirteen countries with significant Muslim populations and the West Bank and Gaza.

It sounds like you find yourself maybe a little bit insulated from this huge debate in Washington between the two major parties over not only Iraq policy but also the war on terrorism policy. Is that true?

I think absolutely I am doing work that transcends that, and I think that people in both political parties recognize we need to work to reach out to the rest of world in the spirit of respect and friendship, which is what I view my job as doing. I think it’s reaching out and showing our respect for other countries and cultures and other people, listening, and bringing that information back to our policymakers.

And it would no doubt help if there was some bipartisan consensus on Iraq moving forward, I imagine?

Well, I think that one of the things that we model for the world is a healthy, vigorous debate. Over the next year the world will watch—as I travel now I’m being asked about our presidential debates and the campaign—and we will model for the world that this is a diverse country with people of different opinions and we are free to debate those opinions and at the end of the day make a decision as to which direction we want our policies to go.

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