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Perceptions of U.S. Public Diplomacy

Author: Lionel Beehner
September 29, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

One of the most commonly heard questions after the events of September 11 was: “Why do they hate us?” Four years later, anti-Americanism, particularly in the Muslim world, remains high. A June poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that large majorities of the Muslim world still view the United States unfavorably. Much of the animosity, the poll shows, stems from U.S. policies in the region, including the war in Iraq and U.S. support for Israel. But anti-Americanism is not limited to the Muslim world. The same poll suggests that most British, French, and Germans think the United States is motivated by its own interests and ignores the concerns of its European allies.

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A large part of the United States’ poor image abroad stems from the little attention paid to public diplomacy in recent years, experts say. Public diplomacy entails the efforts—international publications, broadcasts, cultural, and educational exchanges—to shape public perceptions of the United States abroad. Whereas traditional diplomacy is a government-to-government exercise conducted between officials behind closed doors, public diplomacy is aimed broadly at two groups of people: the public at large and influential figures like academics, journalists, or business leaders.

Experts say public diplomacy hasn’t been a priority for the United States since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. During World War II, President Roosevelt established American Information Centers in Europe and launched Voice of America, a radio service that today broadcasts news and cultural programs in dozens of languages to some 94 million listeners worldwide each week. During the Cold War, public diplomacy emerged as an essential part of the United States’ national security strategy, encompassing an ideological as well as cultural component. “One of our greatest exports [during this period] was jazz,” says Geoffrey Cowan, former director of the International Broadcasting Bureau.

After the Soviet Union disbanded, funding for public diplomacy dwindled, and in 1998, the U.S. Information Agency, the bureau created to promote U.S. cultural values abroad, was folded into the State Department. By 2001, the United States devoted only $1.1 billion to public diplomacy, or roughly three-tenths of one percent of the annual Defense Department budget, says Edward Djerejian, former ambassador and chairman of a 2003 report entitled Changing Minds, Winning Peace (PDF). The number of public diplomacy officers—as high as 2,500 in 1991—was cut in half and technology began to supplant human-to-human contact, says Helena K. Finn, a Tel Aviv-based senior American diplomat. “Local foreign newspaper editors critical of U.S. policy no longer get visits from a press attache, let alone invitations to visit the United States, but instead receive mass-produced email messages assembled thousands of miles away,” Finn wrote in a 2003 Foreign Affairs article.

Public diplomacy’s turnaround

A renewed emphasis has been placed on public diplomacy after the July 2005 appointment of Karen Hughes, previously an adviser to President Bush for more than ten years, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. One of her first tasks was a five-day “listening tour” of the Middle East in September, accompanied by Dina Habib Powell, the Egyptian-born, Arabic-speaking assistant secretary of educational and cultural affairs. Her trip, which met with resistance and opposition from some Saudi and Turkish women, has received mixed reviews from U.S. experts. Some have praised her candidness and commitment to boosting the budget for public diplomacy. Her high profile has helped give her tour coverage, both good and bad, Cowan says. “How many undersecretaries of state, when traveling abroad, have their trip covered on the front page of the New York Times?” She has also pushed for more high-ranking U.S. officials to appear on Arab television networks like al-Jazeera, as well as for rapid-response teams to counter misinformation put out by the foreign media—a task previously carried out by the Office of Global Communications that was weakened after a 2004 Defense Science Board report (PDF) slammed the agency for ineffectiveness.

Still, some have been less supportive of Hughes’ efforts. John Brown, a research associate at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a twenty-two-year veteran of the Foreign Service , has raised three other concerns about Hughes: First, she may needlessly raise expectations in the region she can’t deliver. Second, her message may sound hollow because of the unpopularity of the U.S. occupation of Iraq among Arabs. Third, “given Hughes’ prominence,” Brown says, “I think some foreign leaders will be wondering who’s in charge of the State Department: Karen or [Secretary of State] Condi [Rice]?”

And it is not just the State Department that has ramped up its public-diplomacy efforts. In June, it was reported the Pentagon awarded three contracts, worth $300 million, to companies to add creativity to the Defense Department’s psychological operations, or “psyops program,” in an effort to improve the U.S. military’s image abroad. Previous attempts by the Pentagon at public relations have been controversial. In 2002, the Defense Department scrapped its Office of Strategic Influence after reports surfaced it had disseminated false information to the foreign media (The Pentagon has denied this occurred).

But does public diplomacy work?

Several experts question the efficacy of such efforts and whether this style of public diplomacy is still relevant or necessary. There are skeptics who say that much of the world is not anti-U.S., per se, but rather anti-U.S. foreign policy. No amount of public relations, marketing, or “listening tours” will undo resentment abroad over U.S. policies in the Middle East, they argue. “The problem we face, in the Arab world especially, but really everywhere, is not that we are misunderstood, but that we are understood only too well,” Ivo Daalder, senior fellow for foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal. The Defense Science Board’s report found that "American efforts [at public diplomacy] have not only failed, they may have also achieved the opposite of what they intended.”

Others, however, including the drafters of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have called public diplomacy an essential part of U.S. foreign policy, especially after the events of September 11. They point out that public diplomacy is a necessary additive to, not a substitute for, foreign policymaking. “The final analysis is policy, but in terms of the formulation and framing of policy, I think public diplomacy is a very important dimension,” says Ali Banuazizi, an expert on Islamic studies at Boston College and member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ 2003 Task Force on public diplomacy. Other experts argue that public diplomacy is vital, given the stakes anti-Americanism poses for U.S. businesses abroad. “Nations are affected by the images that others hold of them in their minds,” Cowan says. “If people see America as being arrogant, greedy, or ruthless, they’re less likely to want to be partners with us at the highest level of government, or buy our products.”

Public diplomacy also serves a similar function as it did during the Cold War: to counter an informational war being waged against the West by the enemy—in this case, radical Islamists. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Abu al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, have used the media—most famously by passing videotapes to Arabic television—to publicize al-Qaeda and sway public opinion in the Middle East, stressing themes that resonate with Arab and Muslim viewers. Some experts say bin Laden’s skill in shaping and publicizing his message makes U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East especially important. “How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communication society?” asked Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, after September 11.

Reforming public diplomacy

In general, most experts say there must be a renewed focus on building person-to-person contacts between the United States and other nations. “An important step is to try to establish connections with civil-society groups in these countries—professional groups, journalists, academics, literary people—and promote that kind of cross-societal connection,” Banuazizi says. He also emphasizes the need to differentiate issues of security—specifically 9/11 and the war on terrorism—from the public diplomacy agenda. “Public diplomacy cannot be saddled by that memory and casting it in terms of this question: ‘Why do they hate us?’” he says.

Most experts agree that public diplomacy is not adequately funded or staffed. Public diplomacy was allocated $758 million for the 2006 federal budget, in addition to $652 million to fund U.S.-sponsored media ventures like the Voice of America. Djerejian’s report calls for additional funding of more cultural exchanges, whose current budget is just $25 million for the entire Muslim world, “a depressingly small amount,” he notes. He also suggests adding more linguistic experts in the region, recounting a recent episode when 500 Arabic-speaking U.S. officials were asked if they would feel comfortable appearing on Arabic television. Only five responded that they were.

Another area in need of reform is altering the coverage of U.S. foreign policy in the foreign press. The proliferation of twenty-four-hour media outlets and information technologies makes public diplomacy more complicated—and expensive—than ever before, experts say. One way to improve coverage, Brown says, is to make sure these outlets have up-to-date and complete copies of important speeches and documents. “Bottom line is, lots of the [foreign] media’s reporting is just plain wrong,” he says. “Rather than sending the information marines, or rapid-response teams, it’s more important to cultivate local editors through local embassies, establish close contacts, and make sure they get at least the full texts of official statements.” Alvin Snyder, a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD), suggests using the Internet to the United States’ advantage. According to the Nielsen’s Internet ratings, he says, the U.S. government’s website is the sixth most visited site in the world.

Pete Peterson, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and chair of the Council’s public diplomacy Task Force, favors the privatization of some parts of public diplomacy. He has proposed a not-for-profit Corporation for Public Diplomacy, similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting founded by Congress in 1967, which could receive private-sector grants but is intended for an international audience. One advantage of a private corporation is that any media venture sponsored by the U.S. government will look like propaganda. “ Washington must be mindful of something every good salesman understands: If you do not trust the messenger, you do not trust the message,” Peterson wrote in a January 21, 2004, Financial Times op-ed. Another advantage, he says, is the private sector’s ability to generate more funding.

Public diplomacy since 9/11

Despite its criticism, the Bush administration has launched an array of new efforts to handle public diplomacy. To influence media coverage of its military campaign in Afghanistan, for instance, Washington launched twenty-four-hour Coalition Information Centers in 2001 in Washington, London, and Islamabad. Shortly after, to reach out to Arab viewers, top U.S. officials gave interviews for the first time to al-Jazeera and other media outlets in the Islamic world. The State Department circulated more than one million copies of a brochure about the September 11 attacks and al-Qaeda, The Network of Terrorism, throughout the Middle East. Translated into thirty-six languages, it was the most widely distributed public-diplomacy document ever produced by the State Department. Washington has also rehabilitated and adapted dormant public diplomacy initiatives for use in the Middle East. One program originally designed to expose Eastern European reporters to American culture is now being used to bring Arab journalists to the United States.

The United States has also gotten involved in a number of media ventures to influence opinion in the Middle East. In March 2002, the United States launched Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language radio station with studios in Washington, DC, and Dubai. Modeled after American top-100 radio stations, the station aims to reach young Middle Easterners by mixing American and Arab pop music with short news broadcasts. In July 2003, the U.S. government established a glossy Arabic-language lifestyle magazine called Hi, aimed at improving the U.S. image among the Arab world’s eighteen- to thirty-five-year-olds. In February 2004, the U.S. also launched al-Hurra (“the free one”) in order to, as President Bush said in his 2004 State of the Union Address, “cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda” by Arabic television stations. Although al-Hurra supposedly reaches 120 million in twenty-two countries, experts say it is widely ignored by the Arab world’s chief opinion-makers.

Will these efforts polish America’s brand abroad?

Probably not, most experts say. Although these initiatives represent the most serious public diplomacy drive in years, they still don’t approach the extent of America’s Cold War efforts. Some experts argue that because anti-American sentiment is motivated principally by unpopular U.S. policies and perceptions of American unilateralism, brochures and radio broadcasts aren’t enough. Instead, they argue, public diplomacy considerations should be woven into the policymaking process. Otherwise, as Peterson points out, the United States risks losing “the battle for hearts and minds.”

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