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The Soft Power Surge

Author: Greg Bruno
July 21, 2008


In the final months of the Bush administration, a top State Department official is calling for a new emphasis on public diplomacy, promoting what he calls "powerful and lasting diversion"—such as sports, culture, even video games—as alternatives to violent extremism. James K. Glassman, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, says the strategy is not so much to promote the American "brand," but to provide " a full range of productive alternatives to violent extremism" to Muslim countries and the developing world. "Think of it this way," Glassman says, "We're Coke; they're Pepsi. Our job is not to get people to drink Coke in this instance, but to get people not to drink Pepsi."

In parts of Africa and Asia, the effort to promote U.S. values and influence foreign publics—either via broadcasts, cultural exchanges, or government-sponsored programs—may already be paying off. According to a recent global attitudes survey by the Pew Research Center, positive views of the United States (PDF) in the last twelve months inched up in Tanzania, South Korea, India, China, and elsewhere. But in a number of Muslim states, the study found very low favorability ratings for the United States. There are indications these publics are already looking past the Bush administration to its successor. The U.S. presidential campaign between Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is generating enormous interest outside the country, though experts say either one faces major challenges to burnishing the U.S. image abroad.

President Bush's national terrorism strategy of 2006 noted that "winning the war on terror means winning the battle of ideas." Two years later, "soft power" diplomacy is gaining steam. In early 2008, viewership of U.S.-funded international broadcasts, including Voice of America, Radio Sawa, and Radio Free Asia, topped 175 million people weekly, a 75 percent increase from 2001, according to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S.-appointed agency that overseas such broadcasts. Funding for educational programs has more than doubled since 2003 (PDF), to $501 million, and State's overall public diplomacy dollars—used for foreign media broadcasts, cultural exchanges, and information programs—jumped by about $600 million between 2001 and 2007 to $1.6 billion (PDF). Washington is even using athletics to court public opinion in Iran (UPI).

Yet military and political leaders say additional changes are needed to bolster the United States' diplomatic strategy. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned of the "creeping militarization" (WashPost) of U.S. foreign policy. A majority of military officers recently surveyed said diplomacy, food aid, and other soft power tools need strengthening (PDF). Still, while experts agree on the need they don't always agree on the method. Some public diplomacy experts argue that the State Department's move to deploy diversions—a term Glassman has been championing since assuming office on June 10—is too simplistic. " Those who pursue violence, not to mention suicide attacks, are motivated by a cause, not a pastime," writes Mark Dillen, an international public affairs consultant.

Whether Washington's revitalized diplomacy will bear fruit is far from certain. Separate reports in June from ProPublica and 60 Minutes, and the Washington Post, indicated that U.S.-funded broadcasting in the Middle East has fallen flat. Specifically, both reports said that Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language network funded by U.S. taxpayers, suffers from poor programming and a dearth of viewers (charges Glassman rejects). Some U.S. military officers have argued that in Iraq specifically, the U.S. coalition should rely more on the indigenous media to improve the West's image (PDF). Glassman says the messenger of pro-Western values matters. "The most credible voices in this war of ideas are Muslim," he said on July 15. But as Antulio J. Echevarria II, a scholar at the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute, writes, wars of ideas don't always end well, regardless of who does the talking (PDF).

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