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Privatising U.S. Public Diplomacy

Author: Peter G. Peterson, Chairman, Peter G. Peterson Foundation
January 21, 2004
Financial Times

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Anti-Americanism is exploding, at precisely the time the US needs the world's help to confront terrorism and achieve other foreign policy goals. Few allies are willing to provide the troops and resources needed to rebuild Iraq. In November, a Eurobarometer poll of 7,500 Europeans found that 55 per cent saw the US as a threat to world peace. Furthermore, a recent report by an advisory group appointed by Colin Powell, US secretary of state, referred to "shocking levels of hostility" towards the US in the Arab world.

In the short term, anti-Americanism puts the US at risk of direct attack from those who hate us most. It also makes it more difficult to organise the international coalitions needed for today's challenges. And, over time, prolonged anti-Americanism could breed an entire generation that will grow up hating the US, with further adverse implications for US national security.

Inside the Beltway, on Capitol Hill and in some State - and yes, even some Defense - Department offices, officials are searching for new ways and more money to elevate America's dwindling image abroad. But an important part of the equation is missing: the American private sector.

The US leads the world in many industries crucial for winning hearts and minds abroad - television, digital technology, education and market research - and we must bring these to bear through reinvigorated public diplomacy.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, a steady stream of executives and creative talents offered their help; but, two years on, government and private sector have still not found a way to join forces for this cause. That is why the independent task force I chaired at the Council on Foreign Relations has proposed a public/private partnership dedicated to public diplomacy.

We already have a successful working model for such a venture. Founded by the US Congress in 1967 to develop and provide access to quality, non-commercial programming for American viewers, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has succeeded admirably. The CPB has helped establish or has supported programmes including The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and American Playhouse. Recently, it expanded internet operations and resources for students and teachers.

A corporation for public diplomacy, modelled on the CPB but intended for an international audience, should be responsible for producing content and helping distribute US public diplomacy programmes through television, books, magazines, public speakers and the internet. A CPD would have several advantages. First, it could attract and nurture top talent, people who might not choose to work direct for the US government. Private sector participation in public diplomacy also provides, to an extent, a "heat shield" that could help in controversial issues that might have negative political or diplomatic repercussions if the government's hand were too visible.

An expanded private sector role would also provide more bang for the government buck. Unlike public programmes, the CPB can accept private donations and raises more than half its income from private sources. A vital problem affecting public diplomacy is the serious funding shortfall which, if left in government hands, seems unlikely to change soon.

In projecting America's messages, Washington must be mindful of something every good salesman understands: if you do not trust the messenger, you do not trust the message. We must encourage debate within Islam about the hijacking of its spiritual soul. We should find and develop credible indigenous messengers such as moderate Muslims, mullahs and journalists who can generate two-way dialogue as opposed to our conventional, one-way mass communication.

A CPD could also be a focal point for all kinds of Americans reaching out to their international counterparts - for example, the Arab-American firefighters who rushed to the World Trade Center scene. It would open opportunities for strategic alliances with foreign universities, private corporations and independent media. By conjoining these programmes, we can form a far more coherent public diplomacy strategy.

Two years ago, the country was jolted awake to the growing problem of anti-Americanism. One lesson we learnt was that others thought we had lost what Thomas Jefferson called, "a decent respect for the opinion of mankind". For various reasons and by various means, we let the information revolution and democratisation work against us in the battle for hearts and minds. But now there is no excuse. If we can marshal the talent and will of the US private sector, this can be a moment of great opportunity. This is one battle we cannot afford to lose.


The writer is chairman of The Blackstone Group and of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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