Barack Obama entered the Oval Office implicitly promising to single-handedly reinvent America's image in the world. And if his administration had a strategy for reducing the long-term threat of violent extremism, it boiled down to this: Put the president in front of a microphone, and let his natural charisma do the work.
This approach has paid some dividends; multiple surveys show that views of the United States have noticeably improved over the last year. But winning the war of ideas means making progress on a much wider, and arguably more important, set of indicators. It means putting together carefully calibrated actions and initiatives that together make up public diplomacy, which is often wrongly conflated with old-fashioned public relations. It's not the same thing.
The future of public diplomacy, in my view, is in doubt. It is not currently being taken seriously by policymakers as a tool of national security. Furthermore, when officials do focus on strategic communication, they often turn to American brand-burnishing, which ignores the unresolved question of whether a better-liked America can more easily achieve its national security goals.
There is a better way. Public diplomacy needs to be sharp, not flaccid. It needs to focus on key foreign-policy problems, not merely on vague, feel-good improvements in the far-off future. It needs to be primarily an activity of national security, not of public relations. It needs to be mobilized and sent into battle to win the ideological conflicts of our time.
When I served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, we tried to achieve our war-of-ideas goals in two ways: first, by pushing back and undermining the ideology behind violent extremism while at the same time explaining and advocating free alternatives and, second, by diverting young people from following a path that leads to violent extremism. What all terrorist groups have in common, in fact, is the exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are isolated and indoctrinated and become the shock troops of these movements.
In both of these endeavors -- undermining and diverting -- Americans themselves are rarely the most credible actors and voices. Much of what we did was encourage others. For example, we supported a global organization of female family members of victims of violent extremism and supported another network, based in Europe, of Muslim entrepreneurs.