There's been a lot of discussion of the future of public diplomacy and strategic communications this week, from reporting on personnel moves to the release of the White Oak recommendations for public diplomacy (which I endorsed). I would like to wrap up "public diplomacy week" with a link to a long essay I've just published in the National's consistently outstanding Review: "The Conversation." The article tries to lay out a path forward for the Obama administration to engage with the Arab and Muslim world, one which moves beyond both "public diplomacy" and "strategic communications."
Here are a few of the key paragraphs from the introduction:
On January 27, Barack Obama chose the Saudi-backed Arabic television station Al Arabiya for his first official interview as president. Emphasising themes of mutual respect and the value of dialogue, Obama assured Arab viewers that “what you’ll see is someone who’s listening”. This early outreach – and emphasis on listening – suggested a dramatic departure from George W Bush. But despite Obama’s personal breakthrough, there are mounting challenges to improving American relations with the Arab world, and no clear solutions. When Obama’s personal magic fades, how will the new administration’s engagement with Arab and Muslim publics differ from the overwhelming failures of the Bush administration?
The question has never been more urgent. The Bush administration has left behind an American image in tatters. Public opinion surveys show catastrophic levels of hostility towards American foreign policy – and that anger may be spilling over into deeper negative judgements about America itself. American support for the Israeli attack on Gaza during the presidential transition poisoned the honeymoon for the new president, with many Arabs and Muslims who had been excited about Obama expressing outrage over his silence as the fighting raged. A recent poll, unsurprisingly, found that only 2.8 per cent of Palestinians – essentially zero, given the margin of error – approved of American policy during the recent war in Gaza.
Obama is exceptionally well-placed to change the terrain, because of his unique background as well as his orientation toward a foreign policy that engages adversaries and bridges divisions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken in favour of “smart power”, which relies heavily on global engagement and public diplomacy. And Obama has signalled his seriousness by appointing one of his most trusted foreign-policy advisers, Denis McDonough, as director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, where he is expected to play a new and major role in directing US outreach to the world. But there are no guarantees.
Many Arabs and Muslims yearn for a fresh start after the Bush years. But very few agree with the dominant conceit in Washington: that the problem is a failure to properly “sell” American policies. The problem, they feel, is the policies themselves. Arabs are certainly watching keenly for signs of serious changes in US policy. But the dichotomy between words and deeds is a false one: if the US hopes to change its relations with the world, it must build an ongoing dialogue that takes seriously the concerns and interests of both Americans and foreign audiences. The move to close Guantanamo was a good start – and a response to widespread global concerns – but it will only have its full effects if it becomes the beginning of a sustained, ongoing campaign to demonstrate, in both words and deeds, America’s renewed commitment to international law and norms.
And from the conclusion:
Neither the Pentagon’s strategic communications nor traditional public diplomacy is adequate to the task facing Obama. Nor will changing foreign policy alone be enough, since almost anything the US does today will be met with suspicion. Improving America’s relations with the Muslim world will require a dramatically new approach to engagement – but it is fortunately one that fits well with Obama’s own foreign policy vision.
This means asking some basic questions. Is the US primarily engaged in a “war of ideas” in which the primary mission is defeating the adversary? Or is it engaged in building long-term relationships of trust and support for broadly defined American foreign policy objectives? Are Arab and Muslim audiences objects to be manipulated or partners to be engaged respectfully? And will America’s engagement with the world be defined and managed by a security-orientated “strategic communications” doctrine directed by the Pentagon?
The most important starting point is to recognise that American policy is the most critical issue. No amount of public diplomacy will convince Arabs or Muslims to embrace American actions they detest. The Bush administration’s conception of public diplomacy generally involved putting lipstick on a pig – attempting to sell policies formulated in isolation from their likely reception. Even when public diplomacy officials had a seat at the table, they have had little influence on shaping decisions.
This has to change. It has always been ludicrous to believe that effective foreign policy could be made without understanding and anticipating the responses of the other parties.
That starts with listening. The US needs to do a far better job of listening to what Arabs and Muslims are saying and taking their views seriously. This must include listening to voices beyond the usual circle of friends and like-minded officials. The educated middle classes have grown ever more vocal and expressive in the last five years, and talking only with the small minority of pro-American voices makes little sense. The US needs to address and interact with the Arab world as it actually is – to listen to representative voices and be willing to engage in tough, frank and respectful arguments that it might well lose.
In practice, this means that American officials should watch and appear on Al Jazeera, no matter uncomfortable they find it. How can they possibly hope to understand how Arabs feel about Gaza if they don’t engage with the TV station most influential in shaping those views? Public opinion surveys, which are presently considered the benchmark for American progress in this arena, are a blunt instrument for the measurement of Arab responses to American policies, and more precise means must be devised to evaluate shifts in the Arab public sphere.
The explosion of internet participation – in forums, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so forth – could be used to increase the points of view heard (preferably with a focus on those written in Arabic, Persian or other local languages). Public Affairs Officers could do more to get out of embassies, despite the security risks, and engage with as wide a segment of the public as possible. During the campaign, Obama proposed an “America’s Voice Corps”, modelled on the Peace Corps or Teach for America, which could bring thousands of young Americans with good language skills into regular contact with a wide range of Arabs and Muslims.
This listening needs smart filters, though. One of the largely undiscussed problems with increased American strategic communications operations is the issue of “blowback” – when policymakers start believing their own propaganda. Blowback happens, for instance, when the US military spreads “good news” stories in the Iraqi media that are then picked up by American journalists and reported in the United States. Blowback happens when the US facilitates the spread of rumours aimed at discrediting al Qa’eda which then enter the American media bloodstream. This is not necessarily intentional, but it may sometimes be so, when the military defines American public support as a crucial battlefield.
Talking helps, too. Rather than pour endless money into its own television station that few watch, American officials should follow Obama’s example and appear regularly on Arab networks – not only to advance American arguments, but to hear the objections and be ready to take them into account. The troubled satellite television station Alhurra should not be shut down, given the vast resources already spent on its launch, but it could be radically overhauled: new management, a new focus on American society and politics, and a new name – why not Al Amrikiya?
But all this talking and listening will be wasted if the feedback is not incorporated into policy. As one wit put it at the Reinventing Public Diplomacy conference, you can’t improve your marriage merely by listening to your wife when she says it’s time to take out the trash – at some point you had better actually do it. Some will complain that this amounts to giving Muslim audiences a veto over American policies, but this is hardly the case; those will always be formed based on American national interests, which will sometimes clash with Arab or Muslim preferences. But better listening should give American officials more ideas about where and how policies could be adjusted, identifying points of common interest in a more subtle and nuanced way.
Americans also need to recognise that the days of tailoring different messages to foreign and domestic audiences are long past. Today’s globalised media environment ensures that Arabs and Muslims can scrutinise every detail of the administration’s policies – from speeches intended for domestic audiences to seemingly obscure personnel decisions. It no longer makes sense to think in terms of a firewall separating “American” and “international” political discourse.
The traditional instruments of public diplomacy can and should be enhanced, particularly to reach millions of Arab and Muslim youth. Exchange programmes should be encouraged and visa problems dealt with more effectively, while more funding should go to support English-language instruction, libraries and speaker series in Muslim countries. An entire generation of Arab and Muslim elites learned about the United States first-hand through such programmes, which have helped embed them in personal relationships and networks which help to ease the friction caused by American policy. Post-September 11 restrictions and rising anti-American sentiment mean that the US risks losing an entire generation of elites who will not have such connections, understandings or relationships – a problem that will only become clear decades from now, and is consequently off the radar of those engaged in short-term security thinking.
There is an emerging consensus about the urgent importance of such a new public diplomacy for Obama’s foreign policy objectives. Arabs and Muslims should recognise their own stake in the realisation of this new vision for global engagement and a public diplomacy based on genuine dialogue – and give the new outreach a chance.
Undermining al Qa’eda and combating extremism are important. But they should only be one small part of America’s engagement with the Arab world. There is a vast majority of politically aware Arabs and Muslims whose fury at American policy has nothing to do with Islamic extremism. The new public diplomacy must reach out to that mainstream, with words and deeds alike.