The Limits of Public Diplomacy

After a conspicuous absence in the years between the end of the Cold War and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. public diplomacy has endured in excess of five years’ worth of setbacks, complete with a noteworthy lack of a clear strategy, repeated changes in management, and ample amounts of domestic scrutiny along the way. The cause for so much alarm over public diplomacy at this time rests on the unequivocal notion that the image of the United States has been and remains under siege by an unsettling share of the rest of the world. This group includes friend and foe alike. Each troubling assessment by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the German Marshall Fund, or Zogby International serves as a reminder that public diplomacy is not working.

Nancy Snow is not unlike the many close observers of U.S. public diplomacy in saying that it has been clumsily executed. Others have been less kind; Brookings scholar Shibley Telhami has called it “broken,” and a 2004 report from the Defense Science Board deemed it to be “in a crisis.” No one disputes the claim that it is riddled with problems. In the last five years, the Government Accounting Office has been unrelenting in bearing down on the Department of State, which currently houses most official public diplomacy activities, for lacking an integrated strategy, failing to lead interagency efforts, misallocating human and financial resources to programs, undermining international broadcasting in mission-critical regions, and being deficient in measurable objectives for success.

The divergences in analyzing what is wrong with U.S. public diplomacy occur in two main areas, namely in ascertaining the chief causes of these problems and proposing solutions for them. Snow’s assessment is a case in point as she expands not on the internal, but external handicaps affecting public diplomacy: America’s (and ostensibly the Bush administration’s) “arrogance, impatience, and a reluctance to listen,” which have together fuelled an unprecedented wave of anti-Americanism around the globe. Her solution for this deals with devolving control of U.S. public diplomacy away from government and into the hands of non-official actors, who stand to be less hard of hearing and more flexible in their ability to speak frankly about their American experience.

This thesis flows from Snow’s recent book, titled The Arrogance of American Power, in which she recognizes the influence of the late Senator William J. Fulbright, who, among other things, authored the prescient and similarly titled, The Arrogance of Power. Indeed, Fulbright would have been pleased by the prospect of dispatching yet more American voices into the international realm, presumably giving foreign populations a truer and unadulterated taste of American culture and thereby countering the image of arrogance that the United States has ignominiously earned.

This formula has considerable appeal and, even with a historically small budget to sustain it, has proven successful in building allies over the years. The International Visitor Program, one of several in the government-sponsored exchanges portfolio, boasts 100 current and former heads of state amongst its alumni, including Tony Blair, Hamid Karzai, Indira Gandhi, Alvaro Uribe, and Romano Prodi. For its part, the Fulbright Program has enabled approximately 275,000 exchanges since its inception in 1949 and remains a unique and prestigious opportunity for both American and foreign participants to build mutual understanding.

What undermines this formula, and when the limits of public diplomacy become plainly clear, is when displeasure over American foreign policy arises. One of the longest-running debates over the role of U.S. public diplomacy has dealt with the desired proximity it should have to policymaking. As USIA director Edward R. Murrow grumbled in the wake of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, “If they want me in on the crash landings, I’d better damn well be in on the take-offs.” According to the official rationale, dissolving the USIA in 1999 and merging it with the State Department was supposed to bring public diplomacy closer to the epicenter of policymaking. In contrast, on launching the Shared Values Initiative in 2002, Charlotte Beers stridently defended her keeping clear of the policymaking process and opted instead to confine the problems of public diplomacy to communications. In 2006, the argument that you can have good public diplomacy without a palatable foreign policy is increasingly harder to make.

In her piece, Snow cites Julia Sweig’s book Friendly Fire to add perspective on what anti-Americanism means in the present. Sweig is right to frame her definitions and arguments around a notion of American foreign policy that acts as a catalyst for foreign displeasure. Furthermore, her solutions do not espouse the abdication of government from correcting the problem but consist instead of concrete policy recommendations. Snow does not argue for the removal of the U.S. government from the conduct of public diplomacy activities. What she seems to suggest paraphrases another Fulbright axiom, this one from 1964′s Old Myths and New Realities, “In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste but its effects.” In other words, broad-based and non-official executors of U.S. public diplomacy can dictate the terms of America’s international engagement in a more open dialogue with counterparts abroad and, through a multiplicity of voices, can take a more active role in improving America’s tarnished reputation.

To enable this, Snow offers an “e pluribus unum”-style solution that draws on citizen diplomats and a full spectrum of attitudes about the American experience to prove that the United States can be diverse and unified at the same time (and hence her recent endorsement of Howard Zinn as a citizen diplomat—a refreshing idea). She urges sustained “track two” diplomacy, a process that is led by non-official actors and often over a long period of time to deal with deep-seated roots of international conflict. This would seem more practical if implemented in the parallel fashion that the designers of “track two” intended. “Track two” was never intended to replace “track one,” or official diplomatic efforts. When Joseph Montville coined the term “track two diplomacy” in 1981, he wrote that it should “make its contribution as a supplement to the understandable shortcomings of official relations.” Dr. Snow, on the other hand, recommends a paradigmatic shift “from the efforts of government officials to those of ordinary people.”

But official public diplomats and, more importantly, the makers of foreign policy must remain engaged in plotting the course for real change in global perceptions of the United States. Public diplomats wield the unique ability to act as a direct conduit between foreign publics and American foreign policymakers. As opposed to Under Secretary Hughes’ much-lampooned “listening tour” in the fall of 2005, policymaking elites must construct and take advantage of an integrated system for articulating and listening to messages dealing with foreign policy, one that involves both diplomatic tracks and allows for adjustments to policies based on feedback from abroad.

Altering the intended course of policy based on input from foreign publics, even in message, will not only work toward a policy’s success but also begin to redress the rising tide of anti-Americanism. What input is already known about anti-Americanism shows that foreign policy ranks high on the laundry list of grievances, and it therefore must be integral to any attempts at rescuing U.S. public diplomacy. Without giving sufficient pause to this fact the gains to be had by any form of public diplomacy will be small and fleeting, a view advocated by Senator Joseph Biden, when he said in 2003, “If our policy … is disliked, all the public diplomacy in the world is not going to change anybody’s mind.”

FPIF contributor John Robert Kelley is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.