The U.S. Credibility Deficit

As Nancy Snow compellingly argues, more listening and civic diplomacy may be viable, preliminary steps to salvaging the U.S. international reputation from charges of arrogance and impatience. However, while “more ears than mouth” may counter the U.S. image problem, U.S. public diplomacy has a much more serious problem. It has a credibility deficit of global proportions. To tackle that credibility deficit, U.S. public diplomacy needs a comprehensive, innovative, and strategic approach that entails developing more creative relationship-building strategies, matching policy decisions with viable communication options, and coordinating traditional and public diplomacy initiatives.

Snow effectively underscores the severity and repercussions of anti-Americanism on the U.S. image. However nebulous the term, anti-Americanism has very real costs in terms of diminished U.S. prestige, restricted foreign policy options, lost revenues for American businesses, and, of course, decreased American security. International poll results give a disturbing glimpse of how pervasive and deep the sentiment has become. While anti-Americanism is not new, its growth—despite an aggressive public diplomacy effort to refurbish the U.S. image—is alarming. In this, I agree with Snow that U.S. public diplomacy needs “a fundamentally different approach.” Where I differ somewhat is on the depth and direction of that approach.

America’s inability to listen is tied to its preoccupation with designing and delivering messages. Since 9/11, U.S. public diplomacy has gone into overdrive to get the message out about U.S. values, policies, and positions. This information-centered approach presumes either a lack of information or an abundance of misinformation—hence the flurry of U.S. public diplomacy initiatives such as the Shared Values advertising campaign, Hi magazine, Al-Hurra television, and Radio Sawa. Yet, because of the U.S. superpower status, countries are continuously monitoring and gathering as much information as they can about U.S. activities and policies.

What U.S. officials don’t seem to register is that no amount of information pumped out by U.S. public diplomacy will be enough to improve the U.S. image. The problem, ultimately, is not lack of information but lack of credibility. People around the world questioned the Bush administration’s actions before it entered Iraq back in February 2003. Last month, the U.S. public resoundingly expressed their misgivings about the Bush administration’s handling of the war. Iraq has focused a spotlight on U.S. credibility. The more the United States flounders in Iraq, the more U.S. credibility erodes in the world. Without credibility, no amount of information holds persuasive weight, and U.S. soft power can’t attract and influence others.

Beyond Listening

Listening, as Snow argues, would indeed help minimize perceptions of U.S. arrogance and impatience. In 2002, a Council on Foreign Relations task force on U.S. public diplomacy urged the same—it even included a “listening-engagement” diagram. However, listening is Communications 101—ask any good parent or successful professional. Without the ability to comprehend and reflect on what another is saying, it is difficult to maintain productive relationships or achieve desired tasks. As competent communicators, U.S. professionals should already be listening. If U.S. diplomats are struggling at the level of listening, then U.S. public diplomacy is in worse shape than we realize. Unfortunately, even listening—without first establishing credibility—can be perceived as gratuitous and insincere.

All U.S. representatives need to master this very basic level of communication very fast if they hope to communicate effectively in today’s culturally diverse, politically charged global arena. To begin to restore U.S. credibility, however, U.S. public diplomacy needs to aim considerably higher. It must become more comprehensive, creative, and strategic.

A first step toward making U.S. public diplomacy more strategic entails matching U.S. policy decisions with viable communication options. Public diplomacy is as much a political as a communicative activity. It requires political knowledge and skills as well as communication knowledge and skills. U.S. public diplomacy needs to critically assess U.S. policies from the audience’s vantage point and red-flag two types of policies: those that appear to contradict stated U.S. values and those that negatively affect the public in some way. Aggressive communication in a political environment where U.S. policy appears to contradict its values—or where U.S. policies negatively affect the public—will heighten perceptions of duplicity and lower U.S. credibility.

Faced with such political challenges, U.S. public diplomacy has three strategic communication options. First, Washington could change its policy to make public diplomacy efforts more effective. Second, it could engage in serious, open dialogue with people affected by its policies as part of the public diplomacy effort. Third, Washington could maintain its policy, but tactically assume a low profile until a reservoir of public trust and goodwill can be established. The brass-band approach of promoting U.S. policies or values in an unfavorable political climate will tend to reinforce negative perceptions, not reduce them. Strategic communication is knowing when and where to turn the volume up—or down—so as not to inadvertently fuel anti-Americanism and reduce U.S. credibility.

From Information to Relationships

U.S. public diplomacy can also become more strategic by moving from a reliance on information-centered, mass media strategies to more creative, relations-centered strategies. To date, information-centered strategies that focus on designing and delivering information dominate U.S. public diplomacy. Since 9/11, U.S. public diplomacy has been very creative in experimenting with innovative broadcasting such as Radio Sawa, using alternative formats such as advertising and magazines, and incorporating new media such as Internet websites and RSS news feeds.

While information-centered strategies are U.S. public diplomacy’s forte, the majority of people around the world have a relations-centered perspective of communication. Communication is less about strategically designing and delivering information and more about cultivating strategic relationships. Relationship-building cultural and educational programs, such as the Edward R. Murrow Journalism Program that Snow mentions, work well with these publics. However, such one-to-one exchange programs represent only the most rudimentary relations-centered strategies. More sophisticated and creative initiatives include relationship-building campaigns (such as “Think U.K.-China 2003”), non-policy networking schemas (such as the British “Science & Innovation Network”), or policy formation networks (such as the “Ottowa Process” or “Kimberly Process”). U.S. public diplomacy could be much more strategic with culturally diverse publics if it became as innovative in developing relations-centered initiatives as it has been with information-centered ones.

Finally, U.S. public diplomacy can become more strategic by reconciling its relationship with “official” or traditional diplomacy. Civic diplomacy cannot substitute for official U.S. representation in the international political arena. Since 9/11, there has been a tremendous emphasis on U.S. public diplomacy—almost to the exclusion of traditional diplomacy.

Here I differ with Snow. Instead of calling for a rise in civic diplomacy, U.S. public diplomacy needs more strategic coordination with U.S. traditional diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East. The region and its people have suffered greatly by the U.S. reluctance to engage diplomatically on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Had the United States been as aggressive and innovative with its diplomatic initiatives as it was with its public diplomacy ones, both U.S. image and credibility might be stronger today. Without the active involvement of U.S. traditional diplomacy, U.S. public diplomacy will remain paralyzed by the weight of this conflict, and America’s credibility deficit will only deepen.

R.S. Zaharna is a Middle East analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus and an assistant professor of public communication at American University.