Is U.S. Public Diplomacy Too Soft?

Tuesday, August 6th 2013

The Battle Among Muslims

Is it true? Does the U.S. government lack the tools to contest the struggle for "hearts and minds" in the Middle East? 

That’s the argument being made by Max Boot from the Council on Foreign Relations and Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution an article which has appeared in several online publications since June.

In brief, the authors posit that the United States is in a long-term struggle for influence in the Middle East with competitors such as Iran, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various Salafist organizations. Each has its own philosophical or tactical differences with the others, but they are united in promoting visions of society that are at odds with American interests and ideals.

The question posed by Boot and Doran in their article is whether, since the end of the Cold War, American public diplomacy has lost its ideological edge. 


As they see it, current public diplomacy aims at "telling America's story"—the mandate of the State Department's Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. But selling the virtues of the United States—seeking to persuade foreign audiences that the American system of justice, freedom, tolerance, human rights, and individual choice has something to offer them—that’s no longer public diplomacy’s goal, according to Boot and Doran

The authors are probably correct in suggesting that “today, the battle taking place in the Muslim world is not about how Muslims view the United States, but rather how Muslims view themselves. This is a multifaceted struggle over identity, power, and authority that pits moderates against extremists, but also tribe against tribe and ethnic groups against the state. The attitudes of Muslims toward the United States are, more often than not, a function of how U.S. power shapes the local struggles that define their lives.”

Where I begin to differ with Doran and Boot is when they suggest that “no government agency—not the State Department, not the Pentagon, and not the CIA—views political warfare as a core mission.” They go on to argue that “This gap is partially filled by the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute, entities created during the Reagan administration to promote democracy abroad in an overt manner.” (Actually, IRI and NDI are core grantees of NED.)

“Shaping the host nation environment” is one of public diplomacy’s three core missions*, and I can point to many examples of embassies doing exactly that to enable American policy to succeed.  Often PAO’s use resources from other agencies to fund training, travel and grants, and they work closely with NED, IRI, NDI and lot of other NGO’s to carry out programs.  Just because you don’t see an American diplomat debating Ayman al-Zawahiri on local television does not mean the U.S. is not pushing back on extremist views, every day, all over the world.

To be fair, Max Boot and Mike Doran argue for a broader USG effort than just public diplomacy.  They recall how America “waged political warfare through a variety of mechanisms, including covertly funding noncommunist political parties in Europe and Japan, covertly starting magazines and organizations to organize artists and intellectuals against communism, and providing financial and logistical support to dissidents behind the Iron Curtain.” 

But even while those things were going on, Cold War-era public diplomacy steadily educated, encouraged and supported—in an above-board and transparent manner—democratic  free-thinkers, political activists, and dissidents, even in the most hard-line, repressive states. I can attest: the first American Fulbright professor ever installed in a Bulgarian university classroom, the intelligentsia that we reached through American art exhibitions, fax machines donated to activists, the crowds that encircled our window displays to watch video recordings of the Reagan-Carter debates—those were examples of the kinds of acts of “political warfare” that, in the end, won the Cold War.

Comments, especially from current public diplomacy practitioners, are welcome.  My own view is we don’t need “political warfare.” We need political leadership at State and adequate resources to accomplish serious work.


* Public diplomacy’s three core missions are (a) presenting and explaining American society, ideas and values, (b) advocating U.S. policies, and (c) shaping the foreign environment so that American objectives can be achieved.


4 people have commented on this article so far

Board member 

Summary: A career public diplomacy officer, Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and manages communication strategies for private clients. 


Ambassador Brian E. Carlson, a former Career Minister in the United States Foreign Service, currently assists international media and audience analysis firm InterMedia on defense and diplomatic sector activities. authors name for more info

Author: Brian Carlson

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

I too could not have the same

I too could not have the same opinion with Schadler when he disputes that now is the time for the State Department's new leadership to rethink how America conducts public diplomacy

  • The wonderful thing about gambling is each activity may well be very exceptional


Brian, I agree with you about there being more interagency cooperation and private-public partnering going on in the area of influence "operations" (not a particularly good term), or "democratization" (even worse) than meets the eye - though Moran and Boot are hardly ignorant of that fact. I also agree that "political warfare" is not the best, though I think "political leadership" has other problems, which I could expand on, but semantics aside, there is no question that the US - government sector and NGO, including nonprofits, as well as the private for-profit community - could do a FAR better job of deploying what I like to call soft weapons. Perhaps the first thing to do is to explain more clearly what that entails. But I think you overestimate the effectiveness of US public diplomacy (by whatever name) during the Cold War. It was very little indeed. Fortunately, the captive people didn't need it. The same cannot be said of the populations in either Muslim or other non-Western societies today.

Is Public Diplomacy Too Soft?

I beg to differ with Ms. Pilon in support of my friend and former USIA/USIS colleague, Amb. Brian Carlson, who Brian is correct when he notes that imaginative PAOs have a variety of tools and resources at their disposal designed "to tell America's story to the world." Ms. Pilon seems to minimize the role of public diplomacy during the Cold War but as someone who fought on the front lines of that war in Western Europe (Spain) and Latin America, I can tell you that USIA played an important role in liberating Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from the yolk of communism (excuse the Cold War terminology, but it's appropriate in this context). I have no doubt that our efforts at USIS Madrid during the period 1979-83 under the leadership of Amb. Terence Todman and PAOs Serban Vallimarscu and McKinney Russell, helped to convince post-Franco Spain to join NATO and to turn the tide in our favor on the Iberian Peninsula. And to answer the original question, yes, 21st century public diplomacy is too soft.

Guy W. Farmer, PDC Member Retired FSO (USIA) Carson City, NV

Yes, They are always ready to

Yes, They are always ready to recall that program where American political warfare done with the variety of mechanisms. These funding is taken from Europe and Japan which covers magazines and organizations expenditures.

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