Is U.S. Public Diplomacy Too Soft?
Tuesday, August 6th 2013
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.