Did public diplomacy just get a new job?
Sharp power is the latest buzzword in international affairs. Last week The Economist magazine featured a study by the National Endowment for Democracy by that name. The new National Security Strategy dwells on how China and Russia are using traditional “soft power” instruments in new ways to advance their national interests, all the while curtailing U.S. cultural and educational programs in their nations.
Moreover, China, at least, appears to be outspending the United States. For example, China has co-funded 500 Confucius Institutes around the world. The United States manages about 694 American Spaces, which are mostly less resource-intensive.
The NED report gives examples from many countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America of how these tactics are promoting self-censorship and political instability. The Economist article points out more examples from Asia and Europe.
- China has used its funding leverage to force British and Australian publishers to self-censor writings on Tiananmen Square and the Uighur population.
- Russia’s RT television network, whose editor-in-chief calls it an “information weapon,” started a broadcast on French television this month. Sputnik radio just opened a new radio outlet in Washington D.C. RT and Sputnik both mimic legitimate media, but distort the facts and magnify bogus news items to create doubt and confusion among their audiences.
- Reuters reported that China Radio International covertly backed at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries around the world.
Let’s get our concepts straight.
- Public diplomacy – government programs to inform and influence foreign audiences – is the intentional component of soft power. PD is overt and it uses facts, logic and personal interaction to persuade.
- Sharp power, as described in these new writings, uses similar programs but mixes in coercion, bribes and deception to suppress discussion of unwanted topics, or to discredit foreign leaders and to subvert the population of an adversary power. For sharp power, there is no such thing as truth that lies beyond the interests of the sponsoring regime.
In response, the United States must defend, not abandon its values of democracy and rule of law. An in-depth review of Russia’s online disinformation campaigns in today’s Washington Post illustrates that our democratic norms make it hard to fight fire with fire. Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is what we do best.
Legal action, sanctions, cyber counter-measures and other tools of statecraft may necessary to defend ourselves where warranted. But public diplomacy can and should take a leading role to counter sharp power.
Here are some ways it can help.
- Call out the actions of China, Russia and others. Perhaps the State Department should task embassies with a report on defined sharp power activities, and publish the results, as Brian Carlson has suggested on this blog . The Soviet Military Power report during the Reagan Administration made an impact in Europe with its steady spotlight on the Soviet Union’s military buildup.
- Seek support from universities and NGOs in other democracies to define and endorse common standards for educational and cultural exchange programs and overt information services. Our embassies have tremendous power to convene friends and allies built up over the years.
- Promote transparency in the sponsorship and funding of think tanks, media organizations, and social media sites. Everyone should know who is paying an organization’s bills. The U.S. should work with international organizations and nonprofits to pressure disclosure by lobbying and advocacy groups – and should take care to provide attribution to those whom it assists.
- Highlight the credibility gap between U.S.-sponsored media such as the Voice of America, with its independent reporting charter, and Russian and Chinese foreign broadcasters. Consumers need to know when they are getting only one side of the story. Or fiction disguised as fact.
- Get serious about countering computational propaganda, whether from Russia, ISIS affiliates or other bad actors. The Department’s Global Engagement Center has never achieved the take-off stage. It’s time to put the money already appropriated by Congress to work.
Finally, here’s a caveat. The United States has long been advertising on Facebook, promoting university partnerships, and offering selected scholars and professionals trips to the U.S. We invented public diplomacy. When our opponents say that our public diplomacy is no different from theirs, American diplomats will have to be ready to explain why U.S. programs are constructive, and to pinpoint where fair competition in the market of ideas turns into exploitation.
This is not the Cold War. But opposing sharp power will require a global effort. it is worth priority attention from the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service and seven years in the private sector. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More