The following essay commented on President Obama’s September 29, 2015, speech at the Leaders Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism, held at the United Nations. It appeared on the former Public Diplomacy Council website as a “Commentary,” but it is no longer available on the web. It is here re-published for reference. Foreign policy priorities have shifted in emphasis since 2015, but America’s leaders still wrestle with the essay’s call for a “positive vision.”
During the Leaders’ Summit at the United Nations, President Obama urged the international community to “counter” ISIL and violent extremism with public diplomacy, the social media, messaging, and broadcasting. The State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review promises to “counter” terrorism or violent extremism more than 40 times.
“Countering” is a good first step, but it yields the initiative to the enemy. If their videos or social media allege falsehoods, we will respond. If they advance a malign vision, we will counter. When they issue propaganda, we will refute their evil. All this “countering,” however, is only half of what’s needed. It says what we’re against, but not what we’re for.
America must offer a positive vision. We need a better vision to inspire those who fight against murder, beheadings, immolations, rape, slavery, and power drills. A better vision of why nations and individuals should join our side. A better vision of partnership with the United States. A vision that demonstrates that others’ own aspirations for peace are in harmony with ours.
We and our allies will face terrorism justified by dark religious views for a long time. We need to employ all the elements of national power – diplomatic, military, economic, and intellectual – to quell and defeat those who resort to terror and conquest. No long war has ever been exclusively military. Ideas and values are deployed too.
We knew this in World War II when the Office of War Information (OWI), the Council for Democracy, the War Writers Board, and other organizations communicated American values for domestic and foreign audiences – allies, occupied nations, and enemy peoples. Franklin Roosevelt penned the Four Freedoms, but it was Norman Rockwell’s paintings that moved ordinary Americans. The authors Booth Tarkington, Stephen Vincent Benet, Carlos Bulosan, and Will Durant wrote the essays to introduce them. Robert Russell Bennett wrote a Four Freedoms symphony. OWI communicated the Four Freedoms around the world.
During the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) talked to foreign publics, advocated partnership and democratic solidarity, and explained American policies. Under its auspices, American authors, musicians, and artists represented our values overseas.
In 1999, when USIA was folded into the State Department, America’s public diplomacy began to wither. It now spends its time dryly advocating administration positions and carrying out programs invented by political appointees in Washington. Given its limited resources, learning to use social media crowds out defining and advancing American values with foreigners.
For vision, the State Department waits for each speech from the White House, and the administration’s message control has cramped creativity and initiative. Call it reform, reset, or renewal – the next administration needs to rebuild a strong and robust public diplomacy.
The greatest obstacle to a real offensive in the war of ideas, however, is that many Americans have lost confidence in our values, and the diminished confidence enervates all our appeals. Partisanship makes it worse. According to Steve Erlanger of the New York Times, “The West is suddenly suffused with self-doubt.” James Glassman wrote, “We seem almost embarrassed to talk about human and civil rights abroad, as though we would be seen hypocrites because the West’s history includes slavery, imperialism, and Crusades.”
The “ideas” part of the struggle ahead, then, also needs a renewal of confidence. For those engaged in public diplomacy, here are some suggestions.
Look at the parts. Terrorism need not be the focus of every public diplomacy program. America’s deepest values include the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, private property, equal rights and justice, and religious liberty. Among ourselves, these are constantly being argued, enlarged, refined, and enriched. When we draw foreign thinkers into conversation on the same principles, we help them think through choices they must make. We give them building blocks for a better future.
Know the past. Social change works best when it draws on themes in a nation’s own culture and heritage. It’s not possible to advance our values without understanding how they were defined, expressed, and advanced in the past. If you need a place to start, study FDR’s Four Freedoms, and think of how to renew their appeal.
Play new arrangements. The democratic rhetoric and literature of two generations ago now show their age. Our predecessors celebrated diversity, for instance, but their concept was narrower than ours. Many words like “capitalism” have been battered. But if arrangements by Bruce Springsteen give new life to Pete Seeger’s old tunes, if Daniel Day-Lewis makes us feel the 13th Amendment, and if Lin-Manuel Miranda can make Americans sing with Alexander Hamilton – then surely there are ways to refresh our values.
Public diplomacy must embrace more than “countering.” We need American confidence and visions to lead the way.
This blog was originally posted on Oct. 13, 2015.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.