By Dr. Sherry Lee Mueller, PDC President
This July 4th requires a reckoning of who we are and our place in the world. This first July 4 after the tragedy of January 6 must be about more than spectacular fireworks, tantalizing tastes, and backyard BBQs.
Almost a century ago in 1922, Elihu Root, who served as Secretary of War under President William McKinley and Secretary of State for President Teddy Roosevelt, wrote an article “A Requisite for the Success of Popular Diplomacy” that appeared in the first issue of Foreign Affairs ever published. Distilling lessons learned from the Great War (World War I), Root persuasively argued that knowledge of international relations and constructive international engagement are essential for Americans.
Political demagogues will seek popularity by public speeches full of insult to foreign countries, and yellow journals will seek to increase circulation by appeals to prejudice against foreigners… What especially concerns us is that these are very injurious offenses against our own country. Such public expressions by our own citizens bring discredit upon our country and injure its business and imperil its peace… They will practically cease whenever the American public really condemns them and more fully understands the business of international intercourse.
Much of American economic strength depends on attracting buyers for our products, customers for our hospitality industries, and international students to study at our universities. Our national security depends on our ability to forge alliances and develop partnerships with other countries. The pandemic is a vivid illustration of our interdependence. No country can tackle global problems alone. Yet we persistently cling to three myths that undermine U.S. public diplomacy — our efforts to promote America’s image and to build constructive international relationships.
MYTH 1: We can depend on our hard power and military prowess to carry the day. To phrase it as a question, Why do we neglect our most effective tool in foreign relations? As Kristin Lord, president and CEO of IREX, recently asserted: “U.S. public diplomacy tools are wildly underfunded.” Whether considering the Fulbright Program, the Voice of America, or the number of employees at U.S. embassies whose job is public diplomacy, we are dramatically outspent and often outmaneuvered by the Chinese.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emphasized this concern in an article in Foreign Affairs (2020) entitled: “The Overmilitarization of American Foreign Policy.”
Washington has become overly dependent on military tools and has seriously neglected its nonmilitary instruments of power, which have withered and weakened as a result.
MYTH 2: You are either a patriot or a global citizen; you can’t be both. This reluctance to reconcile patriotism and global citizenship is costly and dangerous. Most people have a natural affection for their country of birth and the place they were raised. It is a fundamental dimension of our identity, but so is the fact that we occupy space together on this fragile planet. In truth, being a patriot means accepting responsibility to build relationships with our counterparts abroad. If the world consisted of 100 people, only five would live in the United States. We need to build authentic friendships with the other 95.
MYTH 3: There is a separation between domestic politics and international affairs. This may have been true years ago before globalization when foreign policy was largely bipartisan and our political disagreements “stopped at the water’s edge.” The Biden Administration’s linking of U.S. foreign policy with the welfare of the American middle class is a big step forward. So is the President’s frequent assertion that “it is not the example of our power, but it is the power of our example” that will determine Uncle Sam’s reputation abroad. Yet, if you look at the January 6 attack on the Capitol through foreign eyes, our example as a stable and thriving democracy is frayed at best. January 6 gave a propaganda bonanza to our authoritarian competitors.
This July 4 each American must ask: What can I do to diminish the divisiveness, disrespect, and downright meanness that characterize too much of our public discourse? How can I constructively engage in the political process appreciating that my actions either enhance or damage America’s image abroad?
We are all citizen diplomats.
Sherry L. Mueller, Ph.D. is the President of the Public Diplomacy Council. She serves as Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the School of International Service (SIS), American University, Washington, D.C. She teaches an undergraduate course and a graduate Practicum entitled Cultural Diplomacy and International Exchange. Dr. Mueller provided leadership for the National Council for International Visitors (now Global Ties U.S.) since 1996, first as Executive Director and then as President until September 30, 2011.