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What’s Wrong with U.S. Public Diplomacy?

I had written a couple months ago about the seemingly uncoordinated and scattershot approach in which U.S. embassies engage in the name of public diplomacy. An interlocutor pointed me to a speech delivered by retired Foreign Service officer Donald Bishop to the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this fall. While so many practitioners of public diplomacy circle the wagons to protect budgets and the system they know and in which they thrive, Bishop speaks directly:

Public diplomacy makes less difference in spite of the many studies and reports that proclaim its importance, despite the many new programs in the graduate schools, despite words of praise on all the appropriate public occasions, despite Congressional support for exchanges, despite Secretary Clinton’s decree that “every officer is a Public Diplomacy officer,” and despite the fact that Public Diplomacy officers are working harder than ever.

Bishop continues to suggest three separate problems, or rather clusters of problems. The first is organizational. Public diplomacy has been shunted aside to a bureaucratic corner. “The appointment of well-spoken Under Secretaries from related fields has not worked as intended. They have had scant bureaucratic power and no real sway over the allocation of Public Diplomacy people and money,” he writes, adding, “Public diplomacy training has become too brief. Many experienced Public Diplomacy officers no longer aim to lead large country programs, hoping rather to be DCMs [Deputy Charge of Missions], DAS’s [Deputy Assistant Secretaries], and Ambassadors, and this shifts their professional focus away from communication.”

The second problem, he observes, is the fact that there is “division among the American people over our nation’s purposes in the world.” Bishop is correct, even as so many ignore this basic fact. As national security becomes a political football, partisan and philosophical divisions undercut the ability to advance a coherent strategy. Another point Bishop makes but is so often overlooked is the impact of rancorous American political debate on our adversaries’ propaganda:

If I know anything from three decades of reading foreign editorials and columns, it’s that indigenous foreign criticisms of the United States are quite rare. Rather our critics rewrite, repackage, and amplify what they hear in our own domestic debates. Division and rancor in our domestic politics ricochets back to us from abroad, and we live in rancorous times.

This doesn’t mean that Congress should temper its debate, but in a globalized age it behooves our elected officials to recognize that hyperbole might end up fueling those who seek not to craft a batter strategy, but rather defeat America entirely. Simply looking back at some of the rhetoric aired regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and how congressional statements were picked up and recast on insurgent media should give pause to the bipartisan array of officials who were quick to declare new Vietnams or allege ill motives on the part of national-security leaders.

A subset of division about disputes regarding America’s role in the world is religion. Again, Bishop addresses the issue head on:

In the war on terrorism, however, we confront an ideology based on extreme religion. Americans have always been ginger about discussing religion, and too often I have seen officers turn away from opportunities to discuss faith by simply saying “in America, we have separation of church and state.”  This is a non-starter for dialog with religiously motivated people. My point is that because religion and its role in society are domestically contentious, we have been unable to agree among ourselves how to discuss religion with foreign audiences. This hurts us in the current struggle.

American officials so often misinterpret separation of church and state. While the U.S. government should certainly support no official religion, diplomats must understand that the word secular, when translated into Arabic, has a negative connotation suggesting the notion of being against religion. To avoid the subject of religion and religious ideology when operating in religiously conservative societies is to surrender credibility and forfeit the battle of ideas. Discussing religion need not be synonymous with proselytizing.

For Bishop, the third set of problems revolves around strategy. He quotes an Inspector General report on the Bureau of International Information Programs which posed basic questions:

What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders? Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD [public diplomacy] resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values? How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should be directed to a global audience?

To this, Bishop adds a few questions of his own:

  • What’s the value of venue-based Public Diplomacy — American Centers or American spaces — in an age of distributed information? 
  • When the internet and DVDs make high and low American culture available throughout the world, what’s the value of traveling jazz trios? 
  • How does the nation that stands for religious liberty communicate with international actors whose fundamental premises are religious? 
  • In war zones, how can Public Diplomacy work with the influence disciplines in the armed forces — information operations and the discipline formerly known as psychological operations? 

It seems that secretaries of state in recent administrations have sought to compete with their predecessors in mileage traveled, as if logging miles somehow became a metric of wisdom or diplomatic success. Leadership is not simply about free travel and five-star hotels, nor should an appointment to lead the State Department be the ultimate perk. Rather, being secretary of state should be about management and implementing a coherent strategy. Until a president appoints a secretary of state who takes seriously his or her responsibilities to answer fundamental questions and make diplomacy part of a coherent strategy, the State Department and American diplomacy are destined to flounder as an expensive failure.


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