Taking public diplomacy serioulsy
by Mark Blitz
Radical Islam's threat to the West, and in particular to the United States, must be countered in many ways. One is to explain ourselves to others through public diplomacy, a bureaucratic term that looks to be just the kind of euphemism a propagandist might use to describe propaganda. Indeed, we direct public diplomacy, as we do propaganda, largely to a country's citizens, not its government. Unlike propaganda, however, public diplomacy involves truth, not lying. It is understood best as the civic education, long-term and short, of foreign citizens.
Some sensible people doubt that public diplomacy could have calmed European fears about our Iraqi policy or will be able to improve public opinion toward the United States in Islamic regimes. It would indeed be foolish to expect too much from any government program, especially a small voice in the contemporary communications cacophony. Nonetheless, public diplomacy often was successful during the Cold War and, if pursued responsibly, might still be effective today. Four rules, in my judgment, should guide its conduct.
Rule One: Target Potential LeadersPublic diplomacy usually is discussed in terms of mass publics, the ones we reach through television and radio. We should define our chief interlocutors, however, as leaders and potential leaders in business, education, the clergy, and the professions. This is especially so in Europe and Asia, but it also is true in the Islamic heartland. Our goal should be to support and develop those who are or can become friendly to our principles. They will be the ones willing to listen with minimal prejudice to our defense of our policies, and in some countries they also will be the ones pressing for political and economic liberalization. The heart of public diplomacy is to provide reasoned support to those prone, or at least able, to agree with us. It is not to convince those who are likely to remain unsympathetic. In the latter case, our interest is to control the level of animosity and distrust.
We should attend especially to young leaders whose minds are open either generally or because their occupations form a basis of agreement with professionals here. We must renew this effort continually, because the young are always changing: their living memories, the experiences against which they test our intentions, are constantly varying. World War II and even the Cold War are to varying extents merely names that young people around the globe learned in school. We therefore need actively to discuss and defend America's principles precisely because fewer and fewer people have concrete experiences of America's international generosity and resolve. Media programs targeted to those few who will lead, and not only mass or general media programs, must be a central part of our arsenal.
Obviously, we should recognize the vast distance and the glut of countervailing influences that sometimes separate our opinions, principles, and interests from those we are trying to reach. Nonetheless, giving intellectual and professional support to private leaders who are or can become sympathetic to our principles, or at least open-minded about our policies, should be the main purpose of our efforts.
Rule Tw Promote Our PrinciplesIn conducting public diplomacy, we should honestly describe and affirm our principles in order to gain support for them. One school of public diplomacy sees its goal to be "mutual understanding," with the emphasis on understanding others so we can improve ourselves. What began as the purpose of the Fulbright programs, that Americans should become more sophisticated and international, became after Vietnam a view that we must learn from others how to reform. Mutual understanding began to meld into today's familiar preference for multicultural diversity.
In contrast to this, we should now discuss and affirm our own principles and constitutional practices in an intellectually cogent manner, and not distort them so they seem to accommodate what they do not. It is untrue, for example, to claim that practices in Islamic and other countries that forbid rights for women are acceptable to us, or that anything other than free exercise of religions generously tolerated could accord with natural rights and our Constitution. Should other countries move closer to what we argue are just and beneficial principles and politics, they often will need to change their own practices. Theocracy and natural rights are incompatible.
Of course, it is possible to make clear that the equality of men and women need not lead to the more extreme absurdities of American popular culture and that religious toleration has led in this country to an especially vigorous religious life rather than to its evaporation. We can make the case that religion's connection to politics and its influence on daily life is significantly different in regimes based on natural rights than in other types of regimes. Moreover, we should indicate clearly and forcefully the link in this country between some things others might wish to enjoy--such as our advanced technology, physical safety and well-being, or even popular music--and our institutions and principles generally. Our inventiveness, wealth, and artistic freedom fit together with and significantly result from these principles. Others may try to see if they can select this or that from Western development, but we should make it clear that as far as we can see the fundamentally good things here are part of an entire way of life and that particular pieces are separable from it only by degree, if at all. We pay attention to the justifiable pride of other people and countries better through honest discussion than through pretense. Their leaders and people can then moderate enlightenment practices to suit their traditions and resources without losing or being misled about what is essential in them.
Rule Three: Tell the TruthWe should tell the truth through public diplomacy not just when we promote greater understanding of our principles but also when we advocate particular policies. The need to convince leaders or journalists that a policy is sensible does not justify conducting deceptions necessary for immediate success. Although truth should be told, however, the American government is not the same as what the New York Times may once have been and still purports to be. Honesty is not equivalent to neutrality.
Short-term needs sometimes may be so pressing that they outweigh long-term efforts. Because urgent public diplomacy involves marshalling facts to make a case, it is more sensible in such cases to find areas of immediate or even hazy agreement with potential allies than unseasonably to point out root differences with them. Some things obviously are better discussed tomorrow than today. Nonetheless, America's best friends in most circumstances will be the like-minded, so long-term efforts with the influential and potentially influential young are always the central part of public diplomacy.
To have acted, for example, as if our principles and Soviet communism were not all that far apart because we found some areas of agreement (say, military professionalism), or to have pretended that freedom would not massively change Soviet institutions for the better, would have been mistaken. To have trumpeted these views, however, when to do so would have blocked useful cooperation in NATO with our more cautious friends or even with the USSR itself, would have been imprudent. Long-term efforts to promote America's values should be more direct than short-term attempts to persuade others to join in the pursuit of America's interests. The latter need not depend on the "whole truth" about what our principles imply and the variety of private and professional practices consistent with them.
Rule Four: Utilize All Our AssetsPublic diplomacy requires certain bureaucratic assets to be deployed intelligently, but it is too important to leave entirely in the hands of State Department and foreign broadcast specialists. It also is too important to be dominated by special interests, such as the academy. Most efforts begin and end abroad, where our diplomats need to identify audiences and leaders worth talking to, and then must persuade. Talking points alone do not work, because one must understand the thinking behind these points in order to do the defending on one's own. One also needs a refined sense of those to whom one should be talking, who is up-and-coming, and who is more than a sometime-friend. My sense is that with the end of the Cold War, our diplomats are out of practice in cultivating, for political purposes, leaders and potential leaders who are not involved directly with government. Until recently the stakes may not have seemed high enough.
Years of inferior education in the United States, moreover, also may have left our younger diplomats with uncertain or misguided views about our principles and institutions. We must become serious about ensuring our diplomats are exercising their influence abroad, and with the right people. Although it surely is true that what the President and four or five other administration officials say about policy is the heart of at least short-term policy advocacy, their arguments must be followed up aggressively. Even when we try to educate others about the merits of our broadest principles and practices, one Reagan speech may be worth a thousand seminars. But a Reagan is rare, and it is especially true with regard to diplomats' long-term efforts that we should worry about what they are, and are not, doing abroad. Who among them remembers how to fight the war of ideas?
Other major assets of public diplomacy are Voice of America and the new broadcasts to the Islamic world, money for advertising, and academic and professional exchange programs. Today, American government radio networks pride themselves largely on broadcasting facts and music that people in these nations otherwise might not hear. The debate is over how aggressively we should promote our policy positions and what constitutes objectivity. The perennial danger is that radio will be hardly worth our effort because stations that are supposed to be devoted to public diplomacy either slavishly imitate whatever currently counts as reporting neutrality or are afraid to lose parts of their audience by being serious. The other danger is that no one will listen. In my view, the radio stations may often sound largely like other radio outlets and still perform a service, especially in places where facts are otherwise hard to find. But their judgment about which stories and facts to emphasize should reflect their mission, as should their editorials and the tone of their commentaries. Everyone knows or expects that such stations are not neutral enterprises, and it is na�ve for them to pretend that they are.
Broadcast efforts, in any event, are geared more to the general population than to a few leaders. In addition to our diplomats abroad, the major assets that we use to deal with potential leaders are the host of professional and academic visits that the government sponsors or in which it becomes involved. One difficulty here is the embarrassment some people feel about using these programs as instruments of public diplomacy. Another problem is that they may become the playthings of interest groups. Both difficulties make academic exchange programs much less valuable than they could be if funds were allocated not with a view to academic interests alone but also, or even especially, with responsible attention paid to our long- and short-term policy goals. These include what we should be telling people who study here about our principles and form of government, and how we should decide whom it is best to send to study and speak abroad. Serious public diplomacy ought to make our basic interests the leading criteria by which American academic exchange programs make their case. On the whole, it is more useful to spend large amounts of money on short-term programs involving young leaders from abroad in journalism, law, and business, where the place of their occupation within our way of life is a natural topic, than to spend disproportionately on academics.
Public diplomacy, of course, is a small part of our overall international effort. Much of it involves soft measures which, I believe, should be governed prudently by hard objectives. Many people abroad pay attention to America only because we are strong, so the urgent needs of strength and security usually will trump softer demands. It is altogether reasonable, for instance, to attend more than we have in the past to security threats posed by foreign students who wish to study here, even if the result is that we restrict their numbers. It also is true, however, that we ourselves, and many potential leaders abroad, are moved as much or more by persuasion, discussion, and the power of principle as by force alone. We therefore need to take public diplomacy seriously.