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Changing Minds, Winning Peace: Reconsidering the Djerejian Report by John Brown
Changing Minds, Winning Peace:
Reconsidering the Djerejian Report
It is nearly one year since "Changing Minds, Winning Peace," a report by the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim world, described the sorry state of America's standing in the world and how to fix its failing public diplomacy. The eighty-page report, capping a flurry of pundit-pondering on why America's message wasn't winning over overseas audiences, particularly in Muslim countries, was praised by national dailies: The "Los Angeles Times" called its recommendations "sound"; "The Washington Post" found them "sensible." Other media also sang its praises: "The St. Petersburg Times"
(Florida) noted that the report "outlines ways America can regain at least some of the respect it has lost in recent years." Today, as Congressional hearings examine public diplomacy, the Djerejian report is cited as an authoritative document .
"Changing Minds," however, has a number of serious drawbacks, some of which have been pointed out by its rare critics. With world public opinion still hostile toward the United States, it may be worthwhile to look at Changing Minds again, with a more critical eye, if only to explore other ways to cure the very that ill patient currently without a permanent physician in its care, American public diplomacy.
The Department: Not at Fault?
The report's first deficiency -- its overly genteel attitude toward the organization it was meant to examine critically, the State Department, responsible for implementing public diplomacy -- is reflected early on, when the report states in its Executive Summary that "the fault ['public diplomacy has proven inadequate'] is not with the dedicated men and women at the State Department and elsewhere who practice public diplomacy on America's behalf around the world, but with a system that has become outmoded, lacking both strategic direction and resources."
But the simple question inevitably comes to mind: isn't a system made up of people, and aren't people responsible for what happens in, and to, the system? If public diplomacy isn't working, surely one of the reasons is that some of "the men and women" at the Department aren't doing their jobs and need to be politely told so. At the very least, they should be held to greater responsibility for what is going wrong with public diplomacy at the Department, especially at the higher levels of the hierarchy. After all, State personnel, generally independent-minded and dedicated civil servants, are not just automatons subservient to the "system," but professionals responsible for how policies are made and implemented. They should be judged, in all respect to them, accordingly.
Don't Know Much about History&
A second failure of the report is its near-total inability to place public diplomacy and its challenges in historical perspective. To be sure, the report does cite certain key dates here and there, such as the fact that the United States Information Agency (USIA), responsible for public diplomacy during the Cold War, was founded in 1953.
But listing dates does not adequately provide the kind of historical insight that makes the comprehension of a complex activity that has evolved over time -- public diplomacy -- possible. The report should have mentioned, for example, that problems public diplomacy faces today existed from its very existence since World War I: the tendency, for example, of "traditional" diplomats to dismiss it as useless in supporting the main task of diplomacy, negotiations. The accurate measurement of public diplomacy's effectiveness has been an issue since the beginning of the last century; for example, George Creel, the head of America's first "public diplomacy" agency, the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), wrote his "How We Advertised
America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information that Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe" (1920) in order to justify to a skeptical Congress and public what his organization had actually done to make the world safe for democracy.
My point is not to suggest that the Djerejian report should have been an academic exercise, but to fault it for not recognizing that public diplomacy's current problems have a long history that should be underscored in any attempt to make recommendations on how to solve these problems in the present so that they not be repeated in the future.
The Master and the Butler?
Third, the report does not handle the key question of the relationship between policy and public diplomacy in a clear, consistent way. Quite simply, the report -- a committee concoction par excellence -- cannot make up its mind (or more accurately, prefers not to make up its mind, for fear, I suspect, of rustling feathers in the various Washington foreign policy power centers) about what to say about this thorny, politically sensitive policy/public diplomacy issue, and avoids going into any depth when dealing with it. Its Executive Summary recognizes that:
"We fully acknowledge that public diplomacy is only part of the picture. Surveys indicate that much of the resentment toward America stems from real conflicts and displeasure from its policies. But our mandate is clearly limited to issues of public diplomacy [my italics], where we believe significant new effort is required."
The report further states that:
"We must make an effort to separate questions of policy from questions of communicating that policy&It is not&the mandate of the Advisory Group to advise on foreign policy itself."
Elsewhere, Djerejian and his colleagues talk about the "policy necessity" of public diplomacy supporting "governments hostile to freedom and prosperity." These passages suggest that, when the chips are down, public diplomacy is just a faithful servant that follows instructions, a butler who's too shy or discreet to even inquire about having a say in what the master tells him to do.
But there are declarations interspersed in the report that suggest public diplomacy should be an important, integral part of the policy decision making process, not just an appendage to it, not just a propaganda tool to "sell" policy, even when it leaves much to be
"Public diplomacy needs new and efficient feedback mechanisms that can be brought to bear when policy is made."
"Our values and policies are not always in agreement&we must minimize the gap between what we say (the high ideals we espouse) and what we do (the day-to-day measures we take)."
"It is true that public opinion in Arab and Muslim countries responds more to policies than to public diplomacy, and it is clear that successful public diplomacy will not be able to change minds dramatically in the presence of strong opposition to policy."
So the report has statements to please those who insist, like Edward Murrow, head of USIA during the Kennedy administration, that public diplomacy should be not only at the crash landing, but at the take off (he should know, since he first found out about the invasion of the Bay of Pigs indirectly from an aide who had learned about it from a New York Times correspondent.)
But in its Executive Summary and Specific Recommendations, the report makes no clear mention of the need for public diplomacy to shape, not just propagandize, policy. In these brief, crucial parts of the lengthy Djerejian oeuvre (remember, it's eighty pages long!), nothing specific is said about the crucial conundrum of public diplomacy -- its relationship to policy. Sure, in the Executive Summary, there's a phrase about the fact that "public diplomacy requires a new strategic direction&This commitment must be led by the political will of the President and Congress." But does this verbiage really touch on the key problem, the proper relationship of public diplomacy to a policy that many consider misdirected, especially in the Middle East ? No, it does not.
A fourth problem with the report is its utter lack of imagination, a word that has become a la mode since the 9/11 Commission's call for a greater use of it in fighting terrorism. Djerejian and his colleagues declare that "we call for a dramatic transformation in public diplomacy -- in the way the U.S. communicates its values and policies to enhance our national security."
But what does the report actually propose? Basically the expansion or modification (amelioration is too strong a word) of existing programs, many of them mentioned in previous reports on public diplomacy's failures. We're presented with a laundry list of slightly repackaged old stuff used in the Cold War, not a bold, thought-provoking effort to find new ways of conducting public diplomacy in the twenty-first century.
The report, for example, advocates that "major increases in resources should be devoted to helping Arabs and Muslims gain access to American higher education." This of course is a laudable idea, but it's certainly been tried before, as the report itself demonstrates when it states that "80 percent of the members of the Saudi cabinet have an American master's or doctoral degree" (not exactly an argument in favor of educational exchanges, given the repressive nature of the Saudi regime).
Nothing indicates a failure of the imagination more than the urge to create new bureaucratic structures, elaborate abstract constructions with which Djerejian & Co. are infatuated. Some of their proposed "new" organizational proposals:
--A Cabinet-level Special Counselor to the President for Public Diplomacy, "who would head a relatively small office. Its function, in consultation with the President and other government agencies, would be to establish strategic goals and messages, to oversee the implementation of programs that meet those goals, and ensure effective measurement for those programs."
--"A newly constituted President's Public Diplomacy Experts' Board, comprising 16 distinguished citizens outside the government with relevant expertise."
--"We urgently recommend that the interagency PCC [what's that?] be reactivated and co-chaired by the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and by a high-level representative of the NSC."
--"We recommend that the department establish an Office of Policy, Plans, and Resources within the Office of the Under Secretary State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs." Its function? Listen to this lawbreaking sentence: "Its function would be to coordinate the development of strategy and strategic guidance, oversee the process of producing country-specific implementation plans, and monitor the execution of these plans and assist in the allocation and management of both financial and human resources."
--"We recommend, in addition, the establishment of an Arab and Muslim Countries Communications Unit under the direction of the Under Secretary."
--"We recommend that a separate outside unit, managed by a private-sector contractor, measure and evaluate programs in parallel with government agencies."
Are these new bureaucratic entities really needed? Wouldn't they complicate further the public diplomacy process, already mired in the State Department's many layers of area and functional bureaus? And, to improve public diplomacy, wouldn't it make more sense, instead of creating new bureaucracies in Washington, to empower diplomats practicing public diplomacy in the field -- by giving them greater authority to frame bilateral issues, decide on programs, and prioritize budgets? They are, after all, the people on the spot, and they are best placed to know what best works and doesn't.
A fifth problem with the Djerejian report is its neglect of one of the most important aspects of public diplomacy, its cultural dimension. This failure stems, in part, from the Advisory Group's inability to recognize that cultures are different because it so ardently believes in the universality of "American values," as its following statement demonstrates: "Unlike powerful nations of the past, the United States does not seek to conquer but to spread universal ideals: liberty, democracy, human rights, equality for women and minorities, prosperity, and the rule of law."
Because the Djerejian report believes American "values" or what it calls the American "message" are inherently ingrained in everyone, even if (the report suggests) they don't quite yet realize it, it insists on making the world more aware that it is, at bottom, basically "American" -- so that it can be made to suit U.S. national interests. Just make "them" realize that they are like "us" and everything will be all right, just like St. Paul when the scales before his eyes vanished.
This is a simplistic, missionary-like view of our complicated world. Even in today's Americanized, increasingly globalized environment, native, original cultures persist -- and indeed flourish -- as a reaction to efforts to suppress (or to use more neutral words, involuntarily change) them through economic, cultural, or political "universalization" by what many perceive as an hegemonic and culturally imperialistic power, the United States. Samuel Huntington may have it all wrong in his clash of civilizations thesis (how can the variety of Muslim cultures be reduced to one civilization?), but he is right to point out that culture, in the twenty-first century, has assumed great importance in how nations and non-state entities define themselves in reaction to what they see as outsiders' demands that they "get with the program" of "shared values."
There are public diplomacy programs -- cultural rather than educational in nature -- that the State Department should support, but the Djerejian report hardly mentions them. Culture just doesn't exist in Djerejian's universal-values world.
How many inches?
The final drawback of the report, which shows it at its most naïve, is its call for a "new culture of measurement" (one of its few references to "culture," but of course not in the way we have discussed above). Failing to mention that evaluating public diplomacy's effectiveness is an issue it has grappled with since its very inception, the report urges that "no new program should begin and no current program should continue unless careful study shows that it has a considerable chance of success and that its likely benefits outweigh its costs."
The models the report advocates as the best tools for testing the effectiveness of public diplomacy programs are -- get this -- those that have been used by Centers for Disease Control "to gauge the effects of media-and community-based programs to reduce tobacco use." So public diplomacy, it seems, is essentially similar to efforts to prevent people from smoking. That view is patently absurd, because public diplomacy involves affecting persons in much more complex ways than persuading them not to light up. Indeed, if there were a full-proof method of precisely measuring the effects of public diplomacy programs, that would indicate that these programs were, in fact, ineffective, for it would mean that they had been reduced to inducing Pavlovian biological reactions that can easily be quantified. Sorry, producing canine saliva shouldn't be pd's forte.
A mind cannot be quantified or measured in the same way that surveys determine how many butts nicotine addicts are putting out in ashtrays. Why not honestly admit, then, that minds are (thank God!) difficult, if not impossible, entities to measure, and work from that modest assumption when planning public diplomacy programs?
Moreover, a culture of measurement, which the report so ardently advocates, is at odds with the generous, essentially unquantifiable spirit of the best of public diplomacy activities. Take the American Centers with open access libraries that were so visible during the Cold War, located in the heart of major cities. They attracted patrons from all walks of life and became an important part of the host country's cultural life precisely because these guests of America didn't feel that their minds were being "changed" then "measured" to suit narrow U.S. foreign policy interests. They sensed, as human beings, that the Centers were an example of American generosity (how about that for a universal value?) opening its hearts and minds to them, providing them the delight and intellectual excitement of serendipitous discovery without their being expected to "change their minds" or being quizzed about what's in their heads "on a strictly analytical basis" (a phrase used by the Djerejian report on how public diplomacy programs should be measured).
Less Time for Exchanges?
A final note on the failures of "Changing Minds." The report, in a passage buried inside its pages, remarks that "Wherever we went -- from Egypt to Senegal to Turkey -- we heard that exchange programs are the single most effective means to improve attitudes toward the United States." But in its Executive Summary the report makes no specific mention of exchanges, and its Specific Recommendations section avoids mentioning the need for long-lasting exchange programs (e.g., high school exchanges where students stays in the U.S. for an academic year or more), noting instead that "[p]rofessional exchanges and educational programs of shorter duration that reach more diverse segment of the Arab and Muslim world should be expanded."
What is needed to fix the sick man of U.S. diplomacy is not necessarily more money, more programs, more personnel, more connections with the White House, more bureaus, more Advisory Groups, and more of more. What is needed is new thinking. Let me suggest four directions.
--First, to justify public diplomacy programs to Congress and the public, there should be no pretence that these programs can measurably "change minds." Rather, the focus should be on the kind of dangerous we would live in without these (inexpensive) programs: a world where there would be less, not more communication; less, not more mutual understanding; less, not more knowledge about the United States. Could the U.S, for example, have prevailed in the Cold War without public diplomacy, without informational, educational and cultural programs that presented an alternative to the totalitarianism of the USSR ?
--Second, practitioners of public diplomacy abroad, who are best qualified to judge what works and doesn't work in the environment in which they function, should be given as much leeway as possible to frame their own programs based on their knowledge of U.S. policy and the local culture.
It is not by creating more Washington-based bureaucracies, but by empowering those in the field so that they can meet the challenges facing U.S. policy where they posted, that public diplomacy can best serve American national interests.
--Third, Americans must be reminded that we are living in a new era where cultural differences are becoming increasingly important, in part in reaction to globalization, and that public diplomacy can develop international dialogues on these issues and at the very least help avoid conflicts that lead to terrorism.
--Fourth, and most important, policy-makers must develop a "public diplomacy" dimension to their thinking, rather than producing a policy and then expecting public diplomacy to "sell" it to the world. Such a mode of thinking "public diplomacy" in formulating policy means, from the very start and at the very least, evaluating world public opinion; listening to foreign criticisms of the United States; and respecting the "values" of others, not always identical to ours. It requires going beyond traditional concepts of realpolitik or narrow military thinking and taking the increasing complexity of the world into serious consideration. The world is not a chessboard or a battlefield. It's more complicated, less definable than that. That's why our policy makers need a public diplomacy mode of thinking, and not just more public diplomacy programs, to defend and promote American national interests abroad.