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(Public) Diplomacy is our best defense by Derek Hoffman

Diplomacy is our best defense
If we don't do it well, it's at our own peril
By Derek Hoffman
Guest columnist

Traditional diplomacy is official contact between government elites, as when U.S. diplomats interact with their counterparts overseas.

Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is governments appealing directly to the citizens of other nations using information campaigns, and educational and cultural exchange programs.

Public diplomacy gained importance during the Cold War, when a clash of ideologies between the Soviets and the United States sent each scrambling to retain allies and win the loyalties of peoples in the Third World.

Today, the U.S. faces a particularly strong public diplomacy challenge in the Arab world where it faces a legacy of mistrust and the prevalence of al-Qaida propaganda.

America's public diplomacy challenge in the Arab world goes far beyond making itself understood, and extends to gaining an accurate understanding of those we are trying to reach. This is important for two reasons.

First, we must ensure that our message is being received correctly. Our image abroad is quite often very different from how we see ourselves at home.

The United States has more military bases in the Middle East than embassies, and as in other areas of the world, this spawns a view of the United States as a militant nation.

U.S. films and television shows, and headlines of societal violence reinforce this view. Public diplomacy can help provide a more balanced, realistic look at who we are.

Second, understanding our Arab audience is intrinsically important, so that we overcome stereotypes, see Arabs as fellow human beings, and forge our policies accordingly. Just as the U.S. soldiers who tortured Iraqis are not representative of the whole, so too are Arab terrorists a fringe, a societal and a religious aberration.

While living in Syria, Saudi Arabia and now Egypt, I have appreciated Arabs' hospitality, their devotion to family, high moral standards, delicious food, and beautiful language.

If educational and cultural exchange were more a part of our policy in the Middle East, it would demonstrate our respect for Arabs, reduce walls of mistrust, and make al-Qaida propaganda less appealing.

Of course, a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute must complement our public diplomacy if it is to succeed.

How are we facing the public diplomacy challenge? According to academic Joseph Nye, the ratio of what the United States spends on "hard power" (military spending) as compared with "soft power" (diplomacy) is an incredible 400 to 1.

We Americans have long enjoyed peaceful borders with our neighbors, and until recently the scourge of foreign attacks had barely touched us.

To stem future attacks we must understand our image abroad, and support policies that are both in the best interest of our national security and that reflect our most noble political values, those that honor the dignity and humanity of the individual.

Just as military might was inadequate to stop the last terrorist attack, it will not prevent the next.

More than ever before, di-plomacy is our best defense, and we should press our elected officials to support more of it, particularly public diplomacy.

We fail to do so at our own peril.

Derek Hoffman, son of Upland residents Stephen and Artis Hoffmann, is an Arabic student in Cairo, Egypt. He is a graduate of Eastbrook High School, Taylor University and The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

Originally published Tuesday, May 18, 2004

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