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Public diplomacy at a crossroads by Idriss Jazairy
19 August 2002
Public diplomacy at a crossroads
When a nine-nation Zogby poll of 10,000 citizens of Arab/Muslim countries was released this spring, many Americans I spoke to were surprised, even hurt, at the findings. More than half of the respondents viewed the United States unfavorably. Few of those polled believed Western nations respect Arab/Muslim values, and pluralities to majorities in the nine countries believed western values have a negative impact on Islamic values.
How, some of my American friends wondered, can they be viewed so negatively after U.S. efforts to rescue the Muslim populations of Bosnia and Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" and delivering the people of Afghanistan - admittedly with high collateral civil casualties - from the tyranny of the Taliban?
The Council on Foreign Relations created a task force to consider such problems. It has just published the task force's findings under the title "Public Diplomacy: A Strategy for Reform." Several of its recommendations are addressed to the way the United States government conducts public diplomacy, with recommendations for improving and streamlining the ways and means it does so.
As a representative of a country friendly to the United States, I particularly welcomed its recommendation that the U.S. "adopt an engagement approach that involves listening, dialogue, debate and relationship-building." This is important, for the task at hand is not just that of, say, the Voice of America in the Cold War, where the need was through push-down repetitive broadcasting to promote Western liberalism in the context of the East-West ideological competition.
At that time there was a well-defined adversary, a nation-state, i.e. the U.S.S.R. Today, the adversaries are not countries, but terrorists who may exist anywhere. Those who invoke a distorted interpretation of Islam in their "kill to rule" strategies are currently receiving particular attention in the West and indeed in my country as well. But local brands of terrorism have emerged in many other societies including the United States, Ireland, Spain's Basque country, Corsica, Peru or Columbia.
While being a universal challenge, the "war on terrorism" may have to change its focus as circumstances evolve. But it definitely calls for policy instruments in public diplomacy that are radically different from those required in classical confrontations between states.
Today the dispersion of information by the Internet and satellite television and radio makes the average citizen much more a player than ever before in countries across the world - even small ones, even those where the government controls the media. Public opinion, as we have seen, is measured regularly and the results can have a feedback effect on policy.
One of the reasons for the unfavorable image of the United States, as seen in the polls I have cited, is the apparent disparity between words and deeds with regard to Middle East policy. While American audiences may understand clearly the reasons for this policy, it is often perceived in the Arab/Muslim world as being insensitive to its own values and concerns. Broadcast statements alone will not dispel this perception.
The CFR report rightly suggests replacing a "push-down message" by an expanded dialogue with foreign journalists as a means of improving communication by the U.S. and of providing feedback to U.S. policymakers. This is a good idea. However, the dialogue should be broader in scope. Just as in the U.S., public opinion in other countries is influenced by a variety of factors and constituencies.
In light of current priorities in the "war on terrorism," it would make sense to start to introduce a broader scope to a dialogue with the Arab/Muslim world to experiment with a genuinely interactive public diplomacy. Those charged with carrying out public diplomacy for the U.S. would find that such a dialogue in the form of a wide-ranging effort to collect assessments from many sources in Arab/Muslim countries would be worthwhile.
"Input" and "feedback" on a regular basis from journalists of these countries would be help U.S. officials as they fine-tune their diplomatic initiatives, but so would dialogue with scholars, Muslim leaders, business people and officials of nongovernment organizations in those countries - in addition to brainstorming with ambassadors of the Arab/Muslim world in Washington.
The overall purpose of the New Age public diplomacy would not be to try to make all the world "happy with U.S. policy choices" but to better anticipate - otherwise unsuspected - indirect impacts of external policy options so as to adjust against undesirable fallouts.
More broadly, the purpose would be to ensure that this country leads the world not only with power but also with authority, or rather authoritatively, thus enhancing the legitimacy of its action and the perception thereof.
At a time when some bemoan the rise of unilateralism such a vision of public diplomacy through a dialogue-and-feedback loop would offer greater hope and harmony in world affairs.
A potentially effective (and efficient) way to define the scope and content of such a dialogue would be to convene in Washington a gathering of representatives of various constituencies from Arab/Muslim countries with U.S. officials and nongovernment foreign policy experts from organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations and "think tanks."
In this way, the U.S. side could get, firsthand, thoughtful assessments of the U.S. public diplomacy initiative, from a representative cross-section of public opinion from the sample group of countries suggested. At the same time it would gain better understanding and appreciation of the concerns of the people of these countries.
U.S. failure to "listen" is one criticism voiced through the polls. This conference can be the first step in a regular process of both listening to key representatives from the Arab/Muslim world and explaining U.S. perceptions.
At a distance, the Arab/Muslim world may appear to many Americans as if it were one unit. In truth, the peoples of its countries have differing aspirations and face differing problems A keener understanding of these differences can lead to more effective custom-made policies and to their better dissemination.
Idriss Jazairy, a former president of a U.N. specialized agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and a Non-Governmental Organizations leader, is the ambassador of Algeria to the United States.