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Public Diplomacy Necessary for Policy Success by Christopher Ross
21 August 2003
Public Diplomacy Necessary for Policy Success, Says State's Ross
Amb. Christopher Ross article in Harvard Review
(This article by Ambassador Christopher Ross, State Department Senior Adviser (Arab World Public Diplomacy), was published in the Harvard Review Summer 2003 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)
Pillars of Public Diplomacy
Grappling with International Public Opinion
By Christopher Ross
(Ambassador Christopher Ross is U.S. State Department Senior Adviser for Arab World Public Diplomacy.)
Modern diplomacy, once a largely one-dimensional, nation-to-nation process, is now a multidimensional enterprise in which so-called "non-state" actors and foreign publics play an increasingly prominent role. The latest Iraq war is the most dramatic, but hardly the first, example of this phenomenon. The rise its influence of non-state actors has been paralleled by two other equally important developments: globalization -- the integration of peoples, societies, and economies -- and information technologies that now link nations, cultures, and societies in complex and unprecedented ways.
This is the transformed international environment in which public diplomacy now operates. In such a world, the public-diplomacy quotient of virtually every foreign policy issue today has risen dramatically, whether regarding a trade negotiation over genetically modified corn, the reconstruction of Iraq, or the threat of HIV/AIDS.
Policies can still be forged in private, confidential talks among professional diplomats, much as they were 200 years ago, but no policy initiative can succeed over the long term without the understanding and support of multiple foreign publics and other non-state actors.
Equally vital is a shift in US State Department culture that moves public diplomacy closer to the center of diplomatic work. To shape mindsets abroad, mindsets at home must be changed first. This process began with the integration of the US Information Agency into the Department of State in 1999. More recently, the administration of US President George Bush has reversed a decade of declining resources for public diplomacy through substantial increases in funds, personnel, and training.
The disciplines of persuasive communication are inescapable, and the realm of foreign policy is no exception. The public diplomacy and international communications of the United States must reflect a basic set of principles and practices -- the seven pillars of public diplomacy -- to meet its mandate "to inform, engage, and influence" foreign publics.
The Seven Pillars
The first of these so-called pillars is policy advocacy, and all public diplomacy activities, however varied, are designed to support US national interests and meet its international duties. Above all else, the first responsibility must always be to ensure that foreign audiences understand US policies for what they are, not for what others say they are.
To be more than a series of ad hoc responses to changing events, public diplomacy must be incorporated into the ground floor of foreign policy. Policy makers must take to heart the maxim that a policy that cannot be explained clearly and understandably, to many different audiences is not sustainable. In the Bush administration's national communications strategy, therefore, foreign policy and public diplomacy are inextricable and integrated throughout the process of policy formulation and implementation.
An effective national public diplomacy effort must be coordinated throughout the government to ensure that information priorities are clear, overall themes are established, messages are consistent, and resources are used effectively. Types of messages, language, audience, format, and media will vary greatly. All, however, should be part of a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy linked to the formulation of policy at its inception and coordinated broadly throughout the foreign affairs community.
The daily point-counterpoint of policy debate is only one element of public diplomacy. It is equally vital to systematically address the slower pulse of public attitudes, to connect with human emotions and perceptions where our values and worldviews reside most deeply. As one writer has said, "People are drowning in information, yet desperate for context."
It is here, in the quest for deeper understanding and broader dialogue with states and peoples, that the Bush administration has worked hard to reenergize US public diplomacy, which has lost focus and funding since the end of the Cold War.
Advocacy alone is rarely enough to build genuine understanding, much less active support. Therefore, the United States must also rely on the second pillar's providing reasons and rationale -- the context -- for its policies. Such context requires US policies to remain rooted in the fundamental values and culture of the United States. In the words of the US National Security Strategy report: "We do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom."
Media coverage of the Iraq war offers an immediate and dramatic example. Arab, European, and US media outlets have certainly reported different or conflicting "facts," but the most dramatic differences in coverage reflect deep-seated, often divergent assumptions about the context, or meaning of the conflict -- from its origins to its outcome. As a pre-war example, the Bush administration designed its Shared Values Initiative for the Arab and Muslim world to provide channels of dialogue and foundations of mutual trust, which are critical to any understanding or agreement on key policy issues.
The most frequent question about the Shared Values effort is why it does not directly address the most divisive policy issues in the US-Arab relationship, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. But this is the wrong question. The Shared Values Initiative, by intent, does not address divisive policy issues directly. Instead, it tries to establish broader arenas of mutual interests, common ground, and interaction by talking about such subjects as religious tolerance and family life-values deeply held and respected by US citizens and residents of the Arab world.
Some commentators have responded by saying, in effect: "Everyone knows about US freedoms and religious tolerance -- it is irrelevant to the pressing issues of the day." Yet every international poll of attitudes in the Middle East and Asia consistently suggests the contrary -- that publics in Arab and Muslim countries are neither knowledgeable about the United States nor simply critical of US policies. These polls conclude that their governments and Western-educated elites may be familiar with US values and culture, but the general population clearly is not. Instead, many regard the United States as irreligious and hostile to Islam, espousing a culture antithetical to their own culture and values. In such an environment, it is unlikely that US policy messages will even be heard, much less judged fairly. Coverage of the US and coalition military campaign in Iraq by the Arab media is a vivid example of this dynamic in action.
To suggest silence on these subjects until the Middle East conflict, Iraqi reconstruction, or other policy issues are resolved in misguided. To the extent that the administration's policy message is discounted because of strongly held stereotypes, such as "The United States is anti-Muslim," policy advocacy will fail. Audiences co-opted by the myth of US hostility to Islam, for example, will not support our call for international action because they will discount our values and motives.
The immediate pressure of the Iraq war's information dimension has not obviated the need for such initiatives; to the contrary, it has made it more vital than ever -- even if the benefits of such "values-based" communications are usually long-term and often obscured, literally, by the immediate, polarizing images of conflict.
The third pillar of diplomacy is that US international messages must be consistent, truthful, and credible. To formulate a public message for a single exclusive audience is to make a fundamental conceptual and operational mistake: all public messages can, and will, reach multiple publics. In the end, credibility is the sine qua non of international communication. We must always say what we mean and mean what we say.
The US State Department is a leader in developing public diplomacy initiatives for the United States, as reflected in its role as co-chair of a new interagency Policy Coordinating Committee. At the same time, the Bush administration has also established a new White House Office of Global Communications, which grew out of the Coalition Information Centers established during the Afghanistan conflict to strengthen the focus and responsiveness of public diplomacy. The White House office can help identify themes, set priorities, coordinate foreign policy communications within the government, and sensitize decision makers to the importance of public opinion abroad.
Both the Office of Global Communications and a strengthened public diplomacy function in the State Department are key to developing consistent, authoritative international information messages and programs.
The fourth pillar is a corollary to the third. The obverse of consistency is our ability to tailor messages for specific audiences. There need be no contradiction between consistency and tailoring. For example, an information campaign in support of open trade or religious freedom will employ vastly different images and words for different audiences. The values that stand behind such efforts, however, are enduring.
In an age of satellite television and the Internet, policy messages must be not only accurate, but fast. Silence is a vacuum that the media will fill with someone else's viewpoint if the United States is unwilling or unable to speak with one voice, and speak immediately.
The new digital technologies, moreover, provide unprecedented opportunities for taking "content" -- a basic statement or explanation of a US policy, for instance -- and "pouring" it into containers that range from web page and e-mail publishing to print products or broadcast materials for television, radio, or digital video conferences.
US public diplomacy has done well in some aspects of information flexibility, notably the use of Listserv e-mail and web sites to provide fast, authoritative transmission of official texts and transcripts, often in local or regional language versions. At the same time, new opportunities and challenges abound. The US has not yet fully come to grips with ensuring its share of the voices on the Internet, notably in chat rooms and other types of online conversations that routinely discuss US foreign policy with no official voice or presence providing balance or counterpoint.
By contrast, the US State Department has long recognized the potential of satellite circuits for allowing experts and officials in the United States to interact formally and informally with journalists and opinion leaders throughout the world through digital video conferencing. In 2002, for example, the State Department conducted over 450 video conferences through more than 150 facilities located in Washington, DC, and at our missions throughout the world.
In shaping specific programs for specific audiences, we must conduct audience research that is as frequent and in-depth as resources permit. The discipline of persuasive communication in this regard is compelling: it is not what is said that counts, it is what is heard. And it is only through research and feed-back -- coupled with a sure understanding of the cultures in which we operate -- that we can craft the right messages for the right audience.
For example, in the case of the Shared Values documentaries of US Muslims, we conducted careful pre-campaign attitude and message testing through polls and focus groups -- as well as an intensive follow-up assessment of their effectiveness, most notably in Indonesia. When we tested Indonesians for the levels of recall and message retention, we found them to be significantly higher than, for instance, those of a typical soft drink campaign run at much higher spending levels for many more months.
This kind of exceptional result means that the messages were both relevant and very interesting to their audience. In random taped interviews, people made it clear that these messages literally opened their minds and challenged the carefully taught fiction that the Muslim population of the United States is harshly treated, illustrating instead that religious tolerance is a fundamental value and practice in the United States.
The Role of Mass Media
At a time when many large and diverse publics are informed and energized about foreign affairs, it is no longer sufficient to explain our policies to 200 opinion leaders; the United States must also find ways to repeat key messages for audiences of two million, or 20 million, through national and transnational media, which make up the fifth pillar.
We must leverage our messages through all the communications channels at our command: Internet-based media (email publishing and websites), broadcasting (radio and television), print publications and press placements, traveling speakers, and educational and cultural exchanges. Such channels include the independent government broadcasting services administered by the International Bureau of Broadcasting (IBB) under the supervision of the Board of Broadcasting Governors: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa (Arabic), Radio Farda (Persian), Radio/TV Marti (Cuba), and WorldNet television. These broadcasting services demonstrate that support for US values and interests is entirely consistent with independent journalism and news reporting.
In seeking out channels for reaching broader audiences, the primacy of television, and, consequently, the impact of images, cannot be overestimated. In media terms, for instance, the Iraq war was really two wars. The Arab media displayed one set of images of the conflict, and US media outlets showed another, each playing to different assumptions and audience biases. One clear lesson from this experience is that the globalization of information -- especially the immediacy and impact of television -- can divide as well as unite.
For the pre-war Shared Values Initiative, we estimated that more than 280 million people were exposed to these messages through pan-Arab satellite television and newspapers, as well as through selected national media, during the holy month of Ramadan.
In Egypt, we invited local broadcasters to film the story of several US Agency for International Development projects, highlighting the families that benefited from the clean water, improved education, and micro-loans that resulted. The television coverage, readily available to a mass audience, confirmed the commitment of the United States to improving the quality of life around the globe.
Building upon the Shared Values initiative and continuing to focus on the Middle East, we are initiating a new program called Shared Futures, which will bring sustained attention in the new postwar era to our interest in and contributions to economic, political, and educational change in the Muslim world through media campaigns, television, media co-ops, exchanges, and other creative programming -- in partnership with local institutions wherever possible.
Alliances and Partnerships
The sixth pillar, alliances and partnerships, recognizes that as the number and importance of non-state actors have grown in international affairs, the official voice of the United States has grown smaller. We cannot reach these new audiences by ourselves. We need the strength of international alliances and private-sector partners, whether global corporations, Humanitarian organizations, or US ex-patriot communities abroad.
Such partnerships not only bring fresh ideas and added resources to our efforts, they can also offer third-party authenticity and verification for messages that might otherwise be dismissed when communicated through official channels.
We need to take the best of the United States to other countries, to offer who we are and what we stand for, sharing with them our contributions in representative government, science, technology, literature, the arts, and English teaching. We may never be able to match the massive, sometimes pernicious weight of Hollywood and pop culture, but we can ensure that the diversity of our society and culture is better represented to foreign audiences.
In the case of Shared Values, for instance, we worked with the Council for American Muslim Understanding (CAMU) not only in preparing the mini-documentaries, but also in recruiting speakers to travel overseas and talk about Muslim life in the United States. CAMU also assisted in creating an interactive web site () where US citizens and people from Muslim-majority countries can interact and share ideas.
Dialogue and Exchanges
The final pillar of public diplomacy recognizes that the United States must build the foundations of trust and mutual understanding through a genuine commitment to dialogue. We must listen to the world as well as speak to it. The failure to listen and to provide more avenues for dialogue will only strengthen the stereotype of the United States as arrogant, when, in fact, we are often only being inattentive.
Opportunities and avenues for feedback and dialogue, therefore, should be built into our public diplomacy efforts whenever possible. US Secretary of State Cohn Powell has said, "We touch every nation and every nation touches us." We must demonstrate both sides of this equation in all our international communications.
Our most important tool for enhancing dialogue and understanding is one of our most durable: the estimated 35,000 educational and cultural exchanges that the US State Department conducts or sponsors every year. These exchange programs are only a small fraction of the total universe of US international exchanges, now an estimated US$12 billion annual venture in the United States.
Such exchanges -- the celebrated "last three feet" of communication -- are inestimable in demonstrating the ideas of freed optimism, and sense of future possibilities that make the United States so compelling to the world. The United States has had long experience with a wide range of educational and cultural exchanges -- whether young political leaders, academics, students, journalists, artists, or others -- and we have found that the experiences of our grantees are almost always positive and transformative.
The significance of this conclusion cannot be overstated, especially at a time when there is so much focus on the policy and cultural differences among the United States and many of its allies in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. At present, more than 50 percent of the leaders of the global coalition in the war against terrorism are former participants in our largest exchange effort, the International Visitors Program. More than 200 current and former heads of state, 1,500 cabinet-level ministers, and many other distinguished worldwide leaders in government and the private sector have participated in this same program.
The prime directive of US public diplomacy will always be to ensure that we advocate the policies of the United States as clearly and powerfully as possible. At the same time, it is crucial that communications be delivered in a proper context, through a commitment to sustained dialogue and engagement. By adhering to the principles embodied in the seven pillars of public diplomacy, the United States can advance not only its national interests, but the universal values of freedom, equality, and opportunity that we share with the world.
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: )