School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


America's Public Relations Disaster by J K Glassman

From Capitol Hill Blue

America's Public Relations Disaster
May 18, 2004, 07:05

Never in history have explaining U.S. policies and actions to the world -- and fighting the lies being told about us -- been more important. But never have we botched the job so badly.

This job -- promoting the national interest by informing, engaging and influencing -- is called "public diplomacy." We used to be the best at it. With institutions like Radio Free Europe and the USIA, public diplomacy helped win the Cold War, and it has the potential to win the war on terror, saving American lives and money.

But, after the Berlin Wall came down, the United States started to dismantle the apparatus of public diplomacy. The worst blow came when we disbanded the U.S. Information Agency. Today, the State Department spends just $600 million on public diplomacy -- a joke. Some in the administration even see such efforts as sissified, not for tough policymakers.

Meanwhile, hostility toward the United States has reached shocking levels. A March survey by the Pew Center, for example, found 70 percent of Jordanians believe suicide bombings against Americans in Iraq are justifiable and only 8 percent of Pakistanis believe Iraqis will be better off with Saddam gone. And Jordan and Pakistan are our allies.

"A year ago," said Mark Helmke, key aide to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., "I reported that American public diplomacy was a mess. I said it lacked a strategy, a vision and money. Today, that situation is worse. American public diplomacy is a disaster."

Some say animosity just comes with the territory. We're the big guy, so we're resented. But we were big after World War II and enjoyed wide admiration. Others say the problem is not our image but our policies and practices. But we're selling the best products in the world: freedom, democracy and prosperity. And look at our enemies; their policy is terror and dictatorship, and their practices are gruesome beheadings and car-bombings.

There's an obvious remedy for our public diplomacy disaster, and it was spelled out in a report issued in October by an advisory group, created by Congress and the administration and headed by former Ambassador Edward Djerejian. In two words: Get serious. The report of the bipartisan Djerejian group, of which I was a member, was widely praised in Congress, the press and the academic community, but it met deafening silence from President Bush and his aides.

Why? Most likely, the president does not want to fix public diplomacy in an election year because he would have to admit the failures and might be blamed. In fact, three administrations helped destroy public diplomacy and the worst decisions were taken under Bill Clinton. Besides, these mistakes were understandable and forgivable.

But the current crisis is not.

The single most important public diplomacy official in the government is the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. But Charlotte Beers left that job in March 2003 and wasn't replaced for nine months. Her successor, Margaret Tutwiler, an able diplomat and information specialist, made it clear she didn't want the job. She said last month she's leaving June 30.

Meanwhile, the Board of Broadcasting Governors, which operates independently of the rest of the public diplomacy system and has a budget nearly as big as the State Department's, has closed the Arabic service of Voice of America and started Radio Sawa, which mainly plays pop music. An expensive U.S. satellite-TV network in the Mideast has promise -- but it's not clear whether its goal is to build audience or actually change minds.

Public diplomacy today, as Woody Allen said in an utterly different context, is "a travesty of a mockery of a sham." But it requires only a single step to fix. Just as the president declared war on terror, he needs to declare a mobilization of public diplomacy to support that war -- to eviscerate our enemies in the battle of ideas and images. He'll find eager warriors in the public and private sectors.

He should begin by naming a Cabinet-level counselor in the White House to set and monitor an overall public diplomacy strategy for State, Defense, broadcasting and the rest of government. It's incredible, but we don't have a strategy today.

The United States is home to Madison Avenue and Hollywood, to the world's best political polling and commercial marketing. But we are failing miserably to win hearts and minds, not just in the Middle East but around the world. There's no excuse. None at all.

(James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of

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