School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Public Diplomacy Q & A from the Council of Foreign Relations

Public Diplomacy

Does America have an image problem abroad?

Yes - one that experts say could significantly hinder the war on terrorism. A 2002 Gallup survey conducted in nine Muslim countries found that a majority of the people surveyed have a poor opinion of the United States, don't believe Arabs carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks, and consider the U.S. war in Afghanistan morally unjustifiable. Nor is the problem limited to the Muslim world. Recent polling in Europe suggests that most British, French, Italians, and Germans think the United States is motivated by its own interests in the war on terrorism and ignores the concerns of its allies. Experts and U.S. officials say that improving America's image abroad would sap al-Qaeda's ability to attract operatives and supporters. "I'm amazed that there is such a misunderstanding of what our country is about," President Bush said in October 2001. "We've got to do a better job of making our case."

Is the Bush administration trying to stem anti-Americanism?

Yes, by launching a public diplomacy campaign to better explain U.S. policies and build global support for the war on terrorism. While some experts are skeptical about the efficacy of such efforts, many others call better public diplomacy an essential part of any hardheaded U.S. national security strategy - much as it was during the Cold War.

What is public diplomacy?

Efforts to inform and influence public opinion in other countries. Whereas traditional diplomacy is a government-to-government exercise conducted between officials, public diplomacy is broadly aimed at the international public. Sometimes referred to as the effort to win hearts and minds, U.S. public diplomacy uses international publications, broadcasts, and cultural exchanges to cultivate goodwill toward America, its interests, and its policies. Public diplomacy also involves monitoring global opinion and engaging in two-way dialogue with international audiences.

How has the United States used public diplomacy in the past?

During World War II, President Roosevelt established American Information Centers in Europe and launched the Voice of America, a radio service that today broadcasts news and cultural programs in dozens of languages to some 94 million listeners worldwide each week. Following the war, the newly founded U.S. Information Agency (USIA) was charged with promoting American cultural values in an effort to combat the spread of communism. Public diplomacy remained a major U.S. priority throughout the Cold War, with the USIA's diverse efforts eventually ranging from student exchanges to jazz tours to traveling art exhibitions.

Why isn't U.S. public diplomacy more effective?
Experts say public diplomacy hasn't been a priority for the United States since Soviet communism collapsed. After the Cold War, funding dwindled, and in 1998, USIA was folded into the State Department. By 2001, the United States devoted only $1.1 billion to public diplomacy - less than 4 percent of its overall international affairs budget. While U.S. corporations annually spend some $6 billion surveying overseas consumers, the U.S. government has spent only $5 million a year conducting polls of foreign public opinion. Meanwhile, the proliferation of new media outlets and information technologies makes public diplomacy more complicated - and expensive - than ever before.

Does al-Qaeda engage in public diplomacy?

Yes. Osama bin Laden has used the media - most famously by passing videotapes to al-Jazeera, an Arabic satellite TV station - to publicize al-Qaeda and sway public opinion in the Middle East, stressing themes that resonate with Arab and Muslim viewers. Many experts say bin Laden's skill in shaping and publicizing his message makes U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East especially urgent. "How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communication society?" asked Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, after September 11.

Who is in charge of U.S. public diplomacy?
Charotte Beers, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive, cited health reasons for stepping down as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in March 2003. During her 17 months in office, reaction was mixed to public diplomacy initiatives she oversaw, including a series of videotaped messages featuring American Muslims. When her resignation was announced, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "At a critical and stressful time for our nation, she and her team sharpened our policy advocacy and took our values and our ideas to mass audiences and countries which hadn't heard from us in a concerted way for many years." Patricia Harrison, head of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, took charge of Beers' office while a permanent replacement was sought.

Has the Bush administration set up new offices to handle public diplomacy?
Yes. To influence media coverage of the military campaign in Afghanistan, Washington launched the 24-hour Coalition Information Center. The Bush administration plans to expand the center into a permanent Office of Global Communications, which would coordinate the White House's foreign policy message, supervise America's image abroad, and work closely with State Department officers. The separate Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence, launched in late 2001, was scrapped following widespread criticism of its plans to target American allies and foes alike with secret "information warfare," including the dissemination of false information to the foreign press.

What new public diplomacy initiatives have been tried since September 11?

To reach out to Arab viewers, top U.S. officials - including Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - gave interviews for the first time to al-Jazeera and other media in the Islamic world. And Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, made America's case on al-Jazeera in Arabic.

The State Department circulated more than a million copies of "The Network of Terrorism," a brochure about the September 11 attacks and al-Qaeda. Translated into 36 languages, it was the most widely distributed public diplomacy document ever produced by the State Department.
In March 2002, the United States launched Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language radio station. Modeled after American top-100 radio, the station aims to reach young Middle Easterners by mixing American and Arab pop music with short news broadcasts.

The State Department rehabilitated and adapted dormant public diplomacy initiatives for use in the Middle East. One program originally designed to expose East European reporters to American culture is now being used to bring Arab journalists to the United States.

Will these new government efforts be sufficient to improve America's image abroad?

No, most experts say. Although these initiatives represent the most serious public diplomacy drive in years, they still don't approach the extent of America's Cold War efforts. Some experts argue that because anti-American sentiment is motivated principally by unpopular U.S. policies and perceptions of American unilateralism, brochures and radio broadcasts aren't enough; instead, they argue, public diplomacy considerations should be woven into the policymaking process. "Washington currently formulates foreign policies on its own, fails to consider how they will play abroad, and makes selling them an afterthought," Council on Foreign Relations Chairman Peter G. Peterson has written. "To serve U.S. interests better, public diplomacy should be present at the creation as a truly integral part of policymaking."

What else could the United States do to improve its image abroad?

In July 2002, the Independent Task Force on Public Diplomacy sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations urged an overhaul of America's public diplomacy efforts.

The task force called for:

- more extensive polling and outreach to better gauge international reactions to U.S. policy;
- a renewed emphasis on respectful, two-way dialogue abroad;
- the use of credible indigenous messengers (such as young or moderate mullahs, Arab journalists, and Muslim talk-show personalities) who can criticize bin Laden more witheringly than U.S. diplomats can;
- increased training in public diplomacy for U.S. ambassadors and other officials, many of whom remain seriously unprepared to engage in public outreach;
- and the creation of a not-for-profit Corporation for Public Diplomacy that could receive private-sector grants.

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