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Rebuilding Public Diplomacy by Walter R. Roberts and Barry Fulton

Rebuilding Public Diplomacy by Walter R. Roberts and Barry Fulton

National Strategy Forum Review Spring 2004

As public support for American foreign policy abroad has deteriorated, the conduct of public diplomacy has been sharply criticized by a host of reports, editorials, and practitioners themselves. Prominent among them are the government-chartered report of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World. Report of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, October 1, 2003. , a
year-long study by the Council on Foreign Relations Finding America's Voice: A Strategy for Reinvigorating Public Diplomacy. Report of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on Public Diplomacy, September 2003 , and a report by the Government Accounting Office U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Expands Efforts but Faces Significant Challenges, Report of the U.S. General Accounting Office, September 2003. . They agree
that the conduct of public diplomacy does not meet today's challenges. Public diplomacy is broken and must be repaired. A 20-country survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press Views of a Changing World 2003: War With Iraq Further Divides Global Publics. Report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, June 2003. shows that the "the bottom has fallen out of support for America in most of the Muslim world."

These results are corroborated by other respected surveys and rich anecdotal evidence that anti-Americanism has increased substantially all over the world. Can this negative image be improved by public diplomacy? Does it serve the national interest to devote scarce resources to public diplomacy? What is the proper balance between the exercise of hard power and soft power?

The term public diplomacy came into widespread use in the aftermath of 9/11 as the American public awoke to the new threats to our security. At an earlier time, similar government efforts were known as international information and cultural programs. In wartime they were called psychological operations. Indeed, the Voice of America and, subsequently, the cultural and educational exchange programs initiated by Senator J. William Fulbright grew out of World War II. Public diplomacy has come to embrace not only international broadcasting and exchanges, but also the critical work of information and cultural officers at American embassies overseas.

Over the past several decades, diplomacy has become increasingly more public as a consequence of the new media and the more sophisticated publics. Public opinion is ever more important to the United States, because in the information age foreign publics have a profound influence on their governments, even in autocratic countries. Nonetheless, American public diplomacy has been shortchanged since the end of the Cold War.

Public diplomacy cannot be undertaken on the cheap. And that is what America has been doing for years. With sufficient resources, public diplomacy can make a difference. After World War II, for instance, when Germany and Austria were occupied countries, the U.S. Army, adequately funded, instituted far-ranging information and cultural programs that were well received. They included radio and press operations as well as American information and cultural centers in every major German and Austrian city. When these programs were transferred to the State Department in 1950, they were immediately reduced for budgetary reasons. But the groundwork had been laid, and public opinion in these two countries about America, if not its current foreign policy, has been remarkably favorable.

Another example is Radio Free Europe. Created by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1950 during the Cold War, RFE enjoyed resources commensurate with the challenge. While the Voice of America, as part of the State Department and l ater of the U.S. Information Agency, had a yearly struggle for funding, RFE's budget was always adequate. The demise of the Soviet empire was certainly accelerated by the round-the-clock broadcasts in every Eastern European language. Indeed, Czech president Vaclav Havel and Poland's Lech Walesa have each given credit to RFE for inspiring the people in their countries to liberate themselves from Soviet domination.

The United States spends 400 billion dollars on defense, some 40 billion dollars on information gathering through its intelligence activities, and 28 billion dollars on international affairs -- of which little more than one billion dollars is directed to public diplomacy. It is impossible to say what it would cost to build trust within the international Islamic community. However, to compare the task with past successes, consider that expenditures for public diplomacy in Germany and Austria were approximately one dollar per person after World War II. Applying that formula to a billion people and adjusting for inflation would require a budget of seven billion dollars for public diplomacy in the Islamic world alone. By spending only a fraction of that today, America's voice has been reduced to a whisper.

While present funding is clearly inadequate, additional resources won't necessarily address the problem. America's strategic interests require a combination of diplomatic, developmental, military, and intelligence activities. People who are denied an adequate diet and basic human rights will not be influenced by public diplomacy unless complementary programs hold some hope.

Public diplomacy's proper role within this strategic mix must begin with a careful assessment of our nation's public diplomatic readiness. This is true not only in the Islamic world, but also in other parts of the globe where our vital interests are at risk. Just as defense readiness is routinely evaluated, a proper assessment of diplomatic readiness must consider such indicators as the optimal resource level, the quality of personnel, the adequacy of infrastructure, and the degree of training. With rare exceptions, the U.S. Government fails to meet even minimal standards in most countries today.

We are now in a new war, a war whose religious and cultural dimensions have created a gulf of mutual misunderstanding and even hatred. New programs will have to be initiated and adequately funded. Radio Sawa was a first step in this direction. Likewise, America's new Arabic-language Satellite Television Service, Alhurra, was initiated in recognition of America's declining support in the Middle East. On the other hand, VOA Arabic broadcasts were discontinued, new visa policies have resulted in a decline of Middle Eastern students attending American universities, and calls for expansion of exchange programs have gone unheeded. Recent hearings chaired by Senator Richard Lugar, Congressman Frank Wolf, and Congressman Christopher Shays suggest that Congress understands the severity of the problem.

With better coordination with the White House, other government agencies, and the private sector -- buttressed by a substantial increase in resources -- public diplomacy could regain its place as an effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Absent adequate resources and coordination, however, it will be no surprise if international public opinion remains hostile to American policies.


Walter R. Roberts is on the board of directors of the Public Diplomacy
Institute at George Washington University and is a former Associate Director
of USIA. Barry Fulton is director of GWU's Public Diplomacy Institute and is
also a former Associate Director of USIA.

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