School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


The Limits of Public Diplomacy by Barry Zorthian


Is it time to suggest that we are putting too much stock in the potential of a process that has become known as Public Diplomacy which has had particular focus, attention and discussion since 9/11? And to also suggest that we might stop expecting senior government appointees to achieve impossible results through some magical application of spin and talk-talk to remedy this country's dismal current standing in the minds of many peoples oversea to the detriment of our country's interests and goals.

The Administration has now placed three high profile individuals over the past five years in the role of a senior position at the State Department with the impressive title of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. The first two left after brief stays without discernible accomplishment and the third, Karen Hughes whose credentials include a close association with the President, has now started off with energy and enthusiasm, including a highly publicized series of familiarization trips overseas to find out first hand what is troubling America's standing. All to the good though one wonders who advised her to bring along a passel of skeptical reporters on such a "quiet" venture who predictably saw the critical comments of carefully selected foreign groups as the most newsworthy aspects of her exchanges.

Mrs. Hughes is engaged in energetic efforts to revitalize this country's communications with foreign publics in a welcome approach to what is generally acknowledged as a very weak aspect of our national effort in foreign affairs. The process that has become labeled as "public diplomacy" includes three distinct aspects: an International Information Program with the task of articulating and projecting our foreign policies and actions that functions largely through the media and the face-to-face communications by our representatives overseas; an International Cultural Program that provides exposure to our society and concepts through two-way exchanges and cultural outreach; and an International Broadcasting Program that communicates information about our actions and policies through the extensive channels of audio/visual and internet communication that bind together much of today's world.

To complete the picture of government activities, we have to add the impact of the U.S. military through its operations and public visibility, both here and in scores of foreign countries and the programs of foreign assistance by AID and a number of other government departments. And of course outside the government's formal operations is the private sector which certainly plays a major role in the foreign public's perception of the United States -- the NGO's, American business overseas, the international media, movies, the half million plus foreign students in the United States, the many thousands of American students abroad, individuals of stature in personal contact and travel overseas and literally millions of tourists from both sides -- all outside the reach of any overall government process of "Public Diplomacy."

Each of these elements has its own operating principles, its own audiences, its own time frame of effect, its own participants and constituents. Each contributes to the image and reputation of our country and each has its own current problems that need addressing. And in most cases they undoubtedly need more resources and qualified personnel. Whether these added resources will be provided in the face of our national budgetary deficits is questionable (although some of that problem might be overcome by reprogramming the excessive funding for some questionable ventures in the broadcasting area).

Mrs. Hughes seems to be concentrating on mounting more effective operations in the areas of information projection and cultural exchanges with her role in international broadcasting, which recently seems to have lost its moorings, still unclear. It is difficult to argue with her effort. But any expectation that revitalization of these programs will produce early results in our overseas standing is arguably an unproductive effort in the near term. The underlying fact is that no matter how extensive and successful these programs may become -- they have at best a mostly long-term impact -- they will not create the shifts in foreign attitudes that are needed to remedy our current low state of public perceptions overseas.

Concerns about this country's present standing overseas are legitimate and need to be dealt with. What is required is determining what has produced the current low state we are in. It is not the foreign response to American values or the promotion of democracy that underlies our difficulties. The great bulk of the considerable available evidence -- both research based and anecdotal -- shows clearly that these elements in the communications process produce generally positive returns in due course but it is our foreign policies and actions, particularly in recent years, that have created an image of the United States as arrogant, insensitive, unilateral and inconsistent and have led in turn to a negative reaction to our country in general. As long as those policies and actions remain in place, we cannot expect the improvements we seem to expect through any new emphasis on Public Diplomacy. Mrs. Hughes recent trips to the Middle East and Asia and her forthcoming travels to Europe and Latin America should leave no doubt in her mind of the validity of this evidence.

It is not just the War in Iraq that has lowered our standing nor our long-standing policies in he Palestine situation. This is not the first time that the United States has faced the experience of swings in world opinion because of military operations. Have we forgotten already the lessons of widespread condemnation of our time in Vietnam where we ended up with more than 500,000 troops or the almost universal support in Gulf War I, also with almost a half million troops. It is the whole thrust of our overall foreign policy and actions in recent years that has produced the results we find so disturbing.

This is the area in which Karen Hughes needs to focus her energies and influence and where she can make her most needed and effective contribution. She does not have to manage directly the operating elements of the core programs in her portfolio. There are capable professionals who can fill those roles under her leadership. There have been some shifts in foreign policy in recent months and certainly our posture is better today than it was a year or two ago but just as clearly, we still have serious problems in the formulation, articulation and projection of our foreign actions. Our hard-line approach in many areas needs modification and sensitivity to the interests of other peoples. We have to accept that we may not have all the answers and any attempt to impose our version of national values from the outside without regard to foreign cultures is a recipe for failure.

Mrs. Hughes, who could probably operate more effectively from a White House base, has to use her relationship with the President to develop support for the changes we need to show more understanding and sensitivity by this country and then has to achieve, with the President's support, discipline and consistency from all elements of the government, including decidedly the White House itself and the Pentagon, to carry these out. By doing so, she can help to restore with patience and in time the standing and respect that this country needs and should enjoy overseas in this 21st Century -- not with the militants and extremists whom we can never convert but with the vast majority of peoples around the world who want the same goals of freedom, peace and economic well-being that we do.

(Barry Zorthian, a Partner in the Washington firm of Alcalde & Fay, is a retired Foreign Service officer who served in Vietnam for four and a half years as chief spokesman for the U.S, Mission)

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