School of Media and Communication

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A Small Ray of Hope for U.S. Public Diplomacy?

Wednesday, 14 September 2005
A Small Ray of Hope for U.S. Public Diplomacy?

If there's one small ray of sunshine in an otherwise abysmal news month, it is a comment Karen Hughes made during her September 8 Town Hall meeting with State Department employees as the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

Here is what she said:

"The third pillar is education". . . "Americans must educate ourselves, as the Secretary (Rice) mentioned, to be better citizens of the world. We need to learn different languages and learn more about other countries and faiths and cultures. I'm working with the Secretary on a strategic language initiative to make sure that our American young people are able to communicate with people in -- throughout the world."

Bravo! But unfortunately, these words are buried near the end of Hughes' speech and her proposal to educate young Americans about the world in which we live listed as only public diplomacy's "third pillar." I say unfortunately, because I think most Americans' general lack of understanding and awareness of other peoples' languages, faith, culture, geography, history and politics today is appalling. This ignorance translated in 2002/3 into overwhelming support for the ill-informed and costly Iraq venture - among other US foreign policy blunders and misunderstandings - that only recently a majority of Americans have begun to regret.

Hughes' strategic foreign language training initiative is on the right track. But it will take a huge undertaking - and a fundamental shift in American education at all levels - to implement for all but the privileged few- because America's social science and foreign language curricula have been as neglected over the years as New Orleans' dikes.

This initiative would require a combination of federal, state and private funds backed by strong personal commitments from politicians of both parties, educators, business and the media to turn such an eminently sensible - as well as strategically crucial recommendation into reality.

But is the sustained political will there? Are Hughes and Rice capable of generating support for a public diplomacy third pillar at a time when Bush's popularity and credibility at home and abroad lies with the algae at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico? I think such political and popular support would have been there in fall 2002, but is it still possible now? I hope so because this initiative - in reality - should transcend politics.

If not, I suspect that it will go the way of other well-intentioned but under or un-funded projects that need US investment - like the $215 million to repair the New Orleans dikes before Katrina - where the proposed funds just somehow didn't make the cut.

Clearly, Hughes' yet to be unveiled Pillar Three proposal comes years too late - if at all: but if it can be turned into reality, better late than never. In fact, this initiative needs to be pillar one for far more than public diplomacy. As well as a massive increase for foreign language and area studies training from K-16, Pillar Three needs to include strong international educational exchanges or international educational components that send Americans abroad to study, learn, experience a foreign culture first hand, intern, work and to get to know peoples of other countries one-on-one not just to bring foreign students here as has been the focus in the past.

It's no wonder Americans are so ignorant about the world - our educational system has failed us in more ways than reading, math and science. Our failure to be better world citizens is just part and parcel of that dismal package.

If Karen Hughes and Condi Rice truly want to make a difference they - if anyone - can. But this will take sustained effort, money, commitment and bipartisanship. I wish them well. The proof is in the pudding.

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