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Public Diplomacy: Politics, Propaganda or Publicity by D M Oglesby

[received by email]

Remarks by Donna Marie Oglesby

Tampa Bay Area Committee on Foreign Relations

March 21, 2006

Public Diplomacy: Politics, Propaganda or Publicity

Preparing to meet with you this evening, I read the just released National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2006, reviewed the current polling data on global attitudes toward the United States, ran the traps with my former colleagues in the public diplomacy world about the state of play on the inside, and had a good cry

First, a definition: public diplomacy is a function of statecraft. It is the state's attempt to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in pursuit of our national interest and broaden the dialogue between Americans, their institutions and counterparts abroad. In shorthand, it is the political advocacy and cultural communication of the United States abroad. Its focus is on the people overseas who influence their governments not the governments directly.

Second, an assumption: public diplomacy assumes that public opinion matters. It assumes that the ideas and perceptions of ordinary human beings count. It assumes that abroad, as well as at home, every major strategy, policy or diplomatic initiative must have public support in order to succeed. Publics do not make foreign policy in the United States or anywhere else. But they do, in democratic countries in particular, set the parameters within which policy is made and carried out.

Anyone who doubts that fact should replay the politics of the last few weeks on Dubai Ports World. American public opinion was so hostile to the idea of an Arab state owned enterprise managing any American ports that the planned purchase, supported by the President, collapsed.

Least we forget as we begin our forth year in Iraq, there is also clear evidence that public opinion in Germany and Turkey - to name two specific cases - circumscribed the ability of those governments to support the U.S. led coalition on Iraq. The loss of Turkish support, in particular, may have had a significant effect on the war's outcome by denying the U.S. military a northern flank. New reporting on Germany's clandestine intelligence cooperation with the U.S. suggests the possibility that the German government might have been willing to do much more had it not been an election year with the German public so opposed to American policy.

Thirdly, public diplomacy assumes that it is possible to understand foreign cultures, identify public attitudes and anticipate public behavior. Harold Lasswell, one of the early scholars of international communication, called these understandings "world weather maps in public opinion." But, unlike the weather, there is the corollary assumption in public diplomacy, that within limits, it is possible to develop appeals that might influence foreign public opinion to the benefit of American interests and values. In other words, it is possible to anticipate and ward off a growing storm of hostile foreign public opinion if you have a weather map and know which way the wind is blowing.

"Public diplomacy does not trump flawed policies or weak political leadership" as my friend Bruce Gregory at George Washington University says. "Shared understandings may not overcome deep disagreement on interests. Cross cultural experiences may reinforce hostilities and competing values." But still, with resources and hard work it should be possible to create an accurate official account of American policies and actions overseas, build the kind of human relationships with opinion leaders that get us a hearing for our point of view and occasionally persuade people that these policies are worthwhile for them and for us.

Looked at in the light of those assumptions, I think the National Security Strategy of the United States of American in 2006, condemns the public diplomacy - indeed the foreign policy -- of the United States to future failure.

There is a cosmic disconnect between The Bush Administration's ambitious goals and purposes wrapped in the flag of freedom and organized around two pillars in the NSS: "promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity" and "confronting the challenges of our time by leading a growing community of democracies," and the obvious erosion of American prestige and leadership on the global stage.

Leadership, as Zbigniew Brzezinski reminded us in a speech last week, "depends on morality, legitimacy, credibility." Marking the third anniversary of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, Brzezinski said that:

"American leadership, in all of its dimensions, has been damaged.

American morality has been stained - in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

American legitimacy has been undermined - by unilateral decisions. And,

American credibility - particularly the case for the war, has been shattered."

If you are disinclined to trust the judgment of Dr. Brzezinski, thinking he is a partisan democrat incapable of fairly appraising the leadership quotient of a republican administration, you might listen to Francis Fukuyama who wrote last year, "failure to appreciate America's own current legitimacy deficit hurts both the realist part of our agenda, by diminishing our actual power, and the idealist portion of it, by undercutting our appeal as the embodiment of certain ideas and values."

Or you can ignore the scholars and read the tea leaves by results in the real world.

Last Wednesday, at the United Nations, the United States stood with the Marshall Islands, Palau and Israel in defeat as the Human Rights Council was reformed over our objections. The United States has been in the forefront of human rights at the United Nations ever since Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Last week - one day before the new NSS touting American leadership was released - 170 nations - including all of America's NATO allies - did not follow the American lead on the reform of the institutional embodiment of set of values identified with the United States for nearly 60 years.

If you discount the United Nations as a good testing ground for measuring global leadership, you might wish to read the public opinion polls instead. The most recent data comes from a poll conducted for the BBC World Service by the international polling firm GlobeScan together with the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) The 33-nation fieldwork was completed between October 2005 and January 2006.

The good news for the United States is that Iran is judged the most negative player on the global scene. Unfortunately, we along with Russia continue to languish just above Iran at the bottom of the rankings.

While global attitudes toward the United States received mixed reviews, overall ratings of the United States declined a full five points from last year's survey. Stronger negative sentiment about the United States was found in China as well as throughout European countries. Once again this year, America's influence globally was viewed as worse than that of both China and Russia.

This survey's results echo those produced by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in a series of worldwide public opinion surveys of 66,000 people among 50 national populations surveyed and released last summer.

The good news is that compared to earlier rounds of polling, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center said, "There are some very positive signs of progress in India and Russia and Indonesia." (Findings shared by the more recent BBC poll.)

For example, 79 percent of Indonesians said they had a more favorable view of the United States as a result of the aid Americans provided after the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami.

Indians appeared pleased with closer economic ties to the United States, and Russians approved of cooperation on trade and terrorism.

The bad news is that "Anti-Americanism in most parts of the world surveyed seems pretty entrenched." Distinctly negative views persist in the Muslim world, and many Europeans now have a more favorable view of China than of the United States. In Britain, Canada and France, about three-quarters of respondents said President Bush's re-election had made them feel less favorable toward the United States.

Over all, the most negative views of the United States were found in Muslim countries. Two countries caught up in the war against terror, Turkey and Pakistan, were the most negative: Only about 1 in 5 people in each country said they viewed the United States favorably.

Most Americans surveyed seemed aware of this world negativity to the United States. Only 1 in 4 thought the United States was well-liked abroad. These findings are echoed in another newly released poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

Interestingly, the polling data shows that when Americans are aware that foreign publics oppose the policies of the U.S. government their own policy attitudes are informed by that perception. This is an effect of globalization. We live in a high decibel global political environment where information technology makes it possible for attentive publics to reflect on the opinions of others in a new cyber-Babel of competing global voices, images and views.

In this world, in which most people are inundated with information, what really matters is not information but attention, and the attention goes to those who are more credible. If people abroad do not find the United States government to be credible, they will simply tune us out.

It is not the case, as the NSS states that there is automatically a "watching and listening world" awaiting our every word like some old RCA - Victor dog sitting in front of the gramophone anticipating his master's voice.

In this time of globally capable information societies we need to recognize that there are multiple publics whose opinions can effect our capacity to achieve our goals and they are actually in control of what they choose to pay attention to. We have to earn global public attention with credibility and relevance to their lives.

Arguments are more credible when they include sound logic, evidence or authoritative endorsement. But, to be accepted by a desired audience there must be a context of credibility. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America in 2006 may be authoritative but in its overreach it has neither sound logic nor a context of credibility. It also lacks strategy.

If strategy still means "the science and art of using all the forces of a nation to execute approved plans as effectively as possible during peace or war," I could not find it in a 49 page document that is a mishmash of empty rhetoric and self-serving administration policy statements that seem wholly untethered to the reality of declining American power in the world of 2006.

It is useful to pause and remember here that America's vaunted hard power looks a bit mushy these days after three years of applied military power has failed to control the situation in Iraq. Our economic power looks a bit less foreboding this week too, as Congress raised the national debt limit to for the forth time to nearly 9 trillion dollars to accommodate our deficit spending.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, principal author of the report and my former Washington neighbor, conceded that the NSS 2006 was not intended to formulate new strategy, but to "take stock of what has been accomplished and describe the new challenges we face." These enumerated challenges go well beyond the global war on terrorism and the war in Iraq to include:

New concerns about Russia's "diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions," saying that the future of the relationship with Russia "will depend on the policies, foreign and domestic, that Russia adopts."

Warnings for China accused of "old ways of thinking and acting" in its competition for energy resources. China's leaders, according to the report, are "expanding trade, but acting as if they can somehow 'lock up' energy supplies around the world or seek to direct markets rather than opening them up - as if they can follow a mercantilism borrowed from a discredited era."

And the bald statement that "we face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." Therefore, "the diplomatic effort [on nuclear non-proliferation] must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided."

The document's foreign readers will have two reactions according to William Pfaff writing from Paris in the International Harold Tribune over the weekend: "The first will be that it can't be serious. The second will be that it has to be taken seriously since these people have spent three ruinous years in a futile effort to control Iraq; they must be assumed capable of doing the same thing again to Iran."

If we as a nation really intend to "end tyranny in the world" as the NSS posits then we will certainly need to gain support, shape action and influence outcomes abroad. We will need effective communication with the world. If we really are a nation at war - as the NSS repeatedly says -- we need to conceive of a global communication strategy on the magnitude of our cold war effort with comparable time, societal and resource commitment.

And yet, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on February 18, 2006, was criticizing the absence of a national "strategic communications framework" for fighting terrorism, Karen Hughes, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy - and self-described person in charge of America's conversation with the world - was focused on making American airports friendlier to foreign arrivals.

I do think it is possible to fight terrorism and welcome visitors to our shores at the same time. And, as a Floridian, I certainly do not disparage efforts to increase and welcome international visitors. I know how important they are to our state. Although domestic visitors to Florida are again strong, the decline in international visitors is having a considerable economic effect.

The 48 million foreign visitors to the U.S. last year were 9 percent below 2000. In the same period, worldwide foreign travel soared 17 percent. Had the U.S. kept pace with the increase of foreign travel around the word, an additional 9 million foreigners would have visited last year. This has significant economic impact. The United States lost more than $12 billion in foreign visitor spending, and 150,000 new jobs, not because we counter terrorism, but because we treat the entire world as if we were a nation of war. Words have consequences.

And, the words spoken by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld a month ago give me pause. His CFR speech followed the Quadrennial Defense Review released earlier this month. The review concluded that "victory in the long war ultimately depends on strategic communication." It called for closing gaps in U.S. capabilities in what the Pentagon describes as "information operations," a specialty being reorganized in the Pentagon and here in Tampa. These "information operations" have reportedly given multi-million dollar contracts to private sector companies "to improve foreign public opinion about the United States" and construct websites to bring news and information to countries in the Balkans and elsewhere.

"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, have not," Rumsfeld said. He argued that while the al Qaeda terrorist network and other "extremist" movements "have successfully . . . poisoned the Muslim public's view of the West, we in the government have barely even begun to compete in reaching their audiences."

To remedy this, Rumsfeld called for increased communications training for military public affairs officials by drawing on private-sector expertise. He also called for creating 24-hour media operations centers and "multifaceted media campaigns" using the Internet, blogs and satellite television that "will result in much less reliance on the traditional print press." A press he finds inimical to his purposes.

This language about the need to fight "terrorist tyranny" and "militant Islamic radicalism" is echoed in the National Security Strategy where we are told to prepare for a "long struggle, a work of generations, against a new totalitarian ideology grounded in the perversion of a proud religion." Apparently, by default and given its resources the Defense Department will lead us into ideological battle to win the hearts and minds of the world. What this adds up to is the militarization of a political function.

This inverts the general understanding that countering terrorism involves the use of security forces within the context of a political strategy. By failing to anchor our use of force in a broader political process and instead directing our political advocacy from the defense department we open ourselves up to the delegitimization strategies of others and erode any influence we might have among democratic nations because we compound our loss of credibility or trust.

Recognizing that DOD has public affairs as well as psyops, I need to emphasize that while military public affairs can and does overlap with public diplomacy, psyops, however, has a very different character. Traditionally, those of us in public diplomacy have actively opposed efforts of military planners to extend their psychological operations to civilian audiences abroad. We, in public diplomacy, understand psyops to be an important tactical battlefield function. But, it should have no role in creating or carrying out a national strategy for engaging international publics on both policy and socio-cultural issues.

Surely if the concern of the United States government is now the 1.2 billion Muslims whose minds have been poisoned by extremist views, the target populations for the strategic communication strategy are civilian and they are in Europe as well as in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This is not a discreet battlefield, it is the world.

Moral authority in this world community is measured by shared standards of human rights, democracy and rule of law. To hoist the flag of freedom and ask that others follow our lead is to invite deliberation - serious discussion of the ideas and policies we choose to advance. Free men and women do not simply salute and fall in line. Free people ask by what authority, on what evidence, by what right do you ask me to hear and heed your policy prescription for our world's ills.

Our response to those fair questions cannot be friendlier airports or military sponsored blogs. Effective public diplomacy requires respectful dialog and vigorous engagement at the level of ideas, not images. A precondition for effective public diplomacy is the willingness to engage in global politics even when, or especially when our foreign public opinion map shows abnormally stormy weather.

I see a silver lining in the black clouds of global anti-American sentiment along the intersection of two critical issues: nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

All the polling data indicates that Iran's quest for nuclear capability combined with President Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric has caught the attention of global publics and has created concern. Steven Kull, director of PIPA says, "Iran may imagine that there are many people out there rooting for it as it defies the big powers with its nuclear program. But this poll suggests that the number of people behind it is quite small and swamped by much larger numbers who are worried about the direction Iran is going."

It is also worth noting that a significant portion of the Iranian population opposes the theocratic regime and is favorably disposed toward the U.S. Iranians are however, highly nationalistic and might side with their government if international pressure on nuclear issues is misapplied.

If the United States were able to prioritize its foreign policy goals and concentrate "clear minded and unwavering diplomacy" (in the words of Jessica Mathews) toward the goal of preventing the nuclear- proliferation of Iran as the NSS insists is our priority, it might be realistically achievable. It can't be done as the failed six party talks yesterday show if Russia and China's interests are not attended to; and it can't be done if the United States is not seriously committed to non-proliferation rather than regime change in Iran.

There are some good signs that a political process is underway. We are apparently talking to Iran again. We are working multi-laterally in the context of the United Nations. The great powers are talking to one another on this issue. The middle powers - who have forsworn nuclear weapons themselves under the NPT - could be rallied to pressure Iran. There are observable differences of emphasis on the nuclear issue among political factions within Iran.

The Iran issue is one in which we might be able to bring our capacities and objectives back into balance and engage the world politically rather than militarily to achieve our objectives. If we can discipline ourselves and tame our appetites to "fix" a wayward world, global publics might find us credible and start paying attention to American leadership once again.

Thank- you.

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