Economics, Investing, Public Diplomacy, and More –

Economics, Investing, Public Diplomacy, and More –

There’s a lot to like in the GAO’s May 27 report on public diplomacy, including a respectful and intelligent discussion of PD 2.0, highlighting both accomplishments and challenges. But the report, like nearly every study of this nature, gets off on the wrong foot. The preface and summary both begin: “Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has spent at least $10 billion on communication efforts designed to advance the strategic interests of the United States. However, foreign public opinion polling data shows that negative views towards the United States persist.”

Hold it right there! In the first sentence, the Government Accountability Office says that the USG spends money on efforts to “advance the strategic interests of the United States.” Yes! Exactly right. Then, in the next sentence, we are told that, despite these expenditures, polling data say that people don’t like us.

Setting aside the question of the data on U.S. image themselves, which are highly superficial, I strongly disagree with the connection the GAO draws between PD efforts to advance U.S. strategic interests and the “negative views” derived from the data.

Can the GAO imagine circumstances where we can use PD to achieve the national interest without trying to make people like us better? I surely can. Dozens and dozens of them. We can (and did) work with Arab governments and individuals (who might give the U.S. favorability ratings in the mid-single-digits) to spread the word about high-level terrorists who have renounced violent extremism as anti-Islamic. How can we work together if they don’t like us? Because, in the words of President Obama, we have “mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Another example: No matter what the polls show about Pakistani animosity toward the United States, we can still promote radio broadcasting and Internet communications that remind Pakistanis that the threat they face from the Taliban and Al Qaeda is real and dire. Such a message advances the interests of both Pakistanis and Americans.

I am not saying that animosity toward the United States is inconsequential. Image matters. And certainly, the PD 2.0 approach of facilitating broad and deep conversation rather than using the big megaphone will help change attitudes by developing “mutual respect.” But improving America’s image is not, in most cases, the quickest, soundest, and most efficient means for PD to help achieve America’s interest. And that, after all, is PD’s job — as the first sentence of the GAO preface confirms.

Alas, the new Under Secretary of State, Judith McHale, adopts the same approach as the GAO report in her first public presentation, an interview with Voice of America. She is a smart, dedicated woman – and picking VOA for a first interview is evidence of her perspicacity. But here is the first paragraph of the VOA story: “The U.S. State Department’s new public diplomacy chief says she’s confident America’s image abroad can be rebuilt after sagging badly during the Bush administration.”

I don’t care if she disses the Bush Administration – such denigration is, apparently, a necessary element of Obama Administration policy proclamations. But rebuilding “America’s image abroad” is not Job One. It may help us marginally to get where we are going, but the real progress will be made through building networks that exploit interests we have in common with foreign publics.

And, by the way, image-burnishing is not easy. Yes, Barack Obama, for his inspiring and deeply American personal story, deserves points for showing up – but can those points be turned in, like frequent flier mileage, for something tangible?


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