Public Diplomacy and the War of Ideas

Public Diplomacy and the War of Ideas

Tuesday”s panel discussion which I organized for the Institute for Public Diplomacy (working title) and Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, “Public Diplomacy and the War of Ideas: Agendas for the Next Administration,” went extremely well.   A standing room only crowd and live C-Span audience got to see an unusually substantive, thoughtful discussion of the bureaucratic, practical, policy and intellectual challenges facing the next administration – whichever it may be – in this vital policy area. 
Panel:  me, Michael Doran, Kristin Lord, Hady Amr

I introduced the event by recounting the rise of “public diplomacy” from something of a niche State Department specialty to a matter of urgent national security and policy concern after 9/11.  The perceived rise of anti-Americanism, the destructive power of al-Qaeda”s ideology, and the 9/11 Commission Report”s call for a “war of ideas” generated a remarkable number of reports (Hady Amr and Peter Singer counted 33 different major studies in a, yes, report that they wrote in 2006).  It also helped spark major changes in U.S. foreign broadcasting (al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa), the creation of the position of Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (currently held by Jim Glassman), and more.   But what have we actually achieved through all of this effort?  What specific goals have been advanced, problems solved, or interests advanced?   


I argued that the policy debate had been roughly framed around poles loosely definable as “public diplomacy” and “strategic communication.”  Public diplomacy advocates generally focused on promoting America”s image in the world, building relationships with foreign elites through cultural programs and exchange programs, and generally working to explain America to the world.  Strategic communications advocates generally focused on the use of information in the service of particular tactical or strategic objectives:  delegitimating al-Qaeda”s ideology and driving up its negatives.   Both goals clearly have their place, but there has been a remarkable imbalance of resources devoted to each.  Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeatedly noted the unhealthy implications of the vast gap between the resources available to the Pentagon and to the State Department,  particularly in the realm of these public diplomacy/strategic communications issues.  This imbalance has tipped even further with the embrace of strategic communications concepts by Glassman since taking over as Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy.   

So with that context, I asked the three speakers to offer their visions of what the U.S. should do in the next administration.


Kristin Lord, author of a major forthcoming report from Brookings for which she interviewed some 300 people, started by arguing that the U.S. should be able to do both public diplomacy and strategic communications – walk and chew gum at the same time, as they say.   Public diplomacy should be an integral part of the formulation of all policy, used to promote America”s interests in trade talks as well as in counter-terrorism.   She offered five general principles, and then five recommendations.  First, the principles:

  1. Take public diplomacy seriously:  the world has changed in ways which make it more important than ever before.  The spread of democracy, the rise of global communications and media, the power of ideas and ideologies – all of these force us to recognize the power of information and ideas, and the shaping of them which lies at the heart of PD.
  2. View public diplomacy more strategically.   Too much of American public diplomacy has been reactive and tactical, asking public diplomacy officers to “sprinkle pixie dust” on policies determined in advance.  Instead, foreign public attitudes should be taken into account during the process of forming policy – not to give foreign publics a veto, but to anticipate their reactions and find ways to shape their likely reception of U.S. policy initiatives in beneficial ways.
  3. View public diplomacy broadly.   It should be an effective complement to every issue, not just on terrorism.
  4. Play offense and defense.  Negative campaigning to shape the political arena definitely has its place.  The U.S. government might not be the right messenger in these campaigns, so instead it should facilitate the efforts of like-minded individuals from the societies in question.
  5. Think about public diplomacy even when no specific goal is being pursued.  American policies and perceptions should be explained constantly, routinely, in order to give foreign publics insight into our motivations and expectations.

With those principles in mind, Lord then offered five goals:

  1. Inform, persuade and engage foreign publics
  2. Promote understanding of America in all of its complexity and put our policies in context.   Making America appealing or attractive would be nice, but is not necessary.
  3. Create a climate of mutual understanding, trust and respect so that new developments will pass through a positive rather than negative filter
  4. Encourage support for shared values
  5. Strengthen dense networks of personal relationships with current and future elites


Hady Amr, of Brookings Doha, then spoke.  Drawing on his own work in the field of public diplomacy as well as his perspective spending half his time in the Gulf, Amr focused upon the specific challenge of “engaging the world” in the current international environment.   He offered the following principles:

  1. We need to confront who we are.  In a world where Arab teenagers ask about the latest controversy on the U.S. election campaign trail posted on YouTube, it”s crazy for public diplomacy to try to shape or control America”s image from the top down.  We can”t hide who we are.
  2. We need to be broad based in our engagement and messaging.    The maxim that we should engage moderate or like-minded Arab allies is too limited – engaging the 1% of Arab liberals who already agree with us will not address our problems.  While we should never be sitting down with or legitimizing those who use or promote violence, there is a broad range of religious conservatives and traditionalists who we can not afford to ignore.   They are the “swing vote” that we need to win.
  3. Think about two-way communication.  Too much of what we do is one-way: broadcasting, psychological operations, etc.  That”s important, but not enough: we need to think in terms of jointness, partnering through real dialogues and engagement with local partners at every step of the way. 
  4. We need to organize ourselves as a government to promote a more integrated, smarter approach.  But there are many activities which should not be directly done by the government.  We should think about the British Council model, a largely independent entity which can build relationships and promote exchanges without being tasked with advancing specific U.S. policy objectives. 

Finally, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy Michael Doran (soon to be Assistant Secretary of State for International Information Programs Michael Doran, if he can get confirmed) offered four pillars for thinking about the problem from his vantage point as the coordinator for the counter-ideology mission in the Defense Department.   

  1. Understand the environment.  Public diplomacy in all its forms requires detailed understanding of how information flows in a given society, who is credible and influential, what resonates, how U.S. policies are actually being perceived – the sorts of things that a marketing firm would want to know.  But nobody in the U.S. government, he argued, has the job of collecting that information and making it useful to policy-makers.   Where is the line between intelligence analysis and audience analysis?  He posed this as a tough bureaucratic problem, and I believe him since there are few people in the government better placed to know.   He then argued that the information environment in the world had changed so dramatically since the Cold War that old models should be discarded.   People are not waiting to be spoon-fed information, they actively seek out information… often information which confirms their own biases and beliefs.   But we need to track this new kind of information flow and engage with it.
  2. Engaging people.  He agreed with Lord and Amr on this basic pillar, and said that we do these traditional activities well and should have more resources.   
  3. Empowering partners.  Agreed again that the U.S. government might not be the right messenger to contest al-Qaeda”s interpretation of sharia, so needs to find ways to support the efforts of those in the Muslim world who want to do so.   Again, he pointed to the bureaucratic problem:  whose job is it in the government to partner with them?   We”re not set up, he argued, to create third party networks who might not necessarily support U.S. policy but whose efforts help American interests – i.e. Islamic conservatives who argue against al-Qaeda even as they promote conservative views that Americans don”t like.   He repeatedly offered the “semi-hypothetical” example of an Iraqi film maker who wanted to produce a documentary about the horrors of Saddam Hussein”s mass graves and disseminate it among European audiences.  Whose job is it to give him a grant and help him get this useful message out? 
  4. Countering the adversary.  Not just al-Qaeda, but a whole range of adversaries.   

In the lively discussion which followed, I pushed the panelists on two points.    First, everyone would probably agree that we should do everything but in a world of scarce resources – and getting scarcer – which should we choose?   All seemed to agree that the problem wasn”t getting more resources, it was about the distribution of the resources:  the Pentagon would barely even notice the transfer of a few hundred million dollars which would revolutionize the State Department”s programming capabilities.   Second, what about the “Muslim Brotherhood problem” which Jim Glassman struggled with at GWU a few weeks ago?   Nobody really wanted to engage with that one, though – Amr proposed a perfectly reasonable “violence” litmus test, while Doran turned it back as a tough policy quesiton not a public diplomacy question. 

After a number of other questions, Bruce Gregory asked each panelist to say what specific piece of advice he or she would offer the next President.  Lord suggested an immediate, powerful symbolic gesture such as closing Guantanamo, Amr urged listening to foreign publics in a visible way (such as early trips to the Islamic world), Doran focused on bureaucratic reforms to overcome the persistent shortcomings he had diagnosed.  I offered three suggestions: 

  1. Read Kristin Lord”s new report… and then don”t commission or read any more reports.  The surprising degree of overlap on the panel demonstrated that at this point we pretty much know what needs to be done.  So do it.
  2. I agreed with Lord”s Guantanamo suggestion, and pushed it further:  a crisis will certainly hit early in the next President”s term, and the suggestions about incorporating an understanding of the information environment and foreign attitudes into decision-making should be implemented immediately.  In both cases, we”ll be looking at a window of opportunity in which foreign publics will want to see if anything has changed… and that window will close quickly.
  3. Don”t reduce everything to a “war of ideas.”   Al-Qaeda poses a significant challenge which must be countered, but a radical fringe ideology which is already broadly rejected by most Muslims hardly demands the total resources of the government of the United States.  Public diplomacy should be part of a broader, long-term strategic engagement with the world.

There was much more in the discussion, but hopefully this roundup gives a sense of what went on.   Feel free to watch it on C-Span if you”re interested in more!