Twilight, Britney Spears and Grand Theft Auto: The Key to Obama's Foreign Policy?

01/04/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the biggest legacies of the Bush administration is America's tattered global image. Karen Hughes, Bush's longtime confidante, realized (too late!) that America had a public relations problem and began to wage "a war of ideas," which mostly meant lecturing the rest of the world about freedom and democracy. The net result: anti-American sentiment at historic highs while Islamic fundamentalism flourished. As former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke pointedly asked "How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world's leading communications society?"

While most of America's image problem was due to the disastrous Bush foreign policy, it was also the result of America's failure both to craft a compelling message and to deliver that message effectively. In other words, the failure to tell a convincing story. Both the strategy (message content) and tactics (message delivery) of what is called "public diplomacy" have failed miserably in the past eight years, and even before.

Instead of showcasing the creativity, diversity and openness of American society, we have been arrogantly lecturing the rest of humanity about freedom and democracy. In a world where millions of people are enamored of our movies, music and technology, we try to engage them in a "battle of ideas" over arcane theories of government. All the while, we ignore some of the most powerful communications and technology platforms in history -- from new ways of storytelling to social networking on the internet -- in favor of old-fashioned messaging that is more 19th century than 21st century.

Like it or not, pop culture and technology are among our most valuable exports and most identifiable brand. People may not be interested in American-style democracy, but they avidly consume our movies, music, fashion and technology to the tune of a $100 billion a year. There may be a lot more to America than our pop culture or technology, but why ignore these powerful products of our vibrant and open culture, and focus instead on the almost sternly puritanical vision of America?

Especially when our pop culture and technology are so effective in communicating with the rest of the world? Certainly the substance of American foreign policy -- the strident militancy and arrogance of the Bush years -- will have to change before we can restore America's tattered image. But we shouldn't ignore the medium of pop culture and technology -- the hit movie Twilight, teen idol Britney Spears and video game sensation Grand Theft Auto -- in communicating our message to the world.

So how should the Obama administration institute Public Diplomacy 2.0? First, create a central agency like FDR's Office of War Information (later the US Information Agency) to oversee the public diplomacy efforts of all government departments, including State, Defense, CIA, AID and others.

Secondly, enlist the private sector as a partner in public diplomacy. Get the best talent from media, entertainment and technology. The government needs help. It doesn't have the resources, experience or expertise to go it alone.

Thirdly, set achievable, measureable goals. Public diplomacy initiatives in the past failed because they had no clearly defined goals and no measurable results. Public diplomacy, like any other messaging or branding effort, should be expected to produce definable, quantifiable results.

Finally, employ the most up-to-date communications strategies and technologies. Much of America's public diplomacy effort has been backward and tradition-bound, virtually ignoring a host of new techniques and technologies.

All around the world, people still admire America for its energy, creativity, openness and diversity. But since 9/11, our public diplomacy has focused more on our ideology than on our image, and is failing in the battle of ideas. As we embrace a combination of military might and diplomatic persuasion in our dealings with the rest of the world -- the "soft power" approach that President-elect Obama has embraced -- we must also recognize the pressing need for change in the way we craft and deliver America's message to the world.