Exclusive Interview: U.S. Diplomat Peter Van Buren speaks about American Public Diplomacy
Public Diplomacy (PD) is a hard term to define. Some say it's just a euphemism for propaganda. The Department of State's definition is "engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences." For some traditionally minded diplomats and commentators, the term "public diplomacy" is an oxymoron (true diplomacy, they argue, is practiced behind closed doors, not in public). How would you define PD?
Any communications strategy, from advertising to propaganda to social media to whatever you want to call it, plays second to reality -- actions really do speak louder than words. So as long as deaths in wedding parties from misplaced drone attacks, atrocities by soldiers and videos of Abu Ghraib exist, you are not going to fool anyone regardless of how many tweets you send out. In an age of increasingly prevalent media, the usual bullshit of the Secretary standing up in Geneva proclaiming support for human rights while people in their own countries see the U.S. overtly supporting nasty autocrats will dominate mind space. Here's a graphic (not my work) that illustrates the point.
Look at the outcome of the Haditha massacre in Iraq: 24 unarmed Iraqis were slaughtered by an out-of-control group of Marines in 2005, and now, seven years later, the case is finally concluded and no one is going to jail. You can Tweet and Facebook until the end of time, but that story will resonate for even longer within the Arab world.
The Haditha outcome also illustrates the point of relevancy. While most FSOs and almost all of the American public are probably ignorant about what happened in Haditha, the incident is well known among politically minded Iraqis. On the day when everyone there was talking about the guiltless conclusion, U.S. Embassy Baghdad PD was bleating happily about jazz and some art exhibit. The appearance -- to Iraqis -- was one of trying to change the topic, change the channel, to distract from the real issue of the day.
So whatever PD is, it can only be less effective than what the U.S. is actually doing.
Edward R. Murrow, the famed newsman and Director of the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration, is often quoted as saying that public diplomacy, as regards the formulation of policy, should be seriously taken into consideration at the take-off, not at the crash landing. More bluntly, you can't put lipstick on a pig. What is your view on the relationship between public diplomacy and policy?
As you know, the above-mentioned United States Information Agency (1953-1999), which handled public diplomacy during the Cold War, was consolidated into the State Department a few years after the collapse of Russian communism, thereby reflecting a historical pattern of the USG abolishing its "propaganda" (anti-propaganda?) agencies (e.g., the Committee on Public Information [1917-1919], the Office of War Information [1942-1945]) when a global conflict is over. Nostalgic USIA veterans tend to regret the dissolution of "their" independent agency, a relatively small organization (by Washington standards) giving its overseas officers considerable flexibility to act, on behalf of U.S. national interests, as they saw fit according general policy guidelines and local conditions (as an ex-USIA senior official told me over lunch not long ago, "we got away with murder"). Not amused by such declarations of independence (often unspoken), strait-laced State Department employees referred to USIA as "Useless," a play of words on USIA's overseas designation, USIS (United States Information Service). What's your take on PD now being, bureaucratically, a State function? Does it make PD more manageable and streamlined?
You can see the themes of relevancy and credibility running through this interview.
State Department output, what we say out loud, is characterized by caution above all else, a weird play on the Hippocratic Oath. But the "safest" things to say (we urge all sides to reconsider, Mistakes were made) have little value outside Foggy Bottom. A bit of vitality is needed, and PD lacks that now. In what foreign country do people routinely turn to a PD news source? Anything that flows into the State Department gets filtered out into the equivalent of "male pale and Yale," usually three days after the story has moved off the front pages. Safe, for sure, but also irrelevant. Often, irrelevant by choice if not by policy.
For example, to enflame my ulcer, I just flipped over to Twitter. Several Embassies are tweeting "Happy Earth Day" in unison, obviously a central command meme of the day from Washington. So what? Nothing wrong with Earth Day, but so what? Is the U.S. not still the world's predominant carbon fuels burner? What is the specific goal of sending Happy Earth Day tweets out in English to whomever?
Alec Ross, State's alleged social media king, tweets today, "97 years ago today, modern chemical weapons 1st used in war. German troops released chlorine gas on the front lines at Ypres, killing 5,000," with no link or explanation. I am not even sure what the point of that is, never mind how it might play into any of the national goals of the U.S.. Alec tweets out these odd "fun facts" regularly, to what point I do not know.
The lack of content, of vitality, also means that State only practices half of the social media equation. I see little evidence of interactivity, though people do try and break through the screen and ask visa questions, usually very specific to a person/case type questions because they cannot get them answered from inundated Consular sections. Posts crow over how many people watched or viewed something, but very rarely entertain true interactivity. I am sure they are afraid of it, afraid of saying anything that hasn't been cleared by several layers above them. That may be great for career security (the goal) but it does little to really put social media to use. Just the opposite, really.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq is considered by many a public-diplomacy disaster. Your own book on your one-year Foreign-Service experience (2009-2010) in that country has, as part of its title, "How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." For those who have not had the opportunity to read your admirable volume, where/how did U.S. PD go so wrong in Iraq? Is it possible to say that America did, on occasion, do certain things right in its attempts to remake (in its own image) the cradle of civilization?
My experience with PD in Iraq was all propaganda all the time. PD's conception of PRT work was simply to over promote any small thing we did that wasn't a complete failure. If we dug a well, not necessarily a bad thing, the headline was "Bringing Water to Mesopotamia." Every PRT project had to include an interview with some Hollywood backlot Iraqi praising the United States, because as we know only White People can help the Brown Skinned of the world. PD didn't even try to balance or nuance a story; they wrote entirely for themselves and their bosses and Washington. People in Iraq certainly knew the truth, living it 24/7 in a world without water, electricity or sewers or schools, so who was PD trying to fool if not themselves? I wrote about this in more detail here and included a PD video piece so your readers can see for themselves what their tax dollars paid for.
The new social media, some argue, are redefining public diplomacy, with the buzzword "public diplomacy 2.0," coined during the Bush administration, still quite à la mode inside the beltway. Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, according to a twitterer attending his recent talk at American University, stated that "I don't think of myself as a public diplomacy official. I think ... public diplomacy is more old-school American propaganda." In your view, how important/effective are the social media as a tool for the State Department to engage (a favorite word of the current administration) "key international audiences"?
To begin, you must have a goal -- sell soap, get people to switch from Coke to Pepsi, turn out to vote, stop joining al Qaeda, something you can use to know if you have succeeded and completed what you started out to do. Social media as practiced by the Department is amateur hour. A bunch of people led by the State Department's oldest living teenager Alec Ross think they understand media because they are banging away and getting weirdly excited by numbers. Success seems to be measured in how many followers an Ambassador has. Yet no one is interested in looking into the substance of social media. When I comment on interactive Embassy web pages or State Twitter accounts on my own blog at wemeantwell.com, what I see are desperate people trying to get a Visa question answered. They have no outlet to ask such questions because Consular sections are under siege, so they bombard social media. When I do see some questioners try and aim for more substantive topics, the replies from State are canned official language, statements that are "clearable" only because they are content-free or simply ape the party line.
So what is social media as practiced by State able to accomplish? You'd think given its emphasis and the money spent that someone would be interested in a Return on Investment study, a way to map out what was accomplished. But State does not work that way -- it is all about the "doing" and not about the "getting done." Social media as practiced is just another flim-flam, foisted on State this round by another short-timer political appointee whose connections to the Secretary mean he can do no wrong. Or, perhaps more honestly, no one has the guts to question his pronouncements. Anyone who has been at work in Foggy Bottom for more than a few years can recall similar flim-flams when faxes and email were going to reduce the need for overseas personnel (we can do it all from Washington!), or web home pages or video conferencing. All can be useful tools, but you have got to have a goal and you have got to measure your way toward that goal. Otherwise it is just flavor of the month stuff. Didn't we have virtual embassies for awhile in some 3-D online world game thing?
The USG-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors, which (according to its homepage) became "the independent entity responsible for all U.S. Government and government-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting on October 1, 1999" (e.g., Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa) and whose mission is "to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy," is under considerable criticism these days for management failures and for intending to cut back on staff and programs. Based on your foreign-service experience of over two decades, what do you think is the reaction of overseas audiences to USG -supported broadcasting such as Voice of America? Are such broadcasts still necessary for U.S. national interests in an age when information is becoming more and more readily available? In a broader sense, can a journalist, in your view, be a true, objective master of her trade (and can her reports be trusted as reliable) if her paycheck comes from Uncle Sam (to cite Kim Andrew Elliott, a fast-media guru, "Journalism and public diplomacy are very different, indeed adversarial, endeavors").
Credibility is the key. If you look at the very successful penetrations of American society by foreign "public affairs," you see sources of news and entertainment that are clearly allied with a foreign entity (China Xinhua News, RT.com, al Jazeera, the BBC) and do not try to hide that fact. Yet, at the same time, they are aggressive in presenting a side of news that is missing in America's mainstream media, often pointing out the "other side" to a story or not shying away from reporting U.S. Government mistakes and misjudgments. Their credibility comes not from being pro-Russia, but from tapping into a need in the U.S. for alternative news sources.
People are too sophisticated now, even in the developing world, to be reached via crude propaganda -- America=Good, al Qaeda=Bad. That costs those sources their credibility and thus their audiences. Who cares what U.S. broadcasting into the Arab world has to say, or crap like Radio Marti? Most of the time it is just self-referential: Obama made a speech and PD says "Here's Obama's Speech" in case you missed it elsewhere or really want to plod through 1500 words on Earth Day. No one independently quotes their opinions, no one considers them vital or important the way al Jazeera became simply by filling a real gap in what people wanted to hear.
If the U.S. would try and learn a bit more about what people want, they might find a more ready audience. Instead, our "public diplomacy" programming seems designed more to please our bosses in Washington than to really reach people abroad.
Try it now -- go here and imagine yourself a young, politically charged Iraqi. What is on that page that demands your attention? The Cold War ended years ago and we are still talking about jazz.
The Smith-Mundt Act (1948), the legislation that provides the statutory basis for U.S. public diplomacy, prohibits the State Department from disseminating domestically USG information intended for overseas audiences. Do you think this firewall, in the Internet age, is anachronistic? Or is there something to be said about prohibiting the U.S. government from "propagandizing" the American people? Would you abolish/amend the Smith-Mundt Act (or, since so few Americans know anything about it, simply let it live on, untouched, in its obscurity, letting sleeping dogs lie)?
I think Smith-Mundt died on the vine already, whether it exists as a law still or not. Given both the ubiquity of the web and the fact that almost all of the U.S. public diplomacy spew is in English, I think we already know who the target audience is. For example, all the phony grief that gets expressed every time a new round of terrible atrocity photos emerge from Afghanistan certainly is not fooling the mothers of the dead Afghans; it is designed to make us feel better here at home. The Afghans know exactly what is happening in their homes and villages, even if the U.S. government can get away with calling each atrocity just another act of some bad apples. By the way, how many bad apples does it take before you have a whole pie full of them?
In the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pin tradition, there is quite a lot of talk, among the PD community both outside and inside of academe, about how to measure the results of public diplomacy. Do you think that there is a scientific way to gauge the impact of PD, both short-term and long-term? Or is the practice of public diplomacy, in the words of scholar Frank Ninkovich, essentially "an act of faith" that, in its often-flawed attempts to make our small planet a better world through greater international understanding, cannot be reduced, in well-intentioned efforts to evaluate it, to statistics on a chart or an executive summary on yet another think-tank report?
The old saying, any road will get you there if you don't know where you're going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I'd ask this: why isn't your whole "PD" strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department's current efforts?
Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department's increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to "be," to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I'll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as "engage the public" then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.
Bonus: One cheap and easy way for a non-thinker to dismiss these points is to say "Well, sure, it is easy to ask the questions, but where are Van Buren's answers? If he wants metrics, what does he propose?"
Of course that is a silly line of reasoning. Change begins with the questions, the point of asking is to stimulate the search for answers and solutions. It would be easier if all the solutions to all of the PD problems could be laid out in a short interview, but life ain't that way cowboys. Don't dismiss important questions for lack of easy answers. Instead, realize there are higher goals than obedience and career climbing and at least allow room for the Questions and admit the need to look for Answers.
As a starting point, perhaps consider this: When you get a machine that is so immense and so bureaucratic and so career promotion oriented, the mission will be lost and truth and honesty are mere bystanders eventually wrecking any positive mission. The whole concept of institutions and how they are managed and sized needs to be examined big time. The solution, if there is any, is breaking it down into small autonomous offices or missions or programs that link together but are managed separately eliminating an immense hierarchy.