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People-to-People-Based Foreign Policy

Posted: 04/20/09 12:16 PM ET

Our nation's public diplomacy has often been about lecturing instead of listening, preaching instead of partnering.

At times, we have tried to sell the American brand as though it was a bar of soap. Ineffective public diplomacy initiatives have consisted of "advertising campaigns, listening tours, 'goodwill' ambassadors...and the like," according to a recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Task Force on Confronting the Ideology of Radical Extremism, on which I served.

But we will not restore our international standing by aiming a single monologue at the rest of the world, no matter how savvy our pitch. Citizens from other countries, particularly in nondemocratic societies, readily recognize -- and reject -- propaganda from their own governments. They should hardly be expected to accept it from a foreign source.

Rather than casting ourselves as participants in a global "war of ideas," we ought to drop the language of combat. We can best serve our interests by aligning ourselves with the aspirations of the vast majority of people in other countries -- aspirations for themselves, their families, their communities and their countries. This approach to the world shows that America recognizes a common humanity and respects human dignity. This would position our country as a hands-on partner in achieving positive change.

This effort will require the use of all the traditional tools of development and democracy -- building schools and digging wells, extending microcredit and providing vaccines. It means backing democrats who promote peaceful political change in autocratic environments and supporting the development of institutions in nascent democracies so they can improve the quality of life for all citizens, not just the privileged few.

In today's interdependent world, where the free flow of information is a valued currency, we will need new communications tools as well. And that is where a revitalized public diplomacy effort comes in. We can foster connections and exchanges that can build trust, demonstrate our values, and blend people together in a web of relationships that cross borders and cultural divides. This is the best way to restore America's reputation, to promote a sense of shared well-being, and to counteract the messages of hate and violence.

Imagine an African cotton farmer, buffeted by unpredictable weather and the whims of the closest buyer, receiving accurate market pricing data and weather forecasts on his cell phone, courtesy of a U.S. government-supported initiative. Political and civic activists throughout the Middle East can gain access to model legislation that can serve as an advocacy tool to promote women's political participation and leadership. This kind of approach is possible because, with 21st century communications technologies, we have unprecedented opportunities to engage people directly -- and to connect people to one another -- all over the world.

New leadership of our public diplomacy program will be central to this effort. It will require someone who can energize public-private partnerships and tap the great potential of communications technologies. Judith McHale, the former president and CEO of Discovery Communications, has now been nominated for this position -- Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. McHale, who serves on the Board of the National Democratic Institute, among other organizations, is the right choice. While many Americans know Discovery's outstanding cable channels seen in the United States, they are less familiar with the company's international work, which makes McHale particularly well-suited to the public diplomacy post. Under her two decades of leadership, Discovery's reach expanded to 1.4 billion subscribers in 170 countries, with translations into more than 30 languages. Its emphasis is on both locally focused as well as globally unifying communications, which is the same strategy that should underpin U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Judith McHale not only understands the importance of these approaches; she has had many years of experience implementing exactly these kinds of communications that have engaged and connected with people all over the world.

The new Administration has already underscored the central role of reaching out beyond government-to-government relations to forge people-to-people connections based on mutual respect and trust. And a modern and revitalized public diplomacy program, led by Ms. McHale, can be a centerpiece of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's doctrine of "smart power."

Kenneth Wollack is president of the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit organization that supports democratic institutions and practices abroad.