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Philip Seib Headshot

Toward a More Imaginative U.S. Public Diplomacy

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Barack Obama may be the best exponent of American public
diplomacy since Benjamin Franklin, inspiring a newly hopeful attitude
about the United States in many parts of the world. But beyond the
president himself U.S. public diplomacy lacks coherence and impact.

A simple definition of "public diplomacy" is a government
(and some non-state actors) reaching out to foreign publics, rather
than confining itself to the government-to-government communication of
traditional diplomacy. As long as U.S. policymakers continue to seek
an answer to the post-9/11 question, "Why do they hate us?" public
diplomacy should be an integral part of America's approach to the rest
of the world.

Instead, the Obama administration, like its predecessor,
has given little indication that it understands that today's world of
global communication and dispersed influence requires systemic reform
of the way public diplomacy is developed. Much of American public
diplomacy remains rooted in the Cold War-era assumption that the world
yearns for information from the United States. That may have been
true when the alternative to such worthy institutions as the Voice of
America was Radio Moscow, but no longer.

In the Arab world, for instance, news channels such as Al Jazeera and
Al Arabiya have great credibility; Arab viewers can see the world
through Arab eyes rather than relying on Western providers such as the
BBC and CNN, or on the principal U.S. government effort in this field,
Al Hurra television. This Arabic-language news channel is largely
ignored or ridiculed in the Middle East, all for upwards of half a
billion U.S. taxpayer dollars. The U.S. broadcasting effort would
have more viewers and greater effect if instead it just provided the
nightly American network newscasts dubbed into Arabic.

All this matters because public diplomacy is not merely an exercise to
make people around the world feel warm and cuddly toward the United
States. American policymakers work at a disadvantage when they must
deal with widespread hostility as they develop and advance U.S.
priorities. Also, public diplomacy should be considered the keystone
of antiterrorism efforts.

Granted, the Osama bin Ladens of the world are never going to be won
over; they need to be dealt with as the deadly enemies they are. But
public diplomacy can be effective in defusing the next generation of
potential terrorists and their sympathizers. If the United States
does not appear to be "the enemy" (even if it is not beloved), hatred
of it will cease to be a principal recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and
others.

Given these stakes, the Obama administration should not be satisfied
with occasional triumphs such as the president's recent Cairo speech.
U.S. public diplomacy, grounded in enlightened policy, must be
rebuilt, and not just for the Middle East. America's message must
reach the people of Russia and, China, among others, and citizens of
emerging powers such as India, Brazil, and Nigeria if the United
States is to have the diplomatic leverage it needs in a multipolar
world. And those who implement U.S. public diplomacy must show enough
humility to listen to other nations' messages, even when unpleasant.

This will require imagination, which has been singularly lacking in
recent American public diplomacy. For one thing, public diplomacy
must incorporate recognition of the rise of virtual states. Pakistan,
for example is not merely the land mass northwest of India. Pakistan
exists throughout the world, with roughly a million Pakistanis living
in the United Kingdom, another million in Saudi Arabia, and about two
million more around the globe. They are connected, principally
through Internet-based media, with a linkage between diaspora and
homeland far closer than immigrant communities knew in the past.

Plenty of other examples exist. Kurdistan, for one, might not be a
"state" in the legal sense, but it exists as a noncontiguous country
that is fully whole in cyberspace and whose role in a tense region
merits a public diplomacy effort. Many Kurds are well disposed toward
the United States, and public diplomacy could be invaluable in
nurturing such a relationship.

These virtual states must be engaged through a virtual public
diplomacy that features sophisticated understanding of religious and
cultural sensitivities as well as the politics and technologies of the
moment. As international Internet usage increases, the United States
must stay ahead of the wave and create online public diplomacy tools
that reach into new arenas of public discourse.

Of course, everything comes back to policies. If people around the
world hate American policies, then no amount of public diplomacy will
be effective. But if the Obama administration is sincere in wanting
to bring U.S. policy into alignment with global norms, a new public
diplomacy will be essential in delivering the American message and
building American bridges to the rest of the world.