Toward a More Imaginative U.S. Public Diplomacy

08/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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


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.