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A Muddled Messsage: US Public Diplomacy Faces Roadblocks March 17, 2010

Posted by Rebecca Williams in Analysis.
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Picture a working class family living on the outskirts of Karachi.  They’ve never traveled to Islamabad, much less outside of Pakistan, and all they know about the United States is what they hear from family, friends, and the Urdu-language media. All of these sources are very critical and resentful of U.S. foreign policy throughout the region.  Members of this family have seen a few U.S.-produced television shows and the occasional Hollywood movie but never actually met an American.

Common knowledge now dictates that America’s global image can affect the policies of other countries and the behavior of their citizens. In this era, how does the U.S. effectively communicate to this family “the story of a good and compassionate nation and, at the same time, engage in the most important ideological contest of our time?”

Judith McHale, the current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, her predecessors, and outside experts testified last week on this question before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Each of these witnesses underscored public diplomacy as a top priority for foreign policy and national security.  Under Secretary McHale was emphatic and direct: “we must … develop a clear, consistent, and comprehensive approach to public diplomacy.”

We aren’t there yet.  Outreach and communication to foreign citizens is planned, budgeted, and implemented by multiple departments and agencies without strategic planning or coordination at the national level.

Perhaps more importantly, the purpose of public diplomacy in relation to our foreign policy and national security objectives is undefined.  At best, foreign audiences receive muted messages.  At worst, the cacophony results in no message at all.

Under Secretary McHale explained that weekly Interagency Policy Coordination (IPC) meetings currently help to “coordinate, develop, and de-conflict communications programs and activities across US government agencies.”  This is a good first step, but bringing coherence to public diplomacy requires tackling the tendency of departments and agencies to fixate exclusively on their narrow bureaucratic missions.

On the civilian side, State Department public diplomacy concentrates on a dialogue of “understanding, informing, engaging, and influencing global audiences, reaching beyond foreign governments to promote greater appreciation and understanding of US society, culture, institutions, values and policies.”  Diplomats working this portfolio from overseas engage foreign citizens through personal connections, cultural programs sponsored by NGOs and the private sector, public forums, and indirect communications such as the media.

Efforts separate but related to those of the Department of State include the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and USAID.  All US government international broadcasting is consolidated under the BBG and USAID employs its own public diplomacy officers to focus solely on informing local citizens about the US assistance efforts intended to improve living conditions and economic development.

On the military side, the Pentagon’s “global strategic communications” engage with foreign populations specifically to help advance military objectives.   It is nearly impossible to determine the total cost or objectives of DOD’s strategic communications because these sums are buried within very general Operations and Maintenance budgets.  The best available data indicate that the FY 2010 budget was at least $626 million – and there is no indication of how or to what end it was used.  To compare, the Broadcasting Board of Governors had aFY2010 budget of $758 million, all of which is meticulously itemized.

Further complicating matters, other government agencies and congressionally-mandated NGOs also provide exchange programs to improve understanding of U.S. policies.  Examples include the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Asia Foundation, the East-West Center, and the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship Program.  Likewise, Internet and satellite broadcasting has made the public messages and statements of every federal agency or department accessible to foreign publics, even traditionally domestic agencies such as the Department of the Interior.

At the end of the day, people around the world, including our family in Karachi, likely would be very interested in aspects of American life: individual liberty, social mobility, religious tolerance and freedoms, access to education, robust civil society, among many others.  The undefined strategy and uncoordinated implementation of public diplomacy renders our attempts to communicate this message unintelligible, though.  Regrettably, those selling a different message suffer no such handicap.

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