America made short work of its military assignment in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, forcing the Taliban from power, but it continues to struggle on the public relations front, with surveys and anecdotal evidence continuing to show widespread mistrust of the United States and its motives.
“There is little doubt that stereotypes of the United States as arrogant, self-indulgent, hypocritical, inattentive, and unwilling or unable to engage in cross-cultural dialogue are pervasive and deeply rooted,” according to a task force of 35 business and media leaders, scholars and former diplomats assembled in the wake of the attacks by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The task force said President Bush had “sounded the right rhetorical notes about upgrading public diplomacy to combat terrorism and America’s shaky image abroad,” but said he needed to do more. In particular, the task force said, the administration should “integrate foreign policy and public diplomacy in a coherent strategy with backing from the top.”
It also suggested that it was important for the administration to listen to the world, “even as it defines American interests and defends and asserts them abroad.”
The White House responded to the report by announcing that the temporary communications center, formed to counter Taliban disinformation about the war in Afghanistan, would be made permanent. The new, fully staffed “Office of Global Communications” will coordinate the administration’s foreign policy messages and attempt to manage America’s image abroad.
It is hoped that the new office, due to be up and running by fall, will give the White House more control over public diplomacy. Tucker Eskew, a former Bush campaign aide and director of the White House office of media affairs, is believed to be the leading candidate to head the office. He is currently head of the London-based Coalition Information Center.
Among the specific suggestions offered by the Council on Foreign Relations:
· Create a public diplomacy coordinating structure led by the president’s personal designee and similar to the National Security Council to oversee and coordinate public diplomacy between government agencies and the private sector.
· Reform the State Department to provide the necessary organizational structure and resources to bolster the public diplomacy effort, providing increased budget and making public diplomacy the primary responsibility of the deputy assistant secretaries in the State Department’s regional bureaus.
· Build congressional support for public diplomacy to substantially increase funding far beyond the $1 billion currently spent by the State Department.
· Increase the effectiveness of public opinion research and adopt an “engagement” approach that involves listening and dialogue because ‘persuasion’ begins with listening. The U.S. government currently spends only $5 million annually on foreign public opinion polling.
· Focus public diplomacy on supporting moderate voices and reaching out to younger people, particularly in the Middle East where the young comprise an unprecedented and growing share of the population. Cultivate and improve access for foreign journalists because they are the main transmission belts for what the United States is doing and why and are highly credible messengers, currently given short shrift by administration spokespersons.
· Tie U.S. policies in our public diplomacy effort to basic American values, linking foreign policy more closely to America’s cultural values.
· Draw on the talent and energy of the private sector and bridge the gap between public and private sector initiatives by creating an independent public/private not-for-profit “Corporation for Public Diplomacy” modeled after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
It is not yet clear how many of those ideas will be incorporated into the new Office of Global Communications, and some
Nevertheless, skeptics continue to question whether the new office can accomplish anything without substantive changes in U.S. foreign policy.
Graham Fuller, a former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council and a longtime Near East analyst, said he has “never felt such an extraordinary gap between the two worlds [of the U.S. and the Middle East]… Clearly, in a region where we desperately need friends and supporters, their number is dwindling, and we are increasingly on the defensive.
“If fundamental policies are seen to be flawed, a prettied-up package will not make a difference.”