The Arab Spring, Bin Laden and American Public Diplomacy

Osama Bin Laden is no longer with us. Hosni Mubarak is with us, but now spends his days as a disgraced former head of state under house arrest. Each of these developments bodes well for the United States over the long run. Delawareans rightly celebrated. Beyond the reflexive, visceral excitement – our commandos can perform heroically! Students in the Middle East will risk their lives for freedom! – There are profound implications for a particular aspect of our foreign policy, namely public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy refers to the formidable task of promoting our national interests by informing, influencing and understanding foreign publics – as opposed to foreign diplomats or the governments they serve. If we do it well, public diplomacy might deter young men from joining an Islamic terrorist cell. Or it might encourage and support the secular student movement that led to the uprising in Cairo. Unfortunately many do not believe that we are doing an especially good job in either context.
Public diplomacy should help others to understand America. We are still the biggest kid on the block (for those who shudder at the term “Empire,” consider our footprint in the Asia Pacific region). We don’t expect to be loved, but we would like to be respected and understood. We want to promote American values like democracy, the rule of law, human and civil rights, free markets and cultural diversity. We want to support those who share these values, and develop a reservoir of good will abroad.

We have been doing this for quite a while. The United States government embarked on an ambitious public diplomacy effort at the outset of the Cold War, when Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America were vital sources of information to those living under Soviet rule. They helped to define the West as a place of openness and opportunity.

So how are we doing today? One way to measure our performance- though it is not a perfect calculus – is to consider the perspective of the foreign public as measured by the Pew Global Attitudes project.

Although President Obama’s election increased the popularity of the United States in Western Europe, we remain deeply unpopular in the Muslim world. Aside from Indonesia at 58% positive, our favorable ratings are dismal: 16% in Egypt, 17% in Turkey, 16% in Pakistan. Worse, a majority express fear that the United States will attack them: 77% of those in Turkey, 73% of those in Pakistan (no doubt higher after our Navy Seals disposed of Bin Laden), 65% of those in Egypt.

Why are we doing so poorly? Some causes have been evident for years, but we also have not adapted since the attacks of 9/11.

First, the State Department does not do a good job of explaining its mission and objectives. In turn, many members of Congress disdain the Department as out of touch with reality. I recall former Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina used to say in many a hearing, “What the State Department needs is an American desk!”

Second, we have not devoted adequate resources to the State Department. After the fall of the Soviet Union, overall funding for public diplomacy declined to the point where by 2011, we spent only one-third of one percent of the annual Defense Department budget. Defense Secretary Bob Gates has observed that there are more members of military bands than there are Foreign Service Officers. Think about that for a moment.

Third, we don’t recruit Foreign Service Officers who have communications training or talent. Things like media savvy, persuasiveness, and cross-cultural familiarity are not even considered in the hiring process. There also are severe shortages of public diplomacy staff who speak critical languages such as Arabic and Farsi. In Arabic language posts, 36% of language designated public affairs positions were filled by staff unable to speak Arabic.

Fourth, we have not effectively integrated public affairs officers into the policy making apparatus. It is worth recalling the words of the prominent CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, an early head of the US Information Agency. In considering the job, he was reported to have said to President Kennedy, “If you want me in on the landings, I’d better be there for the takeoffs.” In other words, don’t just expect me to clean up the mess made by the policy folks. We have not embraced this very much.

Fifth, the Pentagon tends to go its own way in what it calls “Strategic Communication.” There are efforts to coordinate messages with State, but Defense resources are vast and their orientation is understandably focused on supporting military activities. That said, their approach may not advance our cause with the foreign public. As recently as 2002, the Pentagon closed its Office of Strategic Influence following allegations that it had provided false information to foreign journalists.

Sixth, we often fail to link our message with our policy. We say that we want to support democratization and civil society in the Middle East. We say that we want to build relationships with young people in the Middle East. To that end, the State Department was going to spend $667,000 on a youth soccer mentorship program, and our ambassador to Egypt was to operate the program by working with the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior and the police. As you probably know, these organizations have proved to be on the wrong side of history as they remained loyal to Mubarek in attempting to crack down on the protesters. In the midst of the Egyptian protests, State withdrew the funding request. If there ever was a time for us to go forward with a youth soccer program in Egypt, that would seem to be the time. If we are uncomfortable with the role of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, why weren’t we uncomfortable with it before the revolution? And if we are uncomfortable with the Mubarek regime, why did we provide billions in military aid to Egypt over the decades?

Seventh, we struggle to engage with indigenous populations in countries where we have supported repressive regimes based on our preference for stability. Our awkwardness is palpable. As one of my think tank friends said to me, “Why can’t the US Government do more to help the people who can advance our public diplomacy interests far better than we can ourselves?

Finally, we have been talking for several years about advancing to Public Diplomacy 2.0 (former Bush Undersecretary Jim Glassman coined that term). But we have not developed a tech savvy organization in the government that can effectively utilize social media tools. Believe it or not, it has only been ten years since then Secretary Colin Powell ordered that all State Department personnel actually have their own computer!

In the brave new world of social media, it has been said that effective communication relies on the credibility of the speaker, and that credibility stems from the personal relationship that exists between the speaker and the listener. In the Egyptian revolt, we all saw the protest leaders rely on cell phones and Facebook postings to communicate. During the Cold War, government controlled the information and the technology needed to transmit it. No longer. Government officials simply do not have the kind of personal relationships with community organizers that foster credibility.

Our security, our economy and our institutions all depend on the successful engagement with the public overseas. But in the wake of 9/11, what is the proper role for government?

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About the Contributor

John Osborn

John Osborn

John Osborn has been a senior executive with leading life science and healthcare companies, including Cephalon, Dendreon, Onyx Pharmaceuticals and US Oncology.

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