Public diplomacy and the Obama administration |

Public diplomacy and the Obama administration

Guy W. Farmer
For the Nevada Appeal

When President Obama granted his first foreign media interview to the popular al-Arabiya TV network late last month, he signaled that the United States is back in the public diplomacy business, which is good news for those who are concerned about America’s battered international image.

Mentioning his own Muslim roots, Obama told his Middle Eastern audience that “Americans are not your enemy.” And, as he did in his inaugural address, Obama called for new relationships based on mutual interests and mutual respect.

Shortly before the al-Arabiya interview, the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on public diplomacy, labeling it as the fifth most important item on a list of 13 priority issues facing the Obama administration. Showing its concern about America’s deteriorating image, the GAO report concluded that “it is more critical than ever that the United States effectively coordinate, manage and implement its public diplomacy and strategic communications activities to affect foreign public opinion.”

As a veteran of the public diplomacy wars, I endorse the GAO’s conclusions and urge Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to implement its recommendations.

A joint 2008 diplomatic readiness study by the Stimson Center and the American Academy of Diplomacy said the primary purpose of public diplomacy is “to understand, inform, engage and influence global audiences … to promote greater appreciation and understanding of U.S. society, culture, institutions, values and policies.” That’s as good a definition as any, and better than most, because it includes the key goal of gaining support and understanding for U.S. foreign policies, insofar as possible.

It’s ironic that Mrs. Clinton will lead a new public diplomacy “surge” because it was her husband, ex-President Bill Clinton, who dismantled the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which spearheaded well coordinated PD efforts for almost 50 years until it was merged into the State Department “fudge factory” 10 years ago. In her Senate confirmation hearings, Mrs. Clinton called for a better balance between “hard” and “soft” diplomacy and said State should take the lead on public diplomacy, including a plan to open so-called “America Houses” in cities across the Arab world.

Echoing holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Mrs. Clinton also noted an imbalance between public diplomacy resources available to DoD and State. For example, it may surprise you to learn that there are more uniformed military band members than there are career diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service. The GAO revealed that “the Pentagon’s money and manpower have put its strategic communications activities in a position where . . . they have equaled or exceeded the efforts of State’s Foreign Service officers.” Some of us call it the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

In Condoleezza Rice’s troubled State Department, career diplomats were given new and dangerous missions in Third World hot spots like Afghanistan and Iraq without a corresponding increase in personnel and resources. Under Ms. Rice’s controversial “transformational diplomacy” plan, our diplomats were not only asked to do more with less, they were also asked to carry out expanded missions under fire. As a result, Rice was much less popular with career diplomats than was her predecessor, Gen. (ret.) Colin Powell, who went to bat for the Foreign Service.

Before he departed Washington, former PD Chief James Glassman wisely acknowledged that “there’s no doubt (foreign) views of the U.S. were influenced by the policies the U.S. adopted.” To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the policy, stupid. Our PR is only as good (or as bad) as the policies it attempts to explain and defend. No amount of clever advertising-type spin could have turned the decision to invade Iraq into a propaganda victory. In other words, public diplomacy isn’t advertising or public relations; it’s diplomacy. I hope the Obama administration learns that lesson sooner rather than later.

– Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was a U.S. Information Agency (USIA) public diplomacy specialist for 28 years until he retired in 1995.