Debating U.S. public diplomacy

 How should U.S. public diplomacy deal with the Gaza crisis? Over the last week I’ve argued that the invisibility of American public diplomacy during the Gaza crisis has been a major setback for efforts to improve America’s image in the Muslim world, defend U.S. foreign policy, or to “create an environment hostile to extremism.”  Keeping ...

589483_090115_glassman_lynch5.jpg
589483_090115_glassman_lynch5.jpg

 How should U.S. public diplomacy deal with the Gaza crisis? Over the last week I've argued that the invisibility of American public diplomacy during the Gaza crisis has been a major setback for efforts to improve America's image in the Muslim world, defend U.S. foreign policy, or to "create an environment hostile to extremism."  Keeping out of it struck me as a poor option, given that the U.S. is deeply implicated in the crisis in Arab minds already and staying silent only allows others to fill the void.  Yesterday, Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman had his chance to respond. 

 

 

 How should U.S. public diplomacy deal with the Gaza crisis? Over the last week I’ve argued that the invisibility of American public diplomacy during the Gaza crisis has been a major setback for efforts to improve America’s image in the Muslim world, defend U.S. foreign policy, or to “create an environment hostile to extremism.”  Keeping out of it struck me as a poor option, given that the U.S. is deeply implicated in the crisis in Arab minds already and staying silent only allows others to fill the void.  Yesterday, Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman had his chance to respond. 

 

 


Marc Lynch and James Glassman at the Elliott School of International Affairs (source: Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications)

Glassman wasn’t there just to argue with me, of course.  He was there to give what he called his valedictory address, hosted by GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. He reflected on his seven month tenure as Under-Secretary and presented a vision for the future of public diplomacy as “Global Strategic Engagement.” He argued for both the benefits of traditional public diplomacy (exchange programs, English teaching, etc.) and for “public diplomacy 2.0” (engagement through online social networking). He gave a forceful and very thoughtful defense of “Global Strategic Engagement” as “non-military engagement with foreign publics” in pursuit of U.S. strategic interests, tightly integrated into wider policy objectives and well-coordinated at the inter-agency level. This means prioritizing the delegitimation of U.S. enemies (al-Qaeda and extremist ideologies) over improving U.S. favorability ratings abroad. I hope that his office posts the text of this talk to advance discussion of these important issues, and will link to it if they do. 

I would like to focus this post, though, on Glassman’s response to my critique of U.S. public diplomacy during the Gaza crisis (which he had read on Abu Aardvark and came prepared to engage with; I presented the basic argument for the audience, but won’t repeat it again here). I don’t have an official transcript of his remarks, but I took careful notes. 

Glassman first acknowledged that all available evidence — including reports from the field, Arabic media hubs, and embassies — shows that the Gaza crisis is indeed generating tremendous hostility to the United States. He also mentioned  two manifestations of which I wasn’t aware —  the cancelation of applications for grants and exchange programs, and a disturbing decline in invitations to U.S. officials to speak.  (He might also have mentioned the reappearance of 2002-vintage campaigns to boycott U.S. products in countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.)

Glassman also agreed that the U.S. can not remain silent in such crises.  Citing the frequent comment by his predecessor Karen Hughes, he said that if the U.S. leaves a vaccuum then its adversaries will surely fill it.  It was not his job personally to do so, he pointed out (fairly enough). He is not a State Department spokesman, and should not be expected to speak on such policy issues personally. The President makes policy and, he said, the President and Secretary of State have spoken often and in detail about Gaza. Even good public diplomacy alone wouldn’t solve the U.S. problems in this crisis — that requires policy, achieving peace and stability, and so forth.

In response to the common argument (made by me and many others) that the Under-Secretary should have “a seat at the policy table”, he noted that thanks to his predecessor Karen Hughes he does. He attends the daily 8 AM meeting with the Secretary of State and top policy makers, and sits on key NSC meetings. He does tell policy makers of likely regional reaction to policies, he said, but they usually already know this without being told. They will not and should not submit important policies to a global vote.  But this, I think, fails to do justice to the argument for a PD seat at the table. If policy makers “already know” the regional response, but systematically fail to effectively factor it in to their decisions, then perhaps something is still broken.

Glassman echoed some of the commenters on my blog that at certain times it is better to keep quiet than to rush into the fray, that “quantity of public diplomacy is not necessarily quality.” In the early stages of the crisis, he argued, public diplomacy officials and embassies limited their public comments because there were sensitive negotiations going on which they did not want to disrupt. This fits my reading of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, at least; my reservations about this cautious approach don’t, I think, need to be repeated here.

Now, he said, they are out there more actively.. though, he remarked, it is disturbing that they are not being asked as much as in the past. I would have liked to see him elaborate on this: have they been getting on to the satellite TV stations, holding public or private discussions in Arab countries, engaging through “PD 2.0” social networks? Talking more, listening more, or some combination? To what measurable effect? What has changed since the early days of the crisis that makes it now more appropriate to to engage?

In response to my observation that al-Jazeera has owned this crisis, on both old media and new media, he complained that al-Jazeera has been “tremendously irresponsible”, using “martyr” for everybody killed in Gaza, whether a civilian or a Hamas fighter. Images of suffering children predominate, he acknowledged, but offered as a positive development that there are some Arabs focusing on Iranian role and criticizing Hamas. Glassman has often spoken (in this talk and others) about the advantages of indirection, that it is better for some messages to not come from the U.S. government.  I wonder if this might be taken as an implicit nod (though he certainly did not say so explicitly) to Saudi media carrying U.S. messages, as many in the Arab world believe.  It occurs to me that he did not mention al-Hurra, the troubled U.S. Arabic language TV station, as an important carrier of these messages.

 At the least, he concluded, the U.S. image abroad will enjoy a fresh start next week, with Obama’s inauguration, and hopefully Hillary Clinton will benefit from a robust communications infrastructure to take advantage of the moment. I can only say amen… though I fear that the Gaza crisis has badly poisoned the reservoir of goodwill that the new administration had hoped to tap.

I appreciated Glassman’s candid and thoughtful response, and his willingness to engage publicly on this crucial and sensitive issue. But still I heard no answer to the basic point. He has defined the core mission of American ‘global strategic engagement’ as “creating a global environment hostile to extremism”.  The latest bin Laden message attempting to capitalize on Arab and Muslim outrage is hardly needed to see the radicalizing impact of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza on public opinion across the region.  If public diplomacy can’t be actively shaping attitudes and the perception of U.S. policy — or U.S. policy itself — during such a crisis, when can it be active? 

One final thought, which did not come up yesterday but strikes me on reflection. Could the relatively weak U.S. public diplomacy on the Gaza crisis be an unintended consquence of the growing dominance of the military in the realm of strategic communications? Most U.S. diplomats in the State Department would put an Israeli-Palestinian crisis like this at the top of the list of priorities. But for the military, Israel and Gaza may be seen as a secondary, peripheral arena compared to Iraq or Afghanistan where the U.S. military is actively deployed.  Perhaps this is one part of the explanation for the seeming imbalance between the importance of the crisis to U.S. strategic interests and the response of its strategic communication apparatus?

Much food for thought and discussion… which will carry over into the next administration and beyond. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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