Waiting for ‘smart power’

The Obama administration came in with a unique promise to transform America’s public diplomacy and global engagement.  Obama himself captivated international attention and created a fresh start to reconfigure American relationships. His conception of a global engagement rooted in "mutual interest and mutual respect" beautifully captured this potential.  The people around Obama really seemed to ...

The Obama administration came in with a unique promise to transform America's public diplomacy and global engagement.  Obama himself captivated international attention and created a fresh start to reconfigure American relationships. His conception of a global engagement rooted in "mutual interest and mutual respect" beautifully captured this potential.  The people around Obama really seemed to understand the appropriate role of public diplomacy and strategic communications -- from Hillary Clinton's "smart power" and Robert Gates's call to build State Department capacity to key actors at the NSC.  Obama's personal interventions have been fantastic -- the interviews, the speeches, the key symbolic gestures (such as promising to end torture and close Gitmo).  But this makes it all the more baffling that the government as a whole has so often failed to capitalize on the openings these moves have created.  

Take the exemplary June speech in Cairo, where Obama delivered a brilliant speech which captivated international and Muslim attention.  It offered a real opportunity to reset American relations with the Islamic world, and to begin a new kind of relationship and engagement.  But after the speech... almost nothing followed.  Few new programs, few new initiatives, few efforts to capitalize on that moment. (And don't tell me about the number of text messages or twitter tweets sent during the speech -- could there be a more pointless metric for success?)  I'm told that a number of new programs are in the works, but it's far too late -- they should have been "shovel-ready" on June 5.  Now, the Cairo speech might as well have happened in the Jurassic period and the momentum of that one-time-only speech has been squandered.

Or take Afghanistan, where we're still being treated to headlines about how badly the Taliban is out-communicating American forces.  Much of what Gen. McChrystal's guidance argued about strategic communications makes good sense, and there are some top-notch people currently working the issue for the U.S. (such as Vikram Singh on Holbrooke's team).  But the handling of the Afghan electoral fiasco doesn't really seem to have been a shining moment for American strategic communications.  More broadly, shouldn't upgrading the strategic communications aspect be something which could be done without waiting for a decision on more troops?  Shouldn't the State Department be stepping forcefully into this gap?  Or is this fundamentally hampered by the painfully-documented shortcomings in language skills? 

The Obama administration came in with a unique promise to transform America’s public diplomacy and global engagement.  Obama himself captivated international attention and created a fresh start to reconfigure American relationships. His conception of a global engagement rooted in "mutual interest and mutual respect" beautifully captured this potential.  The people around Obama really seemed to understand the appropriate role of public diplomacy and strategic communications — from Hillary Clinton’s "smart power" and Robert Gates’s call to build State Department capacity to key actors at the NSC.  Obama’s personal interventions have been fantastic — the interviews, the speeches, the key symbolic gestures (such as promising to end torture and close Gitmo).  But this makes it all the more baffling that the government as a whole has so often failed to capitalize on the openings these moves have created.  

Take the exemplary June speech in Cairo, where Obama delivered a brilliant speech which captivated international and Muslim attention.  It offered a real opportunity to reset American relations with the Islamic world, and to begin a new kind of relationship and engagement.  But after the speech… almost nothing followed.  Few new programs, few new initiatives, few efforts to capitalize on that moment. (And don’t tell me about the number of text messages or twitter tweets sent during the speech — could there be a more pointless metric for success?)  I’m told that a number of new programs are in the works, but it’s far too late — they should have been "shovel-ready" on June 5.  Now, the Cairo speech might as well have happened in the Jurassic period and the momentum of that one-time-only speech has been squandered.

Or take Afghanistan, where we’re still being treated to headlines about how badly the Taliban is out-communicating American forces.  Much of what Gen. McChrystal’s guidance argued about strategic communications makes good sense, and there are some top-notch people currently working the issue for the U.S. (such as Vikram Singh on Holbrooke’s team).  But the handling of the Afghan electoral fiasco doesn’t really seem to have been a shining moment for American strategic communications.  More broadly, shouldn’t upgrading the strategic communications aspect be something which could be done without waiting for a decision on more troops?  Shouldn’t the State Department be stepping forcefully into this gap?  Or is this fundamentally hampered by the painfully-documented shortcomings in language skills? 

Or take Israel. It become clear a while ago that Israeli public opinion was growing skeptical of Obama’s strategy, which was emboldening Netanyahu’s confrontational stance against the United States. Back then was the moment to begin a serious campaign to engage with the Israeli public — not, as some thought, to just give in to Israeli positions, but to actively try to build support for the American position about the urgency of movement towards a two-state solution. Administration officials at the time recognized that, and hinted they would launch such a campaign — but since then, nothing much seems to have happened.  Even when decisions are taken which seem intended to build capital with Israelis, they don’t seem to be accompanied by any serious effort to actually capitalize by selling the move to Israeli public opinion — which means that the U.S. gets the worst of both worlds, harming its standing with the Arab side while gaining nothing with the Israeli side.  

Sometimes the lower profile is intentional, and correct. The administration was absolutely right to not take the lead during the Iranian electoral protests, helping to prevent the regime from making the U.S. the issue. It has also done a great job of quietly de-emphasizing al-Qaeda, rarely referring to it (except in the AfPak zone) and deflating rather than exaggerating its threat.   But in so many other areas, better public diplomacy and strategic communications could make a real difference in shaping the conditions for foreign policy success.

I don’t know why it has proven so difficult for the U.S. government to mount public diplomacy and strategic communications campaigns in support of key administration policy goals. Is it something about the organization of the government, leadership, or the allocation of the resources?  Is it that deeds have not kept up with words, harming the credibility of such communications campaigns? Is it the cultural clash between traditional public diplomacy and the demands of goal-oriented strategic communications? Is it that the State Department hasn’t stepped up as the Pentagon’s strategic communications operations have been scaled back?  Is it a backlash against the over-selling of stratetic communications in recent years?  Or is it something else? 

I think that these are urgently important questions… and next Monday there will be two great public events at George Washington University devoted to them:   

  • New Approaches to U.S. Global Outreach: Smart Power on the Front Lines of Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication
    9:30 a.m. to Noon, Room 403, Marvin Center, 800 21st St. NW.  The two panels include Rosa Brooks (Senior Advisor, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy), John Carman (Director, Strategic Communication, SOCOM), Daniel Silverberg (Counsel, House Foreign Affairs Committee), Daniel Sreebny (Director, Global Engagement Center, Dept. of State), and leading public diplomacy scholar Bruce Gregory.   The panels will be moderated by Kristin Lord (Center for a New American Security) and Sean Aday (Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, GWU).  Please RSVP to: IPDGC@gwu.edu

  • Smart Power:  A Conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, moderated by Frank Sesno. Lisner Auditorium, 7:00 PM. Tickets free, available to GW students, faculty and staff beginning Oct. 1 at 9 a.m. at GW’s Lisner Auditorium Box Office. For more information, please call 202-994-7129.  (I can’t get you tickets, sorry, so don’t ask!)

I hope that those interested in such questions can make it. And if you want to just stay in Foggy Bottom the whole day, you could also come by this panel which I’m moderating:

  • The War in Afghanistan:  Prospects and Challenges. 3:00-5:00, Lindner Commons, Suite 602, Elliott School of International Affairs, 1957 E St. NW   Panelists:  Steve Biddle (CFR), John Nagl (CNAS), Lt. Gen James Dubick (former Commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq), moderated by Marc Lynch (me). Please RSVP to: spf@gwu.edu  

I’ll be traveling the next two days, but will probably still be posting links and comments to my @abuaardvark twitter feed.

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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