Tools of engagement

Review of “U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Efforts to Engage Muslim Audiences Lack Certain Communication Elements and Face Significant Challenges,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 2006.

By R. S. Zaharna
September/October 2006  pp. 66-68 (vol. 62, no. 5) © 2006 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The most recent review of U.S. public diplomacy by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was the fourth such report to find that the State Department “faces significant challenges” in its efforts to stem anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. Yet, the report’s main recommendation–applying public relations’s best practices to U.S. public diplomacy–is unlikely to help America’s image abroad. The GAO’s information-centered approach for designing and delivering messages is based on a flawed premise that not only ignores the decline in U.S. credibility but also overlooks the difficulties of implementing a traditional public relations campaign in a global communication era.

The report opens with a postmortem of sorts, recounting the State Department’s previous failed initiatives in the Islamic world. Three projects that began with great fanfare–the “Shared Values” media campaign, the youth-oriented Hi Magazine, and the Partnerships for Learning youth exchange programs–have either been suspended or terminated. (One official in Egypt said that of the 2,500 copies of Hi Magazine the embassy distributed monthly to newsstands in Cairo, often as many as 2,000 copies were returned unsold. Readers, however, can still access the online version.) The GAO then describes current public diplomacy efforts in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Egypt and finds that–aside from a shortage of manpower resources and difficulties balancing public outreach with security concerns–the missions lack country-specific communication plans and direction from Washington.

What’s needed, according to the GAO, is for the State Department to base its public diplomacy strategy on private-sector best practices. The report presents a diagram of “Key Elements of a Typical Public Relations Strategy” and then details what’s lacking: U.S. missions don’t have core messages or themes; target audiences are not clearly defined; strategies and tactics lack operational details; and research and evaluation efforts are limited.

Although the goal, as the GAO’s title suggests, is to “engage targeted audiences,” the approach is, in fact, dedicated to delivering U.S. messages to the Islamic world. Offering an assessment that no doubt plays well to veteran political campaigners on Capitol Hill, the report declares, “Most importantly, the messages should be repeated over and over again to ensure that they are heard.”

The problem is that while this strategy is technically sound, the premise isn’t. The intense focus on designing and delivering U.S. messages to the Islamic world presupposes either a lack of information or an abundance of misinformation. Such a premise might be plausible if the United States were not a superpower. However, nations around the world are continuously monitoring and analyzing U.S. policies–especially those in the Arab and Muslim world, where U.S. political and military involvement is keenly felt.

U.S. public diplomacy undermines its effectiveness by presuming that people in the Islamic world cannot hear or understand U.S. messages. Saying something louder and repeatedly is precisely what many in the region find so condescending. None of the opinion polls from the Arab world hints that the U.S. image problem is due to a lack of information. In fact, as the GAO report acknowledges, “U.S. foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiment among Muslim populations.” Sadly, the GAO mentions this crucial point only in the context of advocating more in-depth polling to identify and develop messages.

It’s important that the underlying cultural style and content of a nation’s pubic diplomacy messages resonate positively with a foreign public. If there is asymmetry in cultural styles, one can alienate the very audience one is trying to persuade. Many of the recent U.S. diplomatic initiatives reflect a uniquely U.S. cultural style. President George W. Bush’s penchant for “speaking straight” may resonate positively with an American public that values directness, but the Arab public prefers more indirect messages, especially in public. Similarly, Americans view facts and arguments as particularly persuasive. In other cultures, metaphors and analogies that suggest important relationships are much more persuasive than impersonal facts.

One can look at public diplomacy from two perspectives: relationship-building strategies versus image-building strategies. Currently, U.S. public diplomacy appears very much focused on its message and its image. Relationship-building strategies–as embodied by such programs as the Peace Corps and the Fulbright program–focus on developing mutually beneficial and reciprocal connections between people and nations. Such an approach may prove much more effective for U.S. public diplomacy efforts in the Muslim world. When officials began to address public policy in the aftermath of 9/11, much was made of how to “win the hearts and minds” of people. The very focus on “winning” in itself suggests a competition, a dividing line between “us” and “them.” One wins, the other loses. The information-centered approach that the GAO is advocating enables that mind-set even further, by ignoring the dynamics of what is arguably a new global communications era, defined by interactivity and connectivity, rather than information superiority. Getting information out is not as strategic as getting connected.

Moreover, the GAO’s relentless focus on messages misses the most immediate challenge facing public diplomacy: restoring U.S. credibility. The United States cannot pretend to be effective either in persuading potential allies or countering the misinformation of its adversaries so long as others question its motives. As a 2004 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board candidly acknowledged, this crisis of credibility is especially acute in the Islamic world. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, the report noted, object to the long-standing, even increasing support for what they see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. “Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that ‘freedom is the future of the Middle East’ is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old communist world–but Muslims do not feel this way: They feel oppressed, but not enslaved.”

The GAO report acknowledges the U.S. credibility deficit but treats it as a tactical issue, suggesting that U.S. public diplomacy use third-party sources that have credibility to deliver U.S. messages. But this tactic only masks the problem. Instead of focusing on its messages, Washington needs a wide-angle lens that carefully reconsiders policies that expose the United States to charges of duplicity.

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