Reviving Public Diplomacy: An Opportunity for the Next President
Posted by Lauren Movius
While the Bush administration brought in several undersecretaries of state for public diplomacy and public affairs over the last seven years, all left office, and their public diplomacy efforts were largely unsuccessful. (Failures could be partially attributed to the position itself: With the dismantling of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, the financial and organizational support for public diplomacy was greatly diminished. The current public diplomacy position is under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, though public affairs and public diplomacy are quite different matters and should be overseen separately.) Given these failures, some have questioned if a public diplomacy position is even needed. But public diplomacy is more important than ever and needs to be revived.
The recent failures to boost perceptions of the U.S. are not because public diplomacy is itself a bad idea, but because the policies being promoted were not accepted by foreign publics. Take the efforts of former-Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes as an example. Hughes’ strategy was to sell U.S. foreign policy, assuming that communication would lead to understanding and then admiration. But public diplomacy is not public relations for world powers. Citizens of other countries understand U.S. policies, but they do not agree with them. Future public diplomacy efforts must move beyond the outdated Cold War public diplomacy structure and work to enhance understanding between America and various publics around the world.
Second, while it is true that effective public diplomacy is vital to a successful American foreign policy, we cannot forget that smart foreign policy is vital to a successful public diplomacy. Hughes’ public diplomacy efforts were unsuccessful because our words did not align with our actions. The best public diplomacy is not a substitute for bad policy; the championing of human rights does not sit comfortably with Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Years of unilateralist foreign policy have diminished goodwill towards the U.S. The next president must ensure the U.S. lives up to the high standards it has traditionally set. Only then can we work on how our message is communicated to foreign publics.
Specifically, the next administration’s public diplomacy strategy should make U.S. foreign policy more sensitive to concerns of public diplomacy, as well as improve communication strategies and increase Congressional support for public diplomacy efforts. Fortunately, it seems that the remaining presidential candidates are aware of the power of public diplomacy and how to improve upon it. All three explicitly call for public diplomacy efforts to be increased, especially in combating violent extremism. And while they hold somewhat competing foreign policy philosophies, it is clear that the candidates all value the role public diplomacy can play in strengthening U.S. national interests across the globe.