Wednesday, November 4th 2015
Less than a month after President Obama’s inauguration, Marc Lynch thought through “the future of public diplomacy and strategic communications.” A lot of water has passed under the bridge since he wrote “Public diplomacy and strategic communications: ‘The Conversation,’” in Foreign Policy in February, 2009, but his essay remains worthwhile reading. Here are many bullets:
- Neither the Pentagon’s strategic communications nor traditional public diplomacy is adequate to the task facing Obama.
- Nor will changing foreign policy alone be enough, since almost anything the US does today will be met with suspicion. Improving America’s relations with the Muslim world will require a dramatically new approach to engagement . . . .
- Is the US primarily engaged in a “war of ideas” in which the primary mission is defeating the adversary? Or is it engaged in building long-term relationships of trust and support for broadly defined American foreign policy objectives?
- Are Arab and Muslim audiences objects to be manipulated or partners to be engaged respectfully?
- . . . will America’s engagement with the world be defined and managed by a security-orientated “strategic communications” doctrine directed by the Pentagon?
- The most important starting point is to recognise that American policy is the most critical issue. No amount of public diplomacy will convince Arabs or Muslims to embrace American actions they detest.
- It has always been ludicrous to believe that effective foreign policy could be made without understanding and anticipating the responses of the other parties.
- That starts with listening. The US needs to do a far better job of listening to what Arabs and Muslims are saying and taking their views seriously. This must include listening to voices beyond the usual circle of friends and like-minded officials.
- In practice, this means that American officials should watch and appear on Al Jazeera, no matter uncomfortable they find it. How can they possibly hope to understand how Arabs feel about Gaza if they don’t engage with the TV station most influential in shaping those views?
- The explosion of internet participation – in forums, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so forth – could be used to increase the points of view heard (preferably with a focus on those written in Arabic, Persian or other local languages). Public Affairs Officers could do more to get out of embassies, despite the security risks, and engage with as wide a segment of the public as possible.
- This listening needs smart filters, though. One of the largely undiscussed problems with increased American strategic communications operations is the issue of “blowback” – when policymakers start believing their own propaganda. Blowback happens, for instance, when the US military spreads “good news” stories in the Iraqi media that are then picked up by American journalists and reported in the United States. Blowback happens when the US facilitates the spread of rumours aimed at discrediting al Qa’eda which then enter the American media bloodstream. This is not necessarily intentional, but it may sometimes be so, when the military defines American public support as a crucial battlefield.
- . . . all this talking and listening will be wasted if the feedback is not incorporated into policy. As one wit put it at the Reinventing Public Diplomacy conference, you can’t improve your marriage merely by listening to your wife when she says it’s time to take out the trash – at some point you had better actually do it.
- . . . better listening should give American officials more ideas about where and how policies could be adjusted, identifying points of common interest in a more subtle and nuanced way.
- Americans also need to recognise that the days of tailoring different messages to foreign and domestic audiences are long past. Today’s globalised media environment ensures that Arabs and Muslims can scrutinise every detail of the administration’s policies – from speeches intended for domestic audiences to seemingly obscure personnel decisions. It no longer makes sense to think in terms of a firewall separating “American” and “international” political discourse.
- The traditional instruments of public diplomacy can and should be enhanced, particularly to reach millions of Arab and Muslim youth. Exchange programmes should be encouraged and visa problems dealt with more effectively, while more funding should go to support English-language instruction, libraries and speaker series in Muslim countries.
- There is an emerging consensus about the urgent importance of such a new public diplomacy for Obama’s foreign policy objectives. Arabs and Muslims should recognise their own stake in the realisation of this new vision for global engagement and a public diplomacy based on genuine dialogue – and give the new outreach a chance.
- Undermining al Qa’eda and combating extremism are important. But they should only be one small part of America’s engagement with the Arab world. There is a vast majority of politically aware Arabs and Muslims whose fury at American policy has nothing to do with Islamic extremism. The new public diplomacy must reach out to that mainstream, with words and deeds alike.