Friday, December 23, 2016

Could Trump actually modernize American diplomacy?

Brett Bruen, The Hill

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There’s little about Donald Trump that I like. His destructive policies, his assaults on an array of groups from women to Muslims, and his loose loyalty to the truth are profoundly offensive. It was therefore particularly surprising when I started to consider an astonishing idea: could Trump actually enhance America’s public diplomacy?

There are a lot of reasons to believe he’ll do just the opposite. He’s deeply unpopular in many parts of the globe. Trump Tower has shown little interest in diplomacy or the State Department during the first weeks of the president-elect’s transition. He seems more focused on tearing down than building anything up.

Even so, there are few modern figures who have mastered the art of crafting and controlling the message like the Donald. He just might end up modernizing our government’s global messaging machine in a way that few others could.

Public diplomacy has had a tough stretch. Despite a $777 million budget, Hillary Clinton called the Voice of America and other international media efforts “defunct.” Propaganda from ISIS, Russia and other adversaries has proven more viral than most of the communications campaigns produced by the U.S. government and our allies. The State Department spends far too much of its time these days playing on defense, rather than advancing our story around the world. We counter misinformation, instead of creating the context in which we want to have a constructive conversation.

If Trump knows how to do anything, it is setting the agenda and controlling the story. He understands how to successfully package a policy message inside a few layers of emotional wrapping. His social media skills have proven exceptionally effective at removing the press, pundits and powerful from the equation. Instead, he delivers the message directly to his audience in a way that really resonates.

Imagine if America could do the same with key groups around the world?

Trump and his team can vastly improve the skills, strategies and structures of our government to drive the global debate in a way we haven’t since the Cold War. They could inject some of the latest tactics and tradecraft to make America’s message more influential abroad. Perhaps the new administration could also finish the difficult bureaucratic reforms we began under President Obama.

While I was at the White House, we aggressively undertook building new global engagement initiatives and modernizing public diplomacy programs that remained stuck in a bygone era. Massive exchanges for emerging leaders from Africa, Asia and the Americas were launched. Our work on global entrepreneurship, civil society and international education brought in billions of dollars in support from businesses, universities and nongovernmental groups. Yet, we faced an uncooperative Congress and a deluge of international crises. Trump may well have an easier time on both the domestic and foreign political fronts. His bulldozing brand and the public support it has garnered can aid in undertaking major reforms.

American public diplomacy never fully recovered after the Cold War. We shuttered libraries and cultural centers overseas. We dismantled the United States Information Agency and folded it into the State Department. I witnessed first-hand how it struggled to find its place and reconstruct its purpose. There are many outdated programs that still supposedly “expose foreigners to America.” These were successful when the Soviet Union walled off large swath of the globe. Our challenge today is more one of information saturation and manipulation, rather than its absence. We now need more effective means of shaping the conversation and influencing the direction of the debate.

Without question, placing Trump at the controls comes with myriad risks. Steve Bannon and Breibart’s brand of fearmongering has no place in government. It would betray core American principles were they to try and transform our public diplomacy apparatus into a personal, political or propaganda tool. They should not be allowed to use public resources to spread a partisan agenda, at home or abroad.

Nonetheless, if I set aside my partisan bias, I am left acknowledging their remarkable abilities as communicators and hopeful that they might in fact imbue our public institutions with some of their knowhow.

I am under no illusions that I’ll agree with half of what Trump’s administration will churn out. Yet our nation’s public diplomacy exists to further the president’s foreign policy. Donald Trump has the right to mold the message and means around his goals. Many diplomats may not be able to carry out his agenda or withstand his unorthodox approach to foreign policy. Those that remain, though, may appreciate exposure to and acquire an array of exceptional strategic communications capabilities. These skills could prove critical to enabling our country to facedown an increasingly critical, competitive and complex global marketplace of ideas.

Trump’s policies may be wrong, but many of his tools are right. In the long run, they could enhance America’s ability to take on major challenges and win over key audiences around the world with this president or the next.

Brett Bruen was director of global engagement in President Obama’s White House and a U.S. diplomat posted to Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq and Madagascar. He is currently president of the consulting firm Global Situation Room and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the Federal Executive Institute.

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