Sunday, November 12, 2017

Public Diplomacy: Ideas for the War of Ideas

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Peter Krause, Stephen Van Evera

Mr. Krause is a Ph.D. candidate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) political science department. Dr. Van Evera is Ford international professor of political science at MIT, acting director of the MIT Security Studies Program, and chair of the Tobin Project national security working group.

The United States cannot defeat al-Qaeda by strength of arms alone. It must also change the terms of debate in the Arab/Muslim world, especially in its radical wing. How can this best be accomplished? What strategy should the United States adopt for what is often called the “war of ideas” against radical Islam?

The Barack Obama administration has vastly improved on its predecessor’s approach to the war of ideas. As a result, the global terms of debate have improved since the change of administrations in January 2009. But recent U.S. gains are shallow and reversible. They fall short of the change in opinion needed to defeat the al-Qaeda network. Moreover, they mainly reflect President Obama’s subtle instinct for public persuasion. As such, they could be undone by a change in U.S. leadership. These gains should be consolidated by embedding them in stable policies that will create and sustain favorable terms of debate over the long term.

Accordingly, we survey and assess recent and current U.S. public diplomacy toward the Muslim world and offer suggestions for improvement. A theme of these suggestions is that U.S. public diplomacy should emphasize dialogue over one-way monologue. Instead of simply turning up the volume of its message, the United States should provide mechanisms for Americans and the world’s Muslims to talk to one another.

A second theme is that U.S. public diplomacy should emphasize objective facts over propaganda. A third is that U.S. public diplomacy should convey respect to the audience. A fourth theme is that the United States should contest the al-Qaeda narrative directly; an indirect discussion that leaves al-Qaeda’s claims unrefuted is not enough. A fifth is that new nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that address pernicious ideas around the world could help defeat the al-Qaeda narrative. Bringing these NGOs into being should be considered. A sixth theme is that conflicts involving Muslims feed the al-Qaeda narrative; hence, the United States should adopt a more muscular policy aimed at dampening conflicts involving Muslims as a part of its war of ideas.1 ...
Al-Qaeda is a grotesque movement. Its leaders preach hate against most of the world, including the vast share of the Muslim world that rejects their view of Islam. They and their allies have murdered many thousands of Muslims and other innocents. Their extreme Islamist political model has already been tried with disastrous results in Afghanistan, Sudan and Iran. The al-Qaeda leaders are hiding in caves, with no state apparatus to amplify their message.

Such a movement should be easy to discredit and defeat. Yet al-Qaeda has so far fought the world’s sole superpower to a stalemate in the worldwide struggle for hearts and minds. As a result, U.S. prospects in the larger war against al-Qaeda are uncertain. Together with its Taliban allies, al-Qaeda now threatens Afghanistan and has expanded its domain of control in Pakistan. From its redoubts in these countries it continues to threaten the wider world, including the United States. Victory against al-Qaeda is nowhere in sight and will not be won until the United States changes the terms of debate in the Muslim world through success in the dialogue of ideas.

U.S. failure in this dialogue reflects a failure of strategy. The past U.S. emphasis on monologue over dialogue and advocacy over objective facts, combined with an insufficiently respectful tone, often made U.S. public diplomacy ineffective. U.S. leaders also failed to launch initiatives to directly contest the al-Qaeda narrative and deflate pernicious ideas that support it.

There is also a failure to commit sufficient resources to the task. For many years, both the Congress and the Executive Branch have dismissed public diplomacy as unimportant, believing it deserved only a token amount of money and leadership talent.

The United States has suffered, and al-Qaeda has benefited, from these mistakes. The U.S. government should now recognize that national security requires a capacity to shape debate abroad. It should develop a sound strategy for this mission and commit resources that are appropriate to its vital importance.100
(1). This article is informed by recommendations for improving U.S. public diplomacy offered by scholars and public-policy practitioners in recent years, including Geoffrey Cowan and Nicholas J. Cull, special eds., Public Diplomacy in a Changing World, special edition of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 616 (March 2008); Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World (Washington, DC, 2003, a.k.a. “The Djerejian Report”); William A. Rugh, “Repairing American Public Diplomacy,” Arab Media & Society (February, 2009); Mike Canning, The Overseas Post: The Forgotten Element of our Public Diplomacy (Public Diplomacy Council, December 1, 2008); William A. Rugh, Enabling Public Diplomacy Officers to Do Their Jobs (Public Diplomacy Council, December 20, 2008); William A. Rugh, ed., Engaging the Arab and Islamic Worlds through Public Diplomacy: A Report and Action Recommendations (Public Diplomacy Council, 2004); Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement, Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World (U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project, 2008); Craig Charney and Nicole Yakatan, A New Beginning: Strategies for a More Fruitful Dialogue with the Muslim World (CRS No. 7, Council on Foreign Relations, May 2005); 2005 Report of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, 2005); 2008 Report of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, 2008); Kristin M. Lord, Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century (Brookings, November 2008); Hady Amr, The Need to Communicate: How to Improve U.S. Public Diplomacy with the Arab World (Brookings, 2004); Finding America’s Voice: A Strategy for Reinvigorating U.S. Public Diplomacy, Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations (Council on Foreign Relations, September 2003); and Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication (Defense Science Board, 2008). Compendiums of recent writings on public diplomacy include Nancy Snow and Philip M. Taylor, Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (Routledge, 2009); and Jan Melissen, The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations (Palgrave, 2005). A source of original documents on public diplomacy is J. Michael Waller, The Public Diplomacy Reader (Washington, DC: Institute of World Politics Press, 2007). A survey of relevant history is found in William A. Rugh, American Encounters with Arabs: The ‘Soft Power’ of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006). A broad statement on strategy that includes useful discussion of public diplomacy is Alice E. Hunt, Kristin M. Lord, John A. Nagl and Seth D. Rosen, eds., Beyond Bullets: Strategies for Countering Violent Extremism (Center for a New American Security, June 2009). ...

(100). The George W. Bush administration did publish a public diplomacy strategy, U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, in June 2007. This document includes a number of sound recommendations but does not echo the themes we stress here: dialogue over monologue, objective facts over polemics, showing respect, and creating new U.S. capacity to contest the al-Qaeda narrative and to deflate pernicious ideas that support it.

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