Whither US Public Diplomacy?

In writing on the symbolic irony in President Bush’s visit to Monticello, (above) I took note of James Glassman’s recent statement that “our mission is not to improve America’s standing in the world.” Glassman’s comment, as the new Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, deserves more context and question. Glassman was appearing on June 23rd, with Shibley Telhami, on the PBS NewsHour, responding to recent bashing of the American government’s al-Hura Arabic language broadcasting program. Criticisms had been particularly pointed on the CBS 60 Minutes program and in the Washington Post, with the most intense fury focusing on al-Hura broadcasting speeches by Hizbullah leader Nasrallah.
Glassman had tried to short-circuit Telhami’s contention that US broadcasting has so little to show for itself, if the money was wisely spent, or if it had any chance of improving world views of America. Thus Glassman’s statement that “improving America’s image was not its mission.”
But just what then is the mission of Public Diplomacy and its broadcasting board of governors? Glassman answered that,

“Our job is to be professional broadcasters, to show the world, to show people in places like Tibet, and in Burma, and Tajikistan what a free press is like and to tell them what’s happening in their own countries.”

This is difficult terrain, as within seconds, Glassman contends that broadcasting Hibzullah’s Nasrallah was a mistake, because he’s a terrorist. Yet were al-Hura to be a “free press” impressing “the other” with how free America’s media really is, then by Glassman’s guideline, it should be able to report Nasrallah’s comments. For better or worse, Nasrallah is a “happening” in Lebanon.
I have some empathy with Glassman. He follows Charlotte Beers, Karen Hughes, et. al. into a thankless, intensely controversial role. Critics, including those within the US government, commonly proclaim that its US policies, not the medium of broadcasting, that are to blame for poor perceptions of America in the world.
Yet if anything, Mr. Glassman, perhaps reflecting his recent roles at the American Enterprise Institute, has been quite enthusiastic about the role of public diplomacy in “winning” hearts and minds abroad – in itself. Indeed, Glassman in February 2005, defined public diplomacy as,

“the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging and influencing people around the world. … Of course, policy counts most, and many foreigners simply disagree with our policies – in Iraq, on the environment, on trade. But we have a better chance of winning them over if we explain ourselves well.” (from 2/21/05 Scripps Howard News Service oped)

Glassman, as of 2005, was an enthusiastic proponent of US public diplomacy actively endeavoring to “influence” foreign publics – the “opinions of mankind.” His department’s own web site still quotes him as saying, “The task ahead…. [is to] engage in the most important ideological contest of our time – a contest that we will win.”
But when faced with the enormous difficulty of the task, we have the new Secretary declaring that, “our mission is not to improve America’s standing in the world.”
So which is it? To influence or not to influence; to engage or not; to “win” but “not improve America’s image?” Hopefully Mr. Glassman will help us untie the knot in the near future. Til we get that clarity, any readers want to take a crack at resolving this apparent tension? Am I being more dense than usual?
For discussion, two documents: First, a still excellent 2003 Harvard Review article by legendary US Ambassador Chris Ross, who offers “seven pillars of public diplomacy.” Much “wisdom” herein; Move over Lawrence. I especially think Mr. Jefferson would approve of Ross’s #7:

“The final pillar of public diplomacy recognizes that the United States must build the foundations of trust and mutual understanding through a genuine commitment to dialogue. We must listen to the world as well as speak to it. The failure to listen and to provide more avenues for dialogue will only strengthen the stereotype of the United States as arrogant, when, in fact, we are often only being inattentive.”

Secondly, consider the important 2003 Study, “Changing Minds: Winning Peace,” a report of the Congressional Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World. Chaired by another former Assistant Secretary of State, Edward Djerejian, the report helped lay the groundwork for dramatic increase in spending and reorganization of America’s “public diplomacy” efforts.
The report’s very title speaks of “changing minds” — presumably that would include improving America’s standing in the world. Members of the advisory group included Chris Ross, Shibley Telhami, and… James Glassman.

6 thoughts on “Whither US Public Diplomacy?”

  1. Scott:
    I want to respond to your thoughtful post to clear up any misunderstanding. My statement on the NewsHour that “our mission is not to improve America’s standing in the world” was a reference to U.S. international broadcasting, which is only one part of the public diplomacy effort. The BBG, with networks like Alhurra, has a clear mandate from Congress, and it is NOT to boost America’s poll ratings. It is, instead, to promote freedom and enhance understanding of the United States and its policies through the practice of professional, objective journalism. That is an enormously important mission, but it is limited. Public diplomacy’s mission is broader: to understand, inform, engage, and influence foreign publics. Thanks for allowing me to respond. — Jim Glassman

  2. Regardless of whatever is the “true mission” of Al Hurra, Arabs aren’t buying it, just as they did not buy that pathetic “Muslims in America” advertising blitz of a few years ago. They KNOW from personal experience how Arabs and Muslims are being treated by America.
    You see, Arabs are smarter than you think. They live in reality daily, and they recognize when they are being handed a pound of s*** while being told it is a bouquet of freedom roses. Even when you insist to them that it is something nice and pleasant they recognize the smell right away. So keep on insisting as much as you like that you are promoting freedom and demonstrating professional, objective journalism for the primitive brown people. As long as you are supporting and walking hand in hand with brutal, oppressive dictators, and spreading “freedom” by “shock and awe”, mass detention, torture, death, and destruction of societies, Arab people will understand what is really in that box you are handing them no matter how much pretty paper you try to wrap it in.

  3. Scott
    The best pieces of public diplomacy I have seen and heard recently were professor Joe Nye on BBC radio talking about the poor decisions made by young Mr Bush over the alst eight years and Admiral Mullen desperately trying to persuade the Israelis not to escalte the conflict.
    I thought to myself “Ah, the return of the Rational Actor”

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