It is no secret that public diplomacy, a vital component of America’s strategic victory in the Cold War, has received inadequate attention in recent years. But, of course, we are still engaged in a war of ideas. Thus, the need for a public diplomacy which explains and defends our principles to the world is as needed today as it was on July 4, 1776, when the founders submitted the facts contained in the Declaration “to a candid world” out of “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”
Newly confirmed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James Glassman, recently laid out his vision for the future of public diplomacy in America. There are many ideas to be applauded. But there are also some questions to be raised.
Kudos to Glassman for understanding the need to build public diplomacy around an intellectual mission. “Cultural exchanges” are fine and good, but if America’s public diplomacy amounts to sending the national Frisbee team to the Middle East, we are not engaging in the war of ideas, which is tantamount to losing the war of ideas. Glassman clearly understands the need to engage in an intellectual defense of our moral legitimacy: “Our intention is to help build…a public diplomacy endowed with both adequate resources and with intellectual gravity.” He continues, “Our mission today in the war of ideas is highly focused. It is to use the tools of ideological engagement – words, deeds, and images – to create an environment hostile to violent extremism.”
This is precisely the direction our public diplomacy needs to take. Rather than using cultural outreach which only strengthens our enemies’ conviction that we are firmly postmodern and relativistic, it is time for our public diplomacy to make a reasoned argument on behalf of liberty and republicanism in the face of violent extremism.
But there does seem to be some confusion about how to defend our principles in the face of violent extremism. Glassman argues that “the aim of the war of ideas is not to persuade foreign populations to adopt more favorable views of America and its policies…America’s image is not at the center of the war of ideas. Our priority is not to promote our brand but to help destroy theirs.” In other words, our public diplomacy must intellectually critique violent extremism, but cannot defend our own way of life or our principles.
If our public diplomacy were to move in this direction, it would be a positive but insufficient development. There are, quite simply, two objectives to public diplomacy: to defend through rational argument the moral legitimacy of our principles, and to undermine the principles of our opponents. One cannot be achieved without the other.
In our relativistic culture, many critics argue that any attempt to defend our principles must be equivalent to propaganda. As Victor Davis Hanson recently explained in a speech delivered at Heritage, if we fall prey to the idea that there is a “moral equivalency” between our way of life and violent extremism, we will assume that any attempt to defend our principles boils down to an attempt to indoctrinate our audience. However, if the truth is that our principles are objectively superior, and to defend them is not only necessary but noble. Defending the truth is not the same thing as spreading propaganda, if one believes that such a thing as objective truth exists.