President Barack Obama

The National Security Council is priding itself on a successful first year for President Barack Obama in terms of strategic communications. In a blog posting on the White House Web site, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes gave President Obama credit for his “steady diplomacy” and renewing America’s moral authority on the world stage. It is of course not surprising that the administration should want to spin its achievements at the first year mile-stone, yet for others it is hard to see the justification for the chest-pounding. As far as strategic communication and public diplomacy are concerned, it has been a year of many speeches and little substantive change or accomplishment.

The way the National Security Council looks at strategic communication is instructive. Rather than seeing it as a tool of public diplomacy, strategic communication in the Obama administration means a concerted effort across government agencies to broadcast the same message globally on specific issues at specific moments in time. This means that rather than working toward institutional public diplomacy reforms that are desperately needed (and have been documented in report after report by the foreign policy community, ranging from The Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution to CSIS and many others), the administration is focusing on messaging surrounding the President’s speeches and specific issues, using, in particular, Web sites and new media technology to reach foreign publics.

President Obama’s speech in Cairo and the burst of outreach activity that surrounded it through text messaging and social Web sites popular in the Arab world was an example. Unfortunately, it has not actually had any effect on changing the dynamics in U.S. policy toward the Middle East or increased the possibility of success in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Another instance was the President’s speech in Ghana, to which Africans across the continent were invited to comment via cell phone. (Africans have found, however, that their high hopes for the Obama presidency have not yielded any increased U.S. engagement.) The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference was another instance of the messaging of the entire U.S. government following the White House in lockstep. (But with only very limited results as far as international agreement was concerned.)

Interestingly, Rhodes also focuses on Iran as a strategic communications success story. But as in the other instances cited here, it is hard to see where the messaging has changed in any way shape or form the substance of the problem. After summarily rejecting President Obama’s outreached hand, Iran has persisted in its nuclear and missile technology programs. While Rhodes writes that “After a year of American engagement, the international community is more united than ever in calling for Iran to live up to its obligations,” the fact is that the U.N. Security Council remains as stuck as it ever was on Russian and Chinese opposition to sanctions.”

The persistent problems with U.S. public diplomacy and strategic communication are noted pointedly by Shamshad Ahmad, former foreign secretary of Pakistan, in The International News. He argues correctly that the 10-year experiment of U.S. public diplomacy after the abolition of the United States Information Agency (USIA) has been a failure because the State Department has been unable to perform the mission it inherited from USIA. As a consequence, public diplomacy has become the responsibility of the Pentagon, particularly as related to U.S. deployments overseas, making it a tool of the U.S. military, rather than of diplomacy.

This is not a winning formula as a global strategy. For instance, in the case of Pakistan, U.S. public diplomacy has not had the means to deal with the backlash to the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which tied accountability measures to U.S. aid to Pakistan, a fact considered insulting by the Pakistani government and people. Overall, despite public assurances by Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pakistanis have not seen any change in the relationship with the United States, which they resent for wanting to use them as scapegoats. “This sequence of ‘highs and lows’ turned into a love-hate relationship between the two countries,” the writer remarks.

What people around the world (especially America’s allies) are realizing after the first year of the Obama administration is that the flowing rhetoric of the President and other members of his administration are more often than not supported by no substantive change in their relationships with the United States. That is why focusing them is proving a fundamentally flawed strategy.