A newly published study by the American Security Project (ASP), “The New Public Diplomacy Imperative,” highlights public diplomacy (PD) as a crucial element of our national security strategy and details the many obstacles for U.S. public diplomacy to reach its potential.
Over the past few decades, a new interest in America’s image has been fueled by the rise in terrorism and the subsequent war on terrorism. As Professor Barry Sanders, author of American Avatar: the United States in the Global Imagination, stated at a Heritage Foundation event, “resentments prevent collaboration.” Not only that, but it breeds violence.
Foreign opinion matters because it is an important factor in shaping world events. The U.S. government acknowledged as much in its 2010 National Security Strategy:
The United States Government will make a sustained effort to engage civil society and citizens and facilitate increased connections among the American people and peoples around the world.
Yet ASP and many other organizations such as the Heritage Foundation have argued that steps should be taken to increase its effectiveness. Since the State Department took over the responsibilities of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, the organization and focus of America’s PD mission has been lacking. The position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, which was created in 1999, has remained unfilled 30 percent of the time since its creation, with an average tenure of 512 days.
Case studies cited by ASP help illustrate the challenges of PD in practice. For instance, President Obama’s 2009 “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo was an attempt to make amends with the Muslim world. It was masterful in its wording and was generally well received. But because Obama made many promises that he never fulfilled—including a number outside his control—the result was more skepticism among Arab Muslims.
The ASP study also highlights the need for metrics in PD. Yet finding appropriate metrics for evaluating PD has traditionally been an area of ambiguity and difficulty. As the effects of good PD are often seen over the course of a generation, they can be exceedingly difficult to track. Perhaps an effective method for collecting PD metrics lies in one of its fundamental tenets: listening. It is through feedback from the targets of our PD efforts that we will learn the most about how we are doing as communicators and understand how we need to improve.
Indeed, much of the debate over how to improve U.S. public diplomacy from a structural standpoint has fallen on deaf ears among policy makers who can change it. Content may be part of the problem. What is the message the U.S. is trying to convey, and how do we connect it to good policy that is consistent with American ideals and increases national security?
As ASP author Matthew Wallin writes, “In order to maximize the effectiveness of public diplomacy, the U.S. must first and foremost strengthen the quality of its narrative and strategic messaging.” Only after fixing the content will American PD be able to gather the support it needs to make headway again both on Capitol Hill—and abroad.