Of War and Public Diplomacy

January 19, 2007 Region: Americas

Of War and Public Diplomacy

Can U.S. diplomats win friends and influence people with an unpopular war raging in Iraq? With these seven cardinal rules, and an eye to 2009, the answer may be yes.

Attitudes towards America-and Americans-continue to decline in the Middle East and beyond, according to recent Zogby International polls. This phenomenon deals much more than a pride's blow to American sensitivities: people in foreign lands exercise growing influence over America's ability to advance its national interests.

But at a time when the United States is engaged in an unpopular war in Iraq, how can diplomats craft a public diplomacy strategy realistically? If, as seems likely, a radical recovery of favorable foreign opinion towards the United States is not possible in the short term, just what are diplomats and strategists to do? For starters, they must play down their own role. Below are the seven cardinal rules for shoring up America's image amid souring global sentiment and an ongoing war that continues to foster that sentiment:

Play to strengths: People in foreign lands still love some things about America: our technology and innovation; sense of limitless opportunity; meritocracy and higher education. All of these things have long contributed to America's soft power and continue to have appeal.

Social scientists tell us that maintaining complex attitudes is difficult for people to do, since our brains are not wired for complexity. But maintaining complex, and sometimes conflicting, attitudes towards America abroad-i.e., disliking some of our policies while still respecting our values-is critical to our national interests. If foreigners interpret our words and actions in the worst possible light, achieving our foreign policy goals will become ever more difficult.

Deliver deeds, not just words: Tangible acts most effectively convey the values Americans stand for. Building schools, digital libraries or women's health clinics or promoting entrepreneurship and access to education and training substantively reflect America's commitment to improving human welfare and opportunities for all.

Lower the profile: Now is not the time for high profile, new initiatives by the U.S. government. Instead, diplomacy should emphasize promoting initiatives led by private sector and civil society organizations, which currently may be more appealing to foreign audiences. Seeing an America that is willing to sit at the table-engaged as a cooperative party rather than a leading voice-would do more to enhance America's image.

Don't forget old friends: Even among key NATO allies, positive outlooks towards America are on the wane. Only 56 percent of Britons, 37 percent of Germans, and 12 percent of Turks hold favorable opinions of the United States, down from 83 percent, 78 percent and 52 percent in 1999 and 2000. To reverse this trend, diplomacy must not overlook the West.

Keep at it: Public diplomacy does not, as one seasoned practitioner put it, stand for "pixie dust." It cannot be sprinkled on bad circumstances or unpopular policies to make them magically more appealing. But that doesn't mean it is not worth doing, or doing even more. Diplomacy is not a short-term endeavor. Battles to win hearts and minds may yield tactical victories, but it is the longer war of ideas that matters.

Keep rebuilding: Public diplomacy is a numbers game. Our nation must reach literally millions of people who, as democracy spreads, increasingly have a say on whether their governments can support American objectives. Even in non-democracies, street sentiment can significantly influence policy.

While greater funding is now being allocated to U.S. diplomacy after massive post-Cold War budget cuts and the elimination of the United States Information Agency, the U.S. still has a long way to go. Demographics and technology complicate diplomatic efforts. About 60 percent of the Middle East is under thirty and in countries like Syria, Iran and Libya, many in this age group have had limited exposure to American perspectives. At the same time, satellite television and the internet mean more channels for anti-American voices. Responding to these challenges will take resources, infrastructure and high-level support from Congress and the White House. If our government does public diplomacy on the cheap, Americans will get what we pay for.

Plan for 2009: The next president will have an enormous opportunity to rebuild global trust in America, regardless of who wins the 2008 election. A new president can claim a fresh start in our relations with the world. But this window of opportunity will not last long. Diplomatic strategists must lay the groundwork for that opportunity over the next two years-and they will need all that time to get it right.

Kristin Lord is associate dean of The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and a member of the university's Public Diplomacy Institute.