Obama's exclusive <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAnQASZS-70">Al Arabiya interview</a>.
Obama's exclusive Al Arabiya interview.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: The New Ethic of Public Diplomacy

Feb 18, 2009

Pundits and reporters have been buzzing this week about the lack of a formal announcement from the Obama Administration on who will be the next U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. All bets are still on Judith McHale, the former CEO of Discovery Communications, whose name first appeared in Al Kamen's January 23 Washington Post column.

Spencer Ackerman reported on February 17 that an announcement is likely in the "coming days," and his article explores some of the organizational machinations that the new appointee will inherit.

George Washington University political scientist and ForeignPolicy.com blogger Marc Lynch has softened but not reversed his initial stance on McHale's lack of a "background in public diplomacy or strategic communications," and he argues that the choice for under secretary of public diplomacy would be less crucial if someone like Denis McDonough were appointed to oversee strategic communications at the National Security Council. From that position, writes Lynch, McDonough would perhaps be better situated to balance strategic communications and public diplomacy priorities between the State Department and the Pentagon.

A February 17 op-ed by Lawrence Pintak and William Rugh in Lebanon's Daily Star calls for "A new Murrow for US Public Diplomacy." Pintak is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years covering the Middle East and Rugh is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and to Yemen. They make the case that the new appointee should have experience in journalism—namely that this job is not a PR position for "selling Uncle Ben's Rice" but rather one where Uncle Sam needs someone who Americans trust "to explain the world to them."

I tend to side with Rugh and Pintak (I'm currently collaborating with Pintak on a project), but the overall discussion is missing something critical—call it the ethics of public diplomacy. Although it's important to focus on the lack of an appointment and on the structural issues of getting public diplomacy working again, we must not lose sight of the heart of the public diplomacy mission.

Ackerman ends his article with a quote from James Glassman, the most recent under secretary for public diplomacy, where he states that it "is a national-security job, it's not a PR job." I have written favorably about Glassman for his innovative and non-bureaucratic approach to technology, but I disagree with him on this point.

From my perspective, it's neither strictly national security nor strictly PR. Strong national security and solid public relations depend upon good relations between cultures. Public diplomacy in its most successful form is authentic communication of our culture with other cultures. This will require an unprecedented level of nuance and open-mindedness to be successful in the post-Bush era, and it gets to the heart of the battle over what public diplomacy is: Is it messaging or dialogue? A conversation or propaganda? "Governments will increasingly be judged by their actions" and not by their self-descriptions, writes British diplomat Carne Ross for Europe's World.

In wartime it is easy to over-emphasize the importance of information warfare in countering extremist messages. But just as reconstruction is a critical part of post-war planning, so too should the quality of narratives be contemplated from a long-term perspective.

Information warfare is funded at levels radically disproportionate to funding for public diplomacy, as Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Kristin Lord points out in the Christian Science Monitor (October 29, 2008). According to Lord, the "Department of Defense will pay private contractors $300 million over three years to produce news and entertainment programs for the Iraqi public." That figure is "equivalent to roughly one-eighth of the State Department's entire public diplomacy budget for the entire world."

If public diplomacy is to include information warfare, then we must also supplement it with something fresh to ensure that we are communicating with the world in an authentic way—in a way that the world will at least listen and, at best, trust.

The election of President Obama did not give us a clean global slate, but his Guantanamo directive and other overtures certainly make things look tidier. Obama is well received worldwide and there was a positive response to his first public diplomacy maneuver—an exclusive interview with Middle East broadcaster Al Arabiya. As Rita J. King and I outlined in our Carnegie Council report "Digital Diplomacy," communication in the twenty-first century will be about dialogue, not messaging. And the heart and soul of such communications must be authentic and ethical, otherwise it's just more propaganda.

Joshua S. Fouts is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He was the founding director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. He is the co-author, with Rita J. King, of the Carnegie Council report "Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds."

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