Better Public Diplomacy

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton

Mar 16, 2005

There is a troubling communication gap between the United States and the Arab world. Even as there have been potentially seismic changes in the Middle East since the Iraqi elections, the U.S is still widely mistrusted, hated or feared. Public diplomacy must be an important part of how we reverse that trend.

Public diplomacy is how America communicates with the world. Our task is to tell the truth about America as persuasively and widely as possible – about our policies, values, ideals, and even our shortcomings. We must reach audiences that are skeptical, if not hostile, to our power and purposes. That means directly addressing the lies, illusions, and misinterpretations that so often circulate about us around the globe. And it means building up the level of understanding about America and our intentions. This is no small matter. It is an essential element of how we stop people from coming here to kill us.

How are we doing? On the 9/11 Commission, we found that American public diplomacy in the Arab world is not performing well. Poll after poll makes clear that favorable views of the U.S. have plummeted in recent years, while Osama bin Laden is often viewed more favorably. As one witness told the Commission, it is unacceptable that the world's greatest power can be out-communicated by a man hiding in a cave.

We have excellent public affairs officers. But the resources we put into public diplomacy are inadequate – each year we spend on public diplomacy what the Defense Department spends in a day. Our approach also lacks nuance. Too often, people around the world feel that America is talking at them, rather than talking with them. To succeed in building trust, our public diplomacy efforts must be reinvigorated, and must cultivate a two-way dialogue with the Arab world that listens to others and builds relationships.

First, we need a stronger public affairs presence at American embassies in the Middle East. We need more libraries, English language instruction, and the kinds of cultural and educational programs that inform people about America and American values. We need more Arabic speakers staffing embassies, and better public affairs training for our diplomats. And we need to find a way to protect our diplomats without cutting them off from local populations – you cannot conduct public diplomacy from the far side of a moat.

Second, we need more exchange programs with the Arab world. There is no better way to enhance appreciation and understanding of the U.S. than through exchanges. For instance, foreign leaders always have a better grasp of our perspective when they have had the opportunity to study here. Certainly, we must monitor foreign visitors to ensure that they are who they say they are and abide by their visas. But if we wall ourselves in, we lose an opportunity to reach a generation of young Muslims. We should aim for a constant flow of people between the U.S. and the Arab world: students, scholars, performers, artists, athletes, farmers, and tourists.

Third, we need to tell our story through international broadcasting. Since 9/11, we have launched two new ventures in the Middle East – Radio Sawa and the satellite television station Alhurra. It will take time to judge the effectiveness of these experiments, but the goal of finding our voice in the Arab world must be pursued. In the Cold War, efforts like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America were important tools of outreach across the Iron Curtain. We must now be willing to invest in different formats and broadcasting concepts to communicate with the world's Muslims.

Going forward, we must recognize the limits of public diplomacy. After all, public diplomacy can only present policies, it cannot shape them. Much Arab antipathy towards the United States is based upon our support for repressive regimes in the region, the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict, and our presence in Iraq. On each of these three points, we can take tangible steps forward in the coming years: by supporting pragmatic political reform towards democracy, pursuing a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and building a stable and self-governing Iraq founded upon democratic principles.

Today, too many Arabs grow up with a distorted and negative view of America. Often our sins are exaggerated, our intentions misstated, and our good deeds unrecognized. We bear some responsibility for these misperceptions. To better communicate with the Arab world and protect the American people, the United States must enhance its efforts to convey our message of freedom, hope, opportunity, and justice.

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