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5 July 2005

A Useful Time Out for Public Diplomacy

Kim Andrew Elliott
 
           Karen Hughes, President’s Bush’s nominee to be Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, has asked that her nomination be delayed until autumn for family reasons. This could be a useful delay. In March, when her nomination was announced, a torrent of advice for her issued forth, from 300-word editorials in small town newspapers to 80-page white papers from prestigious think tanks.  These writings indicate disagreement and even confusion among experts about what public diplomacy is and what it can do. 

        The recommendations about public diplomacy can be divided, roughly, into three baskets:

1) Public opinion abroad can be turned around if spending on public diplomacy is increased, back to Cold War levels, the way Ronald Reagan did it. New agencies should be created, or the U.S. Information Agency revived, or a coordinator at the White House level added.

             Heroic spending of the taxpayers’ money and the addition of new bureaucracies will not suddenly make unpopular policies popular or turn dictatorships into democracies.  The United States Information Agency was created in 1953, but communism in Europe didn’t fall until 1991.  The goals set by Ms. Hughes, and the expectations placed on her, should be realistic.

2) No matter how much it is expanded, no amount of public diplomacy will make the United States popular, given U.S. conduct in the world.  In other words, “it’s the policy, stupid.”  

            Foreign public opinion should be taken into account in policymaking, but this will probably not, in most cases, result in policy change. Practitioners of public diplomacy must explain U.S. policies as they exist. This is not a futile exercise. Public diplomacy can combat disinformation and misinformation by reducing misunderstanding of U.S. policies. If people abroad don’t agree with U.S. policies, at least they will know why U.S, officials have adopted such policies, and that those policies are debated in our democratic society. Even a modest shift in a country’s public opinion from “dislike strongly” to “dislike somewhat” is progress, enough perhaps change behavior from “commit terrorism” to “demonstrate loudly.”   

            Because very few people would watch or listen to a full time channel devoted to putting a positive spin on U.S. policies, the best way for public diplomacy to have an impact is to work with media already popular in the target areas. One way to do this is to convince successful media outlets abroad to interview U.S. policymakers and spokespersons. Another method would be, where possible, to purchase advertisements in newspapers or on television.  These would, plainly and calmly and without gimmicks, set the record straight when there is distortion of U.S. policies or actions.

3) Changes and improvements must be made to U.S. international broadcasting, which includes Alhurra, Radio Sawa, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, etc.

            This advice is misdirected. Karen Hughes would not have executive authority over U.S. international broadcasting. Legislation in the 1990s separated U.S. international broadcasting from public diplomacy the beltway. U.S. international broadcasting is now supervised by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a bipartisan body of eight members plus the secretary of state as an ex officio member. This one vote gives the State Department input but not control over international broadcasting. 

            The independence of international broadcasting was codified because people tune to foreign radio or television channels mostly where domestic media are state controlled.  They listen to or watch the station that provides the most comprehensive and reliable coverage about what is happening in their own countries and elsewhere in the world. Credibility in the essential ingredient of successful international broadcasting.     

            Some experts have called for U.S. international broadcasting to be reconsolidated and better coordinated with U.S. public diplomacy. This makes sense only from a bureaucratic perspective. It looks nice on an organizational chart. But audiences abroad would spot the  “coordination” almost immediately, noting the spin where the objective and balanced treatment of current affairs used to be. They will have none of it. They will tune elsewhere, probably to the BBC.

               Britain spends less on international broadcasting than the United States, but its BBC World Service has more audience, more impact, and more prestige than any international broadcaster. This is because British decision makers have understood since before World War II that the advocacy function of public diplomacy and the news function of international broadcasting can succeed if they are complementary. They should be conducted by separate agencies, from separate buildings, with separate bosses.

Kim Andrew Elliott, expressing his own views, is an audience research analyst in the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau. 

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