Ambassadors to the World: A New Paradigm for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication

Article excerpt

Political communication is no different than any other form of communication.

In Joint Force Quarterly 55 (4th Quarter 2009), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen eloquently stated not only a political truth, but also an axiom of any effective communication: "[W]e need to worry less about how to communicate our actions and more about what our actions communicate." People have a general sensitivity to things inauthentic.

The fact is, whether the venue is international relations or interpersonal relations, people are now exposed to a great number of channels and messages, including hearsay and propaganda. All inputs that get through the initial gatekeeper of "personal relevancy" are put through a Cuisinart-like cognitive process wherein ingredients are modified by the receiver's preexisting beliefs and current emotions. Action and talk are given roughly equal weight.

What strategic communication with the Muslims of the world requires is talk that is experienced by the receiver as an action, as a behavior. How can this be done?

The core task for U.S. public diplomacy is not persuasion, but evoking the bond of identification in the service of people's sense of self-expansion. People-all people--possess a story about themselves that they tell to themselves, involving aspects of their lives that are latent and not fully constituted. If we can show that we understand them and the stories they have about themselves, their attachment to and regard for us will grow. This kind of connection can only be achieved if Americans relate to foreign publics in terms of the paradoxes, existential dilemmas, core narratives, and self-images that are the most important aspects in all our lives.

If practitioners of U.S. public diplomacy are ever going to understand how we have come to our current impasse with much of the world and move beyond it, we must first listen and comprehend the emotional-logic of people's subjective experience of events. In our current situation, we lack the mutual sense of connectivity and trust with the rest of the world necessary to achieve that. Instead, a different focus and bold shift in direction are needed.

To boost our public diplomacy efforts, the United States should appoint a dozen or so "ambassadors to the world" who would be responsible for representing American views to foreign peoples, not governments. Their writ should also run in the opposite direction. They should also be responsible for explaining the emotional-logic of foreign attitudes to the American public and representing these perceptions within the counsels of our government.

The United States needs not only a new bureaucratic mechanism for making sure the perceptions of foreign publics are taken into account by policymakers, but also a better way to understand foreign states of mind.

Pay Attention to the mind

A large part of the problem is that current models of persuasion--in government as well as the corporate world--date from the 1950s. They have not incorporated the latest insights from modern research about what causes people to embrace ideas. What we need is a new paradigm for U.S. strategic communication and public diplomacy that draws on the latest discoveries about human nature and the nature of the mind.

The "push-down" theories of persuasion--public diplomacy strategies that rely on logic and facts, and even the concept of "winning hearts and minds"--are all obsolete models of communications. People cannot be persuaded of something that they do not instinctively believe.

Modern research shows that people reason "emotionally," often see the world in the contradictory terms of paradox, and crave the respect and satisfaction that only comes when they feel their identities--more than their interests--are understood and valued.

In turn, the power to influence others emanates from displaying understanding, insightful empathy, and inclusive leadership--not a recitation of the merits of one's position or reasons why others should be grateful, which often generates resistance and resentment. …