A New Approach: Engaging the Muslim World through Public Diplomacy

By Barron, Owen | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

A New Approach: Engaging the Muslim World through Public Diplomacy


Barron, Owen, Harvard International Review


One does not have to be a pollster or a political scientist to recognize that the current public impression of the United States in the Muslim world is dismal and unlikely to improve substantially without a drastic change in the political climate of the Middle East. The United States' image suffers from ongoing violence in Iraq, allegations of torture in Guantanamo Bay, US backing of autocratic rulers in the Middle East, and support for perceived Israeli offenses in the Holy Land, as well as the decades-old perception of the United States as a corrupt imperialist power. Recent surveys, moreover, demonstrate that positive Muslim opinion of the United States has plummeted since 9/11, and particularly since the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The decline in image, however, is only partially due to US policies in the Middle East. An essential component of all foreign policy strategies is public diplomacy--the manner in which governments communicate to citizens in other societies. The United States can cultivate a more positive impression abroad by courting foreign publics through media, educational, and cultural venues. Unfortunately, such a plan is only now beginning to materialize.

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The United States developed a public relations strategy for the Cold War in an attempt to counter negative impressions of the West during that monumental ideological struggle. Yet five years after 9/11, the government has yet to develop a comprehensive plan for diplomacy in the Muslim world. Now the Bush administration, in an attempt to make up for lost time, is moving to aggressively overhaul a defunct public relations and communication bureaucracy and reinvigorate a once-dynamic public diplomacy machine. The change is vital to US foreign policy in the Middle East as an often-overlooked facet of the US campaign for democracy in the Muslim world. Its effectiveness will depend, however, upon the nature and commitment of the diplomacy effort. Can the Bush administration tread the delicate line between sincere promotion of ideals and blatant propaganda? The United States must attempt, within a comprehensive public diplomacy framework, to reframe or reshape its policies toward greater compatibility with its foreign audience. An eager US marketing campaign coupled with contradictory foreign policy would further alienate Muslims from goodwill toward the United States and more severely hinder collaboration between the two cultures.

An Obsolete Legacy

The current quandary over the state of public diplomacy, and correspondingly, US image marketing, derives in part from the communication vacuum created after the fall of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, the United States operated a robust network of communication and propaganda campaigns, all attempting to displace Communist-implanted anti-Americanism and install a pro-Western worldview. The United States Information Agency (USIA) functioned as the nexus of this operation, funding US cultural centers and libraries across the world, awarding Fulbright scholarships for study abroad, broadcasting the Voice of America and Radio Freedom Europe, and creating hundreds of propaganda films. Indeed, the term public diplomacy is largely associated with the USIA--and also with the term "propaganda."

However controversial, the USIA was an effective organization for its time. But as the Soviet Union collapsed and the need for such a concerted pro-US communication effort dissipated, funding for USIA programs quickly disappeared as well. The money squeeze led to the closure of libraries, the reduction of cultural exchange programs, and an end to numerous US foreign broadcasting initiatives. In 1999, conservative pressure forced the Clinton administration to dismantle the USIA entirely, cut staffing by nearly 40 percent, and shunt its various agencies into poorly organized bureaucratic structures within the State Department and other organs. …

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