Magazine article International Educator

Public Diplomacy: From Rhetoric to Reality

Magazine article International Educator

Public Diplomacy: From Rhetoric to Reality

Article excerpt

IN THE MONTH BEFORE HIS INAUGURATION, Barack Obama told his hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune, that he hoped to "reboot America's image around the world." He promised an unrelenting desire to create a relationship of mutual respect and partnership in countries "who want their citizens and ours to prosper together." The world, he said, "is ready for that message."

Indeed the world was waiting for such a message and the president got off to a good start. His announcement of the closing of Guantanamo, his timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, his affirmation at the G-20 summit that the United States intends to be a partner in addressing the world's challenges, his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo- all of these messages by our popular president have been well received, resulting in some improvement in Americas image among citizens of some countries.

But regardless of short-term indicators, the continuing problem of America's low standing in the minds of foreign publics threatens our national security, our economy, and our future. Anti-American sentiment has been building for a long time and reversing it requires a new commitment to public diplomacy. When polls show that America's influence in the world is still seen as more negative than positive, there is much work to be done.

For the full potential of public diplomacy to be realized, three things must happen. First, public diplomacy needs to be reemphasized and reorganized at the federal level. Second, a separate nonprofit entity should be established to supplement efforts by the government. And third, the U.S. private sector needs to be engaged and mobilized.

Specifically, the president's promised new approach to the world needs to be turned into the following actions.

Relaunch and recommit to public diplomacy at the federal level. Public diplomacy has been a backwater in the federal government for more than a decade. With the Cold War won and academician pundits such as Francis Fukayama proclaiming "the end of history" in the early 1990s, political leaders of both parties relaxed their focus on what was no longer perceived to be a crucial battle for global public opinion.

When the U.S. Information Agency was dismantled in 1998, successful programs that had made many friends for us in the former communist world- "American rooms," cultural tours, exchange programs, language training, media programs, and many others- were radically scaled back or eliminated altogether. Some of the nation's most talented Foreign Service officers were pushed aside or out the door because of significant budget cuts, organizational restructuring, and shifting geopolitical focus. Since then the lack of an overriding communications strategy, the continuation of interagency gridlock, and the absence of a broader commitment to public diplomacy have all combined to stymie progress.

Because there has been no real constituency for public diplomacy initiatives they remain grossly underfunded, receiving only three-tenths of one percent of our military budget. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has urged a "dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security-diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development"- to improve America's standing in the world.

If public diplomacy is underfunded, it follows that public diplomacy is also understaffed. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff has pointed out that the United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats. He also noted that more than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant, but that "a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring." Those positions, Kristoff said, could be filled for the cost of a single C- 17 military cargo plane.

In addition to underfunding and understaffing, U.S. public diplomacy programs are also uncoordinated and inefficiently housed in numerous government agencies, leading to inconsistent and often conflicting messages and a lack of overall accountability. …

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