'Cultural Diplomacy' Is Key to Winning Hearts and Minds

Article excerpt

Over the years, the United States government has targeted a string of foreign individuals destined for greatness and brought them to America to be steeped in the culture and ways of Americans, and be exposed to the strengths and weaknesses of the American political system. They came on an international visitor program and though they may not have necessarily agreed with the policies of any particular administration, they generally left with warm memories of individual Americans and respect for American institutions.

The list includes people such as the late Anwar Sadat, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and later Prime Minister Tony Blair, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. It is tempting to speculate whether Saddam Hussein, had he visited the US on this program, might have taken a different tack in his relationship with the US.

Most of these visits were orchestrated by the United States Information Agency (USIA) as part of its public diplomacy mission - engaging in dialogue with the publics of other nations, and spreading understanding of US principles and values.

With the demise of the cold war, public diplomacy ceased to be a priority and funding for it declined sharply. US cultural centers, libraries, and information offices abroad were closed. Finally, in 1999, USIA was abolished, its remnants located in the State Department. Today the budget for educational and cultural programs is about 4 percent of the overall State Department budget and about three-tenths of 1 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget.

The private sector continues with some of the former programs. Journalistic organizations, for example, bring key editors to the US to study American media organizations in all their strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, teachers and doctors and writers are hosted by various professional groups, but resources for such programs are generally leaner than even those available through government programs.

Since 9/11 and the thrusting of the US into a new war, this time against terrorism, the value of a public diplomacy program in addition to military operations has become evident. Influencing public opinion in lands where Al Qaeda and its satellite groups are seeking dominance is an imperative. It is also a long-term project. In Iraq, for instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested American involvement may require "a generational commitment." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned that of even greater concern than today's terrorists, may be the mind-set of a coming generation throughout the Islamic world which has long been subjected to the angry teachings in the madrassahs, or Islamist schools, of the region. …