Hillary Clinton, Public Diplomacy, and the Middle East

America’s public diplomacy should be focused on fostering ideas in our interest that matter in key foreign audiences, not just on pro-America image marketing.

In her response to “Questions for the Record” in the confirmation process, Secretary of State-designate Senator Hilary Clinton signaled a focus for public diplomacy that is unlikely to bolster national security and other foreign policy interests in the coming years. She seems poised to base her leadership of U.S. public diplomacy on the unexamined assumption that promoting America itself should be the primary, perhaps even sole, objective of U.S. public diplomacy.

The primary example Senator Clinton provided for what she would do for public diplomacy as Secretary of State was “. . . opening ‘America Houses’ in cities across the Arab world, which will be modeled on the successful program the United States launched following World War II.” (America Houses were publicly accessible centers featuring American books and films, and hosting events about America.)

The mere fact—cited by Senator Clinton herself—that these America Houses were particularly effective during the Cold War, under different circumstances, should give cause to question, not necessarily cause to embrace, this approach.

More fundamentally, we need to step back and question the underlying assumption that public diplomacy means promoting the U.S.A. This approach yielded unimpressive results the past few years, and there is little reason to expect an improvement now.

When foreign audiences are deeply concerned with other topics, are angry at us, and don’t want to hear about us, a “Let me tell you about America . . .” approach could do more to agitate than to convince. Look at what happened to China during the 2008 Olympic torch relay, when China apparently thought it could improve its image by increasing attention on China in the media. China was out of touch with audiences in Europe and North America, where concern about Chinese human rights abuses was at the fore. When China raised its profile in the news media through the Olympic torch relay, these audiences responded with an angry sense of “China?? You want to talk about China?!? Sure, let’s do that . . .” and they went on to heap negative attention on China in public protests and news editorials. The result was, arguably, a net loss for China’s public image.

How does this translate to American public diplomacy? Consider the Palestinians in Gaza today. America needs a strategy to engage this foreign audience (not just their political leaders) in a manner that supports our national interests. It is unlikely that erecting an “America House” and telling them about the U.S.A. is going to alleviate their current concerns or reduce the number of rockets Hamas is launching into Israel. I expect it would instead provoke an anti-American backlash even stronger than the current anti-Americanism in Gaza, and could even fuel motivation for increasing rocket launches into Israel.

This is as true outside of the crisis zone. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, to name just a few, we have more to gain from an increase in protection of freedom of speech, to allow for progressive Muslim media, than from pushing more stories about America into these populations, especially with the youth.

As an alternative to the self-promotion definition of public diplomacy that Senator Clinton seems to have adopted without much reflection, we need to consider alternative frameworks for public diplomacy. One possible definition I propose is this:

Public diplomacy engages foreign audiences to promote ideas, issues, and concepts that are in our national interest.

There is, to be sure, an important role for telling people about America, and there are times and audiences for which this is in our national interest. But at other times, with other audiences, we may have more to gain by setting ourselves aside and engaging their issues instead. It is not always about us. We need to stop behaving like a child belting out what one might call opera voice training, namely, “me, me, me, me, me.”

This is particularly important for U.S. engagement of foreign Muslim populations. There is currently a large-scale intra-Muslim struggle underway over the future of Islam. In a nutshell (though recognizing that the overall struggle is highly complex), the core struggle is between Muslims who view Islam as inherently totalitarian and Muslims who consider civility to be an inherent part of Islam.

America needs to have government officials focused on effective engagement that supports our national interests in this struggle. While this intra-Muslim struggle is not a fight for our government, it is vital that we do what we can to facilitate creation, growth, and protection of free and open public space for engagement by Muslims. The last item, protection, is particularly important. Protection codified in a constitution and protected by a fair judiciary is what prevents fundamentalist groups from manipulating open forums to gain power precisely in order to shut them down.

But whose job is this? If Secretary of State-designate Clinton adopts the assumption that public diplomacy only means promoting America, then whose job is it to engage foreign audiences strategically? Our strategic interests in foreign populations go far beyond trying to get them to wear “I ♥ America” baseball caps.

As a concrete example of the problem that large-scale, strategically astute engagement of foreign audiences seems to be no one’s job in the U.S. government, I recently mentioned the need to get Tahar Djaout’s important novel The Last Summer of Reason translated into Arabic. Getting this freedom-and-human-dignity-promoting Algerian novel translated from the French original into Arabic is in our national interest on a myriad of levels. But, whose job is such a task? Certainly not State Department public diplomacy, if their job is defined narrowly as just promoting the U.S.A.

There is a Book Program at the State Department, but they have chosen to define their job narrowly as translating only American books into foreign languages. So, instead of getting The Last Summer of Reason translated into Arabic, the State Department Book Program has instead, for example, translated into Arabic a biography of Benjamin Franklin, a horror novel about bounty hunters for Indian scalps, and a controversial children’s book perhaps best known for the rape of a minor in Alaska. There is a role for translation of American books into Arabic, but with limited public diplomacy resources, are these really the only books—for that matter the only media—we should be translating into Arabic?

I remain highly skeptical that young Muslims in Cairo, Gaza City, and Riyadh will desire to rush to book stores to buy a biography of Benjamin Franklin, or be inspired to pursue non-violence by a novel about collecting Indian scalps. By contrast, a book such as The Last Summer of Reason fosters ideas which are in our national interest, is rooted in issues of concern to key Muslims audiences, and supports our national interest because it would mean investing tax dollars in a manner which connects with key foreign audiences such as young Arab Muslims. But whose job in the U.S. government is it to translate such a book into Arabic?

If Secretary of State nominee Clinton is only going to reproduce more business-as-usual in public diplomacy, and just promote the image of the U.S.A., there may be need for Congress to step in. It may even be time to remove public diplomacy from the State Department. After all, the core mission of the State Department is government-to-government relations, not concern with populations at large. We have significant security interests resting on our country’s engagement of foreign audiences; what happens with public diplomacy matters for our national security. Therefore we need to question critically what the nature of our public diplomacy should be.

Simply put, when foreign populations are not attacking us, our interests, and our allies, we are better off. Therefore engagement of foreign populations in ways which reduces their desire to engage in such attacks is in our interest. Public diplomacy is about us in so far as it serves our security and other national interests, but it is not all about us all the time. To be effective, we need to engage foreign audiences in ways which are relevant and attractive for them. If the lone song our public diplomacy Foreign Service Officers sing is, “me, me, me, me , me,” they will find an ever-shrinking audience.

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