How to Build an Effective US Public Diplomacy
(Based upon a speech by Dr. Nancy Snow, as published in Vital Speeches 1 April 2004)

Abridged, edited, and posted electronically with permission;
Copyright and all other Rights remain with Dr. Snow

We have enemies? What's not to like about us? We give the world superstars and super missiles, blockbuster films and bunker-busting bombs. The question after 9/11 "why does the world hate us?" spawned a lot of speculation, perhaps none more famous than the remark by Rep. Hyde who asked rhetorically: "how is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas?"

How can we take the power of American creativity and culture and transform it into something that not only acknowledges the increasingly negative perception of us, but also works to overcome it through mutually beneficial actions? We may have to start by walking our talk.

In American-led global dialogues static garbles our message at three primary levels. American values of fair play, the Golden Rule, and our cherished Constitutional freedoms of religion, association, and press are held up to the world as part of a propaganda and public diplomacy campaign to win hearts and minds to American policies. Although US values are more political, cultural, and social, US interests that emerge from Washington and New York are largely about economic advantage and using our global military presence to protect our economic interests. The US is so powerful that it can be inconsistent in its foreign policy and get away with it. More than any other reason this is why the world hates America today.

Second, American news coverage as a whole is seriously disconnected from international news coverage. To a large extent we are no longer experiencing the TV war or the CNN war but the Internet and Al-Jazeera war -- where the US can neither control and manage the messenger nor the message.

Third, in true Hollywood fashion the US expounds its interests and power in the world as the triumph of good over evil. The media dismisses any ambiguity in a truly complex world. Instead America's propagandists hand down the Manichean dichotomy - "us and them," "good and bad," "those who are for us and those who are against us."

Some feel that propaganda is either true or false. In our Western capitalist democracy however, our mass communications industry is, to quote Aldous Huxley, "concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, we failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.... A society, most of whose members spend a great part of the time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it."

Propaganda today relies for the most part on repetition of catchwords that leaders wish listeners accept on their face value without critical scrutiny, suppression of information that debates those catchwords, and rationalization of their cause to foment passions in the interest of the state or party.

The global antiwar protests of 2002 that followed the anti-economic globalization protests of 1999-2001 suggest that the world's citizens are responding in record numbers to governments that have failed them -- governments that are increasingly bankrupt in moral leadership and resources. The message of many of these protesters for the commercial and government propagandists is that the emperor has no clothes.

Here are 10 steps for change to revitalize our public diplomacy:

1) Public diplomacy cannot hail primarily from the US government or any official source of information. The world misunderstands and increasingly resents us because it is our President and our top government officials whose images predominate in explaining US public policy. It's the American people, however, who can better initiate personal contact with the foreigners whose support and understanding we need on the stage of world opinion. The American public is the best ad campaign going for America. We've got the greatest diversity in people and culture and it shows in our receptiveness to learning, our generosity, and our creativity.

2) The American patriotic duty of dissent best illustrates to the world what a free society means. Senator J. William Fulbright wrote "To criticize one's country is to do it a service and to pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country /can/ do better than it is doing."

3) We need a public diplomacy for peace. We need perpetual thinking about perpetual peace. Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is coexistence and mutual interdependence. Philip Taylor writes "In a nuclear age, we need peace propagandists, now war propagandists -- people whose job it is to increase communication, understanding, and dialogue between different peoples with different beliefs. As much of the truth as can be, must be told."

4) Our young people need to understand how leaders use propaganda to promote war, how it has been used all through modern history, and how propaganda functions to mediate information and opinions from power centers of government, corporations, and media to populations and the public opinion segments of society. Propaganda -- whether for war or for peace -- is about communicating something or persuading people to do something. We need to study what is being said, how it is being said, the techniques used, and where education can be of the greatest service.

5) It is no longer acceptable to allow a restricted number of sources to bombard public opinion and public judgment with news and views, particularly when these sources carry us from reality shows like Joe Millionaire to "Showdown Iraq" to tomorrow's weather all in a breathless minute.

6) Political leadership in Washington keeps scratching its head wondering why the leading country in the world in advertising, public relations, and marketing cannot seem to do an effective job on itself. It is precisely because we conduct US public diplomacy from an uptown, top-down, and inside-the-beltway perspective that we aren't making headway. We need to get back to basics that people hold in common -- friendliness, openness, and putting people at ease. We need to listen and learn rather than dictate and declare. The US holds no patent on democracy or freedom: we are part of a larger and majority neighborhood of global and civic-minded nations that cherish the democratic process and democratic ideas over tyranny and dictatorial control.

7) We need to continue to tell our stories to one another and encourage people-to-people dialogue and exchange -- efforts based on mutual learning and mutual understanding. What this means is a Marshall Plan for International Exchange: a ten-fold increase in programs like the Fulbright, International Visitor Program, Arts exchanges, and programs like the new Culture Connect that sponsored the Iraqi National Symphony's visit to the Kennedy Center. Anti-Americanism and general ill-will toward the US is driven more by the perception that we talk first before we listen. It wouldn't take much for us to listen first, talk second.

8) Some of the world's leaders in soft power diplomacy include the Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Norway, as well as the Netherlands, Japan, and the United Kingdom. We have much to learn; we need partnerships between government, the private sector, and universities to study social influence, changes in mindsets, how to teach tolerance and mutual respect, and methodologies that will measure current public diplomacy programs in an effort to find best practices.

9) Any approach based on falsehoods and deception will not have long-lasting enduring outcomes but only short-term tactical advantages. Our national security and long-term strategic interests will be better off with more transparent and genuine US public diplomacy strategies. As John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt wrote, "truth must be the polestar of American strategic public diplomacy."

10) Any effective public diplomacy must establish greater outreach with NGOs. Global civic society is immersed in American-oriented values of democracy building, human rights promotion, and social, political, and economic growth and development. When reputable NGOs show widespread opposition to some American policy position, then perhaps it might be a good time to open dialogue about the policy itself.

Consider the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski who wrote recently, "It is important to ask ourselves, as citizens, whether a world power can provide global leadership on the basis of fear and anxiety. Can we really mobilize support, even of friends, when we tell them that if you are not with us you are against us?" We need our allies -- Europe, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa, Mexico, whomever they may be -- because we share much more in values and interests, even when we disagree. Our alliances will falter if we continue to dictate over dialogue.

We Americans must better understand the world in which we wield so much awesome power. We need to see the world with honest eyes, as it is, with all of its messiness and ambiguity. We need to strive for consistency both in our celebration of diversity and protection of human dignity. We need to do this even if the short-term repercussions imply hard and difficult choices. We Americans need to listen better, decry arrogance, and cultivate humility.

Dr. Snow is a former State Dept. official, now with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy