July 27, 2009

July 27, 2009 | Special Report on Public Diplomacy

Ideas Matter: Restoring the Content of Public Diplomacy

The purpose of this paper is to examine why the ideas that now animate U.S. public diplomacy lead necessarily to its failure and to suggest the principles with which those ideas should be replaced if we are to win the struggle with radical Islamism and to repair the standing of the United States in the world. The emphasis here will be on the content of public diplomacy--the currency of the ideas in which it should deal--rather than on its organizational structure or its programmatic aspects.

The primary purpose of United States public diplomacy is to explain, promote, and defend American principles to audiences abroad. This objective goes well beyond the public affairs function of presenting and explaining specific policies of various Administrations. Policies and Administrations change; principles do not, so long as the United States remains true to itself.

Public diplomacy has a particularly vital mission during war, when the peoples of other countries, whether adversaries or allies, need to know why we fight. What are the ideas so dear to us that we would rather kill and die than live without them? And what antithetical ideas do our enemies embrace, about which they feel the same way? After all, it is a conflict of ideas that is behind the shooting wars, and it is that conflict which must be won to achieve any lasting success.

Yet U.S. public diplomacy is generally acknowledged as a failure--an especially egregious one since 9/11. By all accounts, we have been absent from the battlefield of ideas. This is particularly clear to those fighting the shooting wars. Lieutenant General John R. Vines (Ret.), a ground commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan, wanted very much to see an active U.S. effort in the war of ideas, without which he knew his troops would pay a higher price with their own lives. His frustration at the handicapped American abilities in this regard led him to conclude that "[w]e were given the authority to kill the enemy, but the authority to influence them so that we might not have to was withheld."[1]

Meanwhile, those whose very job, one would have thought, is to "influence them" deny that this is their mission. At a strategic communications conference at the National Defense University on October 15, 2008, Jeffrey Trimble, chief of staff of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), said of the more than $600 million government overseas broadcasting effort, "It is not in our mandate to influence."[2]

How is it that a country founded upon rational deliberation has been reduced to kinetic means as its primary, perhaps its only, means of communication? One reason for this is that the destruction of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1999 eliminated many of the capabilities for such activities. However, the main reasons for failure stem from intellectual confusion regarding what it is we are defending and against whom we are defending it.

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Related Issues: Public Diplomacy

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[1]Correspondence with the author, January 24, 2009.

[2]As stated to the author by conference participant Yigal Carmon, October 20, 2008.