Those who believe in the power of public diplomacy often argue that if only the United States spent a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget — say, the cost of an F-16 fighter — on outreach to the publics of other countries, the need for defense spending would be greatly reduced. This assertion rests on the assumption that if only we all understood each other better, fewer international conflicts would arise and the world would be a more peaceful place.
The rise of violent Islamist extremism has unfortunately shown that the underlying premise is not necessarily true.
Understanding is manifestly not the key to defeating brutal fanatics bent on spreading a medieval kind of hegemony throughout the Middle East, indeed, the world. In this case, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” has arrived at such an extreme that mutual understanding simply does not help.
But even looked at more broadly, the debate over spending on military force versus public diplomacy is misguided. The fact is: Without a properly funded and functioning military, in many parts of the world, public diplomacy is all but impossible.
In high-risk environments, the outreach work of diplomats and Public Diplomacy (PD) officers becomes too dangerous without military escorts. At the same time, even with the best of intentions, commanders clearly have to make hard choices, which may well end up cutting out cultural-educational outreach to local populations.
It should also be noted that strained military resources affect other activities, like NGO work, development programs and rebuilding efforts.
Obvious cases in point are the recent U.S. engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The State Department, as well as the Pentagon, has worked hard to reach out to local populations, with decidedly mixed results. In Afghanistan, even after a decade of U.S. military presence, over 90 percent of the population still had no idea why U.S. troops were in their country.
It was not for want of effort, though. The State Department instituted some 30 different cross-cultural programs to foster mutual understanding, and the Pentagon made a number of ill-fated efforts to impact local news coverage. Often the U.S. troops turned out to be the best ambassadors, as they displayed good old-fashioned American decency, generosity and good nature towards local children and populations. Cuts in military presence, however, usually impacted diplomatic efforts. The diplomacy and security simply had to go hand in hand.
Then there is the problem that in today’s world, high-risk environments are no longer just actual battle zones. The spread of terrorist activity globally has made U.S. embassies more vulnerable and therefore harder to secure.
Since 1999, construction of U.S. embassies overseas has been subject to the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act. With the intention of keeping U.S. diplomatic personnel safe, this has led to the construction of perimeter walls, relocations away from city centers and added security staff — all of which create obvious barriers to outreach.
This state of affairs is often deplored by public diplomacy practitioners. Yet, as we saw in Benghazi in 2012, when security requirements are ignored in decidedly high-risk areas, the consequences can be tragic. Had the military protection of the Benghazi compound not been cut at a time of rising terrorist activity, the four Americans who were killed might still be alive today, and we might have had a chance to engage the people of Benghazi.
And finally, there is no denying that military victories send their own powerful message. As part of its PD efforts, the Obama administration pressured Silicon Valley to help with anti-ISIS messaging. One suspects that greater impact was produced by bombing the terrorist group’s military installations and propaganda-spewing media centers. After a string of military defeats, ISIS propaganda has subsided significantly.
President Teddy Roosevelt advocated speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Without a “big stick” to get their attention, other nations are far less likely to heed our diplomats’ words or notice our diplomatic works.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times