November 20, 2008
By Helle C. Dale
Expectations around the world for the incoming Obama
administration have reached outlandish heights. Were the world a
U.S. elections map, the entire globe at this point would be colored
blue - with the notable exception of Iraq, where Sen. John McCain
remains highly popular. From the revised Kyoto Protocol to
Guantanamo Bay, President-elect Barack Obama's promises to reverse
the policy of the Bush administration are greeted with huge
enthusiasm. (Misplaced enthusiasm from a conservative standpoint,
of course.) The question is, can this tsunami of support be turned
into something fruitful in policy terms?
The presidential election has done wonders for the U.S. image
abroad. There is a danger here that public diplomacy becomes a kind
of popularity contest, and that systematic efforts to reach out to
foreign publics through the manifold channels of the U.S.
government will not receive the sufficient attention under the new
Now, the fact that public diplomacy outreach to foreign
audiences under the Bush administration was inadequate is a matter
of consensus throughout the Washington foreign policy
establishment. You only have to glance at the Pew Center's
international polls to realize how bad the international climate
has been for the past several years. The public in Turkey, for
instance, believes that the United States is the greatest threat to
their country's security - and this comes from a NATO ally of the
Since September 11, when the need became only too obvious for a
more proactive approach to winning hearts and minds, particularly
in the Muslim world, more than 30 special reports on the
deficiencies of U.S. public diplomacy and strategic communication
have been issued by various foundations. Their conclusions have
been much in agreement that it was clearly a mistake to let the
State Department swallow up the U.S. Information Agency in 1999.
With the State Department in the lead, our public diplomacy assets
have atrophied, and as many as 22 percent of the posts designated
for this task remain unfilled, a number that continued to grow.
Furthermore, budgets and personnel are not under the authority of
the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, a post that has
seen a lot of change. The post is now occupied by AEI scholar and
notable journalist James Glassman, who has been working overtime to
make use of his too brief tenure in that office.
More analysis is the works. The Heritage Foundation is about to
publish a major paper, "Reforming U.S. Public Diplomacy for the
21st Century," the Brookings Institution will unveil a lengthy
report next week, and the U.S. Institute of Peace is also preparing
According to the Obama campaign Web site, Mr. Obama's public
diplomacy outreach will be mainly focused at the grass-roots level,
doubling the size of the Peace Corps and Americorps, creating a
body of citizen volunteers with special language skills, etc. Plans
for any major overhaul of existing structures and institutions are
missing, even though a new entity is desperately needed to provide
strategic direction, research and resources for public diplomacy
outreach throughout the U.S. government.
What is specifically needed is a new U.S. Agency for Strategic
Communication under the guidance of a director of strategic
communications. Its director should have the confidence and trust
of the president, though maybe not necessarily at cabinet level,
and his responsibility would be to coordinate the informational
activities of the entire U.S. government, including the vast
resources currently commanded by the Pentagon. He would also be
responsible for formulating a much-needed comprehensive new
communications strategy that would address the activities of U.S.
public affairs, public diplomacy, international broadcasting and
military information operations.
The State Department itself is in dire need of reform, and
should lose an array of public diplomacy activities and assets,
which it has been wasting. It should focus more narrowly on
traditional diplomacy in state-to-state and multilateral settings.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon, where most of the new thinking on this
topic has taken place, could be called in to coordinate activities
through its combatant command structures, which are the prime
examples currently of U.S interagency coordination directed at
different regions of the world.
While Mr. Obama is riding high in the opinion polls, he may not
perceive how critical this task is. But one thing is clear: No
human being can sustain the political image erected by the Obama
campaign when it comes to real policy choices and decisions. And
when that time comes, the need for public diplomacy will become
Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center
for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Times
Expectations around the world for the incoming Obama administration have reached outlandish heights. Were the world a U.S. elections map, the entire globe at this point would be colored blue - with the notable exception of Iraq, where Sen. John McCain remains highly popular. From the revised Kyoto Protocol to Guantanamo Bay, President-elect Barack Obama's promises to reverse the policy of the Bush administration are greeted with huge enthusiasm. (Misplaced enthusiasm from a conservative standpoint, of course.) The question is, can this tsunami of support be turned into something fruitful in policy terms?
Helle C. Dale
Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
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