November 11, 2009 | Commentary on Public Diplomacy
Last year's U.S. presidential election sparked international euphoria. Americans had chosen the "anti-Bush"! The jubilation overseas reflected a belief that, as president, Barack Obama would think less like an American and more like the rest of the world. Mr. Obama had done much to encourage this belief. Traveling to Berlin in July 2008, the candidate unveiled what would become his theme for presidential foreign policy speeches: an apology for American actions.
"I know my country has not perfected itself," he confessed. "At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to its best intentions." The German audience and the world lapped it up.
Once in office, Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized a new era of communication with audiences worldwide. Public diplomacy had been a problem area for the George W. Bush administration, but the new administration pushed its message aggressively to young audiences via the new media, Internet and cell-phone technology. Marketing the personal appeal of the president to audiences in Africa and the Muslim world seemed especially promising.
Being personally popular and publicly apologetic about the United States may be enough to win a Nobel Prize, but it's no way to conduct effective foreign policy. Indeed, setting the bar of expectations so high has actually created a problem. Even media solidly on the side of the Obama administration have started to notice.
The Washington Post, for example, still praises Mr. Obama's vision of a world of "shared interests." However, that praise is now tempered by the dawning reality that "on the farthest-reaching U.S. foreign policy challenges, he is struggling to translate his own popularity into American influence, even with allies that have celebrated his break with the Bush administration's emphasis on military strength, unilateral action and personal chemistry."
On critical challenges such as Iran and Afghanistan, the president has failed to persuade even friendly governments to support American positions. On major multilateral issues such as the Doha trade round, the administration has demonstrated no leadership.
Mr. Obama also has disappointed the global Greens on climate change, an issue of almost religious significance to Europeans. Rather than fervently embrace the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, he has made it, at best, a third-tier priority.
The president's approach has reaped no fruit in the Middle East, either. Mr. Obama's initial outreach to Arab audiences via an appearance on al-Hurra television and his speech in Cairo won huge plaudits. But audiences in the Middle East still await the policy follow-up -- the Palestinians with impatience, the Israelis with concern. So far, U.S. arm-twisting on the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has yet to begin.
Meanwhile, human rights advocates and democracy activists wonder how Mr. Obama's foreign policy will address their concerns. In pursuing shared interests with China, Iran, Cuba, Russia and other estranged states, the administration is muting values and ideals that were at the heart of American foreign policy for most of the past century.
Undersecretary of State Anne-Marie Slaughter said last week that the United States can address global challenges without at least initially raising issues of governance and legitimacy among foreign governments. Such values-neutral foreign policy makes the content of public diplomacy difficult to articulate.
What about institutional means of transmitting U.S. policy to foreign publics - as well as foreign leaders? The administration is still working on that. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review process has just begun. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and other U.S. international broadcasting services, remains in limbo.
The terms of all nine board members have expired, and the White House has made no nominations to fill the posts. Such inaction typifies the Obama administration's failure to engage substantively in public diplomacy -- despite all the president's appealing imagery, symbols and oratory.
Helle Dale is senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Times