Time to think strategically about America's message

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With all this impressiveness on display, it’s good idea to pause for a moment and think about some of the key considerations for our future public diplomacy efforts.  

Certainly, the eyes of the world are always on the United States. Yet in times of economic uncertainty, military pivots, and upcomingelections, the future of how America communicates its message abroad should be on the minds of policy makers. How does the U.S. showcase itself with so much uncertainty and doubt? How can the U.S. gear its communication efforts to better achieve its policy objectives?

This week in a white paper published by the American Security Project, I explored some of these issues, and made key recommendations about how to improve U.S. public diplomacy.

For the next president, whether the incumbent or the challenger, the need for stronger public diplomacy cannot go underestimated. This means strengthening the American message, strengthening the resources behind it, backing it up with action and therefore strengthening the value of our word. It is vital that messaging and policy be coherent, as failure to connect words and action results in erosion of trust and loss of credibility abroad.

Fundamentally, public diplomacy needs to be about more than explaining American policies to the world, explaining American ideals or telling foreigners about how the United States is a great country. It needs to demonstrate to foreign publics that their concerns, desires, aspirations and opinions are relevant to America. Foreign publics need to be made partners, and experience action by the United States that indicates its understanding of their issues. America needs to deliver on its promises.

To address this, America first and foremost needs to listen.If America is not willing to listen to the people with which it is trying to speak to, why should they listen to America?  This goes beyond simply hearing, and instead means that America must use what it learns through listening and understanding to inform the policy making process.

Some may challenge the premise of listening, arguing that American policy should not be subject to foreign opinion. Arguing in this fashion actually misses the point about the purpose of listening in public diplomacy. In the context of policy making, listening helps policy makers develop policies that best achieve their strategic goals. Listening to foreign publics allows the United States to identify areas of commonality and shared interests. By doing so, America can better identify how to pursue its policy objectives and shape its messaging to achieve maximum results. By listening and fully understanding foreigners, America may find out that it shares the same goals with those audiences, and develop smarter, cheaper, and ultimately more effective ways by which to achieve them.

Yet why is any of this important?

The challenges we face, from terrorism to energy security, are shared challenges which require collaboration with the people of other nations to overcome. America cannot provide for the entirety of its own security, as these challenges go beyond the power of any one nation to solve on its own. If the United States wants to prevent terrorism from reaching its borders, prevent the proliferation of WMD material, or work to prevent human rights violations overseas, it requires the vigilance and cooperation of foreign populations to be successful. Public diplomacy plays a vital role in helping establish a basis for this security.

Our country used to understand this well. During the Cold War, the United States established a strong brand in a bipolar world. Standing firmly against the Soviet Union, America offered a clear ideological alternative to life behind the Iron Curtain. Today, the world isn’t as clear cut. Conflicts aren’t as simple. Ideologies are no longer monolithic. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has exercised neither coherent nor strategically minded communication with foreign publics. The world has changed, and American strategic messaging needs to reflect this change.

Wallin is a policy analyst at the American Security Project and holds a master’s in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California.