Send public diplomacy into battle

One of the paradoxes of the Obama years has been how little attention the administration has paid to directing the tools of “soft power” — specifically, public diplomacy and strategic communications, deployed through advanced digital technology — toward achieving the national interest.

Instead, President Obama has mainly counted on targeted violence and conventional diplomacy. In some cases, the results have been good, but generous opportunities — beginning with the uprising by Iranians against the stolen election of June 2009 and continuing through the recent events in Syria — have been squandered.

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The previous administration came to soft power relatively late in the game, but in 2006, President George W. Bush designated a State Department official — first Karen Hughes, then me — as the government-wide lead in using strategic communications to fight terrorism and oppressive regimes. 

We built a structure and a strategy that was working well as our terms came to an end. Our mission was to push back against the ideology of violent extremism and to divert young people from a path that could lead them to join groups like al Qaeda. 

We used the power of persuasion, applied with the tools of technology. We mobilized public diplomacy and sent it into battle — specifically, to fight a war of ideas with terrorists and oppressive regimes. Such current State Department officials as Alec Ross and Farah Pandith are wielding the new tools effectively, and I have high hopes for the new undersecretary, Tara Sonenshine, but the Obama administration hasn’t warmly embraced public diplomacy, which is defined as informing and influencing foreign publics — as opposed to foreign officials — in order to achieve America’s goals.

In the short term, public diplomacy explains U.S. policy and tries to set the record straight when it’s distorted. In the long term, public diplomacy, mainly through exchange programs, tries to make foreigners feel good about America and understand our history, values and people.

It is actions in the medium term — within six months to five years — where public diplomacy can have its most powerful, and for now most neglected, impact. A pressing need today is to influence Iranians to prevent their government from acquiring nuclear weapons. We could, for example, help establish a digital and physical network of young people who want the power to make their own choices — including the choice to live in peace with their neighbors.

We created similar networks made up of families of victims of terrorist violence and, using the techniques of social media, we spread the word that al Qaeda was killing fellow Muslims and that some of its most passionate and articulate leaders were turning against the organization and picking apart its ideology.

We also learned quickly that preaching doesn’t work, and that Americans are not the best messengers to Muslims. By contrast, we invented something called Public Diplomacy 2.0 that poses the United States as the convener and facilitator of a broad and deep conversation, in which our messages — grounded in vigorous advocacy of freedom, tolerance and responsibility — will get a respectful hearing.

The specific means are abundant, as are the targets: not just al Qaeda but the dictatorial regimes of Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. 

What’s important is that public diplomacy be strategic — that is, it needs to be placed in the service of specific, crucial ends, such as ousting Syria’s dictator or building civil society in Egypt. Too often, instead, we find public diplomacy trying to make the rest of the world like us better. That’s hard to do. Favorable opinion of the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, remains at rock-bottom levels in most Muslim nations and has even declined since Obama took office in such countries as Jordan, Pakistan and Egypt.

But loving America is not essential. Public diplomacy is not about us anyway. It’s about making the world more free, more safe and, especially in today’s Middle East, showing clearly that we’re on the side of democracy, human rights and tolerance. We can’t make other people’s decisions for them, but we can help create an environment where they are able to make decisions. Sometimes, we have to rely on force; sometimes on the ability of diplomats to twist counterparts’ arms. But, more and more, the best tools are the non-violent but powerful weapons of persuasion directed at people of other nations. 


Glassman served as under secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently executive director of the Bush Institute in Dallas.