- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005


Edited by William A. Rugh, Pubic Diplomacy Council, $19.95, 181 pages.

Public diplomacy is the new phrase designating what used to be called international information and cultural affairs — that is, a country’s efforts to persuade the people of other countries through mass media and other channels of its friendly, worthwhile intentions.

This collection of essays, edited by William A. Rugh — author of the book “Arab Mass Media” and former ambassador to Yemen, and later the United Arab Emirates — attempts an examination of our efforts in the Muslim world pointing out how we could do better. The title of the book, “Engaging the Arab & Islamic Worlds Through Public Diplomacy,” encapsulates the book’s thesis by the use of the word engaging. It is not enough to reach somebody, to deliver a message or, even worse, to send a signal. It is necessary to engage him in a mutual endeavor where through both intellectual and emotional exchange, true understandings can be reached.

Kenton Keith, also a distinguished former ambassador, in his contribution emphasizes this point. He states “the reality [is] that the most effective public diplomacy tool has always been one that engaged Americans personally with citizens of a particular country.”

He gives examples from his own experience in Syria, where personal relationships were of significant assistance in establishing a cultural agreement and a large educational exchange program. No one in the diplomatic establishment will deny the merit of Mr. Keith’s position, but as James L. Bullock points out if one is chained to his desk answering requests from Washington or doing administrative work that the bureaucracy demands, there is little time to nurture those relationships Mr. Keith describes.

The current public affairs officer is short of both staff and funds as a result of decades of downsizing, and accordingly, cannot perform as well as his predecessors of 20 or 30 years ago. The post of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs has been vacant for months on end, and we desperately need someone with proven experience and sufficient dynamism to give our programs the leadership they require.

From these general comments which can apply to our entire public diplomacy effort, the work becomes specific to the Arab scene by having three essays devoted to Arab radio and television. Alan Heil, former deputy director of the Voice of America, gives us a history of the VOA in Arabic, and laments its passing. Norman Patriz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, discusses Radio Sawa, the radio channel that replaced the VOA, and Al-Hurra, the new U.S. funded TV station. Radio Sawa, he points out, can now be heard on FM, making it accessible to virtually everyone, and its programs are tailored to fit the needs of the individual countries it broadcasts to, unlike the one-size-fits-all shortwave programs it has replaced. He states that Al-Hurra, which is just finishing its first year, has gotten off to a successful start in a hostile environment and its future is promising. He offers a series of graphs and statistics illustrating its rapid expansion.

Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science at Williams College, disagrees. He quotes different statistics on listeners and states that Radio Sawa’s primary focus “remains on its quite attractive, but politically irrelevant music.” He goes on to say that “unlike Radio Sawa Alhurra has not distinguished itself with a superior product.” He quotes others as saying the programs are “boring, tedious, stale.” Such comments, of course, have been made about virtually every TV channel in existence, but Mr. Lynch feels greater engagement with issues that Arabs are most interested in would bring surer success.

In the concluding chapter William Rugh argues that American public diplomacy has been successful in the past, in some cases remarkably so, but in this new age with new and different dangers it should be strengthened, not downgraded. He recognizes the need for security but states we cannot “conduct public diplomacy while hiding inside fortresses.” He also believes that the merger of the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department has shifted assets that were already inadequate away from public diplomacy efforts.

Still, what is needed is not clever new stratagems or bureaucratic shifting (rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic) but the acknowledgment that there is a clear and present danger that we are not meeting. Funds are needed to resuscitate programs that have been proven to work in the past and to provide competent personnel to implement them. It is time to get to work. This book may help us to begin.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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