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 administration.
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 United States.
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 a study.
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 clear.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.