By William Fisher
In March 2003, Dr. John Brown resigned from the U.S. State Department after 20 years as a senior Foreign Service officer, telling then Secretary of State Colin Powell he could not "in good conscience" support President George W. Bush's war plans against Iraq.
In his letter of resignation, Brown wrote: "The president has failed to explain clearly why our brave men and women in uniform should be ready to sacrifice their lives in a war on Iraq at this time... (and) to take international public opinion against the war into serious consideration."
Recently, I conducted an email interview with Brown, now a research associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington. Here are excerpts.
Q: All the polling I’ve seen suggests that Arabs and other Muslims don't hate the United States -- they hate our policies. If that's true, can we ever conduct an effective public diplomacy program?
A: It's clear that Muslims and the Arab world admire many aspects of America, including its educational system and technological achievements. American popular culture also fascinates -- but at times repels -- them. As for US foreign policy, both its style and substance have angered the Middle East and elsewhere.
In formulating its confused and confusing policies, the Bush administration has failed to take foreign public opinion into serious consideration. Its current calls for democratizing Arab countries are viewed with suspicion in the region, given the way it imposed "democracy" in Iraq -- from the barrel of a gun. America the hypocrite -- that's how we're seen abroad.
As a practitioner of public diplomacy for many years, I'm aware that it's not the magic bullet that'll solve all our policy problems in the Middle East. What is terribly important, however, is that U.S. policymakers consider public diplomacy not after they've come to a decision, but in the process of reaching it. The old-fashioned mindset toward public diplomacy -- here's the policy, now sell it -- simply doesn't work anymore.
Q: Much of our public diplomacy energy goes into "overhead" communications, i.e. TV and radio, etc. versus "on the ground" communications at the embassy level. How important are these "on the ground" efforts?
A: Person-to-person contact continues to be the most important work of public diplomacy. For America to be understood abroad, it's essential that our diplomats come into close contact with the key players in the countries where they're posted. Really knowing "who's who" in a given society -- and knowing how to communicate with them -- is what defines success for a practitioner of public diplomacy.
This involvement in the local scene requires an in-depth knowledge of its culture and language. Unfortunately, the way the State Department is currently organized doesn't encourage Foreign Service officers (FSOs) to develop in-depth expertise about individual countries or regions. With some largely accidental exceptions, FSOs are moved from one post to another like pawns on a global chess board, and by the end of their career all too often have been just about everywhere and thus practically nowhere.
Q: Do you have views on the content of Al Hurra, Sawa, etc? They are widely seen as "propaganda". What should we be showing Arab and other Muslim audiences?
A: Some time ago I took my Georgetown undergraduate class on public diplomacy for a visit to Radio Sawa, where the Sawa reps played the music aired over the station -- a mixture of U.S. and Arabic pop music. It was interesting to see how the class came alive when listening to this sound, which was to them "goofy but kinda cool." I suppose many Arab youth react in much the same way.
But "pop-aganda" over a music station should be only an auxiliary means to "win hearts and minds" in the Middle East. Most important, to obtain meaningful public-diplomacy results in the region, are long-term educational exchanges, in-depth information programs, and serious (but not solemn) cultural presentations that make participants in such activities really discover the US rather than just "feel good" about it for a few moments.
I'm not a great fan of US Government television stations for overseas audiences, for the simple reason that our government, given the way it's funded and organized, can't produce quality, round-the-clock television.
So, if we're going to have special TV programs for the Arab world, I'd forget about winning the ratings race with Al-Jazeera and other local outlets. Instead of trying to overtake Arab "competitors," why not focus on C-Span-type programming that -- granted -- wouldn't automatically appeal to large audiences but could provide a unique window to the Arab chattering classes of admittedly "dull" American democracy in action.
More generally, the USG should approach the problem of media "market share" in the Middle East modestly. With so many media in the region, it's an illusion to think that USG broadcasts can play the role in the Arab world that Voice of America and Radio Free Europe played in the USSR and Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
Q: Some critics of our public diplomacy efforts have said we should be working with local media rather than creating media of our own. Given our shortage of Arabic speakers, is this feasible?
A: As a rule I believe that working with local media is far more effective than creating our own. My experience in cooperating with the opposition station B-92 when I was posted in Belgrade (1995-1998) convinced me of this. B-92 was effective because, while accepting US support (e.g., free equipment), its bright young staff was saying what it wanted to say -- and doing its own thing. Their programs were fresh, innovative, and informative in ways no government media, with its bureaucratic strictures, can ever be.
Q: Do you think non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could make more of a contribution to our public diplomacy?
A: NGOs can bring people together in ways no formal US government program can. At the same time, the USG "label" on public diplomacy should not be abandoned. It's been my experience in some countries that it certainly isn't against American interests to publicize programs -- a State Department-funded art exhibit, for example -- that were made possible by the United States government. Indeed, such open sponsorship is seen by local audiences as a sign of the interest that the American people, through their government, takes in them.
Q: If you were an advisor to Karen Hughes, what would you counsel her to do?
A: Get real! Face the fact that the Bush administration's foreign policy is leading to an anti-American century, unless strong corrective measures are taken.
Don't assume the world is like (or likes) America, and that what worked in getting George W. Bush elected will work in "selling" America's policies abroad. Don't treat foreigners as just potential Republicans. Listen to what they have to say about the U.S.
Q: Is there something about our PD efforts that really keeps you awake at night?
A: I do worry about the declining respect toward America throughout the world that, sooner than we think, will come to haunt us. The failure of American public diplomacy is part of a much greater problem: America's inability -- despite (because of?) its enormous power -- to admit that an outside world really exists, except as an enemy or overseas market.
We can't afford such an attitude in the 21st century, when the world is becoming smaller by the minute. We need a more human approach to our relations with the rest of mankind, on both a governmental and non-governmental level. That's where public diplomacy, at its best, can make a lasting contribution.