By William Fisher
As the U.S. faces increasingly negative attitudes around the world, the previously arcane subject of public diplomacy has become a serious issue in the Bush Administration, Congress, universities, think-tanks and with ordinary citizens.
“Why do they hate us?” is being asked in more places and by more kinds of Americans than ever before.
As widely reported, repeated polls by reputable opinion organizations such as the Pew Research Center and Zogby International have shown that negative overseas perceptions of the U.S. are largely a product of American policies, especially its policies in the Arab and Muslim world.
Particularly incendiary among Arabs and other Muslims are the invasion of Iraq, the alleged U.S. abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and what many foreigners see as America’s one-sided support of Israel.
The importance the Bush Administration places on finding new ways to counter these negative perceptions has been underlined by the President’s nomination of his close confidante and advisor, Karen Hughes, to be Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and former White House personnel chief, Egypt-born Dina Habib Powell to be her deputy.
But neither of these high-profile individuals have had any formal training in crafting and communicating messages that will resonate with foreign audiences who represent widely varying cultural, social, political and economic backgrounds.
That should not come as a surprise: most of the people who actually work in the public diplomacy field today have learned their craft largely from on-the-job experience. They are diplomats, educators, foreign policy experts, political scientists, and men and women who have made their fortunes in journalism or commercial broadcasting, and have sought to adapt these backgrounds to the complex task of winning friends for America.
Next month, the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles will begin teaching courses in a new program that will offer a Master’s Degree in Public Diplomacy -- the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
The two-year program will be offered jointly by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences' School of International Relations. The degree program will officially launch in fall 2006.
Just appointed to head the new program is one of the best-known names in the public diplomacy field -- Professor Nicholas J. Cull. Cull is Director of the Centre for American Studies at Leicester University in the United Kingdom. He specializes in US foreign policy, the history of propaganda and the politics of popular culture, and is the author of numerous books on the subject.
His first book, “Selling War”, was a study of British information work in the United States before Pearl Harbor. Since then he has published numerous articles on the theme of propaganda, public diplomacy, politics and foreign policy. He is also an active film historian who has been part of the movement to include film and other media within the mainstream of historical sources.
While the new program’s curriculum will be global, media attention predictably focuses on U.S. efforts to ‘win hearts and minds’ among Arabs and other Muslims, especially in the Middle East.
Prof. Cull addressed Middle East issues in an interview. "There is a problem underpinning all U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East and that is the extent to which Arabs actually understand the U.S. rather well and have reasons for disliking American actions based on U.S. policy. A good public diplomacy response would be to show more of the debate within the U.S. so the Arab world understands there are plenty of people of disapprove of much of American-Israeli policy, and conversely that there are reasons why the U.S. behaves the way that it does."
In the Middle East, he said, "We are dealing with a different culture and cannot assume that a message will be received with the intent with which it was transmitted. What hope is there for Bush to say 'sorry' to the Arab world when he doesn't seem to understand that no Arab takes an apology seriously unless the person apologizing adds 'and I ask you to forgive me'."
The Master’s Program was conceived by USC Annenberg Dean Geoffrey Cowan, who served as director of the Voice of America radio service during the
1990s, and USC College Dean Joseph Aoun.
"In an increasingly democratic world, leaders of this nation - as well as the leaders of other countries, businesses and non-governmental organizations - know that they need to find more effective forms of communication," Cowan said.
"There is a pressing need for a cadre of well-trained graduates who will understand diverse cultures, new forms of communication technology and a wide range of communication tools, ranging from cultural diplomacy to exchange programs, to international broadcasting."
"We expect this program to attract and train students and mid-career
professionals who will become the leaders of the next generation of public diplomacy professionals," he added.
Traditional definitions of public diplomacy include: government-sponsored cultural, educational and informational programs; and citizen-exchange programs and broadcasts such as the BBC World Service that are used by governments to promote the national interests of a country through understanding, informing and
influencing foreign audiences.
The new program will use these definitions as starting points, but will address new ways – such as blogs, independent news organizations like Al Jazeera and non-governmental organizations -- to influence and shape the worldview of citizens of foreign countries.
The curriculum will include graduate-level classes on topics such as international broadcasting, cultural diplomacy, corporate citizenship and images, and historical approaches to public diplomacy.
The program is designed for students who already have a substantial undergraduate background in social sciences or relevant professional experience in subjects such as communication, public relations, media studies, journalism,
political science and international relations.
In addition to the new degree program, USC is home to the new Center on Public Diplomacy, which has arranged for internships at such institutions as the Sesame Workshop, the European Union, a number of major consulates in Los Angeles and several leading U.S. foreign policy agencies in Washington, D.C.
"The work of the USC Center for Public Diplomacy will enrich research opportunities for students in the degree program," Joshua Fouts, the center's executive director, said,” This degree is the first step in creating substantive dialogue among students, scholars and practitioners at a critical period in global and political communication.”
For far too long, public diplomacy has been largely an afterthought, an add-on to other international programs. It has rarely, if ever, been fully integrated into foreign policy, either in the US or anywhere else. Nor have governments appreciated the long-term nature of building sound two-way communications or the importance of people of other nations understanding – if even not liking – its policies and practices.
The 21st century is different, however. Today, we are all inter-connected and there is virtually nothing important a nation can do by itself. That is why nations must understand one another. And that is the goal of public diplomacy.
It’s long past time to put the amateurs out to pasture and train a pool of professionals. That is why the USC initiative is so important.