Nov 24, 2007

Persuading Them

From an article in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, Persuading Them:

Perhaps the time has come to rethink what we mean by public diplomacy. In 2003, the Djerejian report — named for the veteran diplomat who presided over the study, Edward Djerejian — made the eye-catching allegation that “a process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy over the last decade has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats.” The report noted that the U.S. was spending just $25 million for “outreach programs” in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds. Only 54 State Department employees had achieved a high level of fluency in Arabic. Public-affairs officials themselves considered American broadcasting efforts in the region ineffective.

The “weapons of advocacy” had fallen into a long decline since their heyday in the cold war, a contest that pitted political systems against each other more than armies. In “Total Cold War,” an account of the war of persuasion in the 1950s, the historian Kenneth Osgood argues that “from the highest levels of the national security establishment to the remotest diplomatic outposts abroad, political warfare became the organizing concept for American foreign policy during the Eisenhower presidency.” The Eisenhower administration established the United States Information Agency, which had a global portfolio of radio and TV stations and magazines; the agency devoted half its very large budget in West Germany to cultural centers and libraries known as Amerika Hauser. At the same time, of course, the C.I.A. engaged in the darker business of covertly manipulating public opinion, not to mention engineering coups in Guatemala and Iran.

We are locked once again in a war of ideas. And public-diplomacy enthusiasts would have us gird ourselves once again with the weapons of advocacy. But the political weapons of the cold war are as antiquated today as the military ones. The 1950s witnessed the birth in the non-Western world of mass media as well as mass politics. The U.S. could dominate the airwaves not only of South Vietnam but even of Japan, as Osgood describes; and we could thereby reach the small but growing segment of society engaged in political discussion. That world is gone forever. Today, as the Djerejian report observed, “Arabs and Muslims have a surfeit of opinion and information about the United States.” We are bound to lose any battle of spin control, whether carried out by a pal of the president or by the most credible Arabic-speaking proxy.

From this we may draw two opposite conclusions. One is that we must simply accept that the cost of acting in our national interest is that publics in the Islamic world will shower us with contempt. The alternative is to recognize that public opinion is the medium in which we now operate. All diplomacy is therefore public diplomacy. When Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials split hairs over torture, that shapes our ability to conduct the war on terror more powerfully than do the interrogation techniques themselves. What we say about ourselves no longer has much effect; but what we are seen doing — on occasion, what we are caught doing — matters immensely.

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