Big challenges ahead for new public diplomat

Bush administration insider Karen Hughes will have her work cut out for her when she finally takes over as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy this fall.

Hughes, who has only limited international experience, will find that it's extremely difficult to tell America's story to the world when our nation's foreign policy is flawed and the State Department's public diplomacy structure is broken. Good luck, Karen!

Hughes, who was nominated in March, won't take over at State until September at the earliest, and that's part of the problem. Public diplomacy - a combination of overseas cultural and informational programs designed to garner foreign support and understanding for the U.S. and its policies - has been adrift for months. In fact, it's been at sea since 1999 when a political odd couple, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and ex-Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., teamed up to abolish the old U.S. Information Agency and transfer its functions to the sprawling State Department.

Simply put, the new public diplomacy structure doesn't work. A well-meaning but naïve U.S. "branding" exercise designed by Bush's first public diplomacy czar, former New York advertising executive Charlotte Beers, failed miserably.

She spent millions of dollars on paid advertising in the Muslim world, but the campaign fell flat and badly damaged our credibility and access to foreign media. During my 28-year career with USIA, my colleagues and I placed millions of dollars worth of U.S. media materials ("propaganda," if you prefer, in the best sense of that word) on influential editorial pages and prime-time TV in foreign countries for free. We were proud that our efforts contributed to the accomplishment of major U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives.

Anyway, Beers never understood that promoting the U.S. abroad isn't like selling Uncle Ben's rice, and she resigned for "health reasons" about a year into Bush's first term. Since then, public diplomacy has been buried in the State Department's basement and other agencies have been poaching on State's PD turf.

For example, the Defense Department has awarded three contracts worth up to $300 million in an effort "to improve foreign public opinion about the United States" - in other words, public diplomacy. And a high-ranking official of the U.S. Agency for International Development has announced that his agency is now in the lead on the public diplomacy front. That would be a shame because most of the government's PD expertise still resides at State in what's left (if anything) of USIA.

Last February, four former USIA directors argued that the agency should be reinvented. "Shutting down USIA was a major mistake," they declared in a Washington Post op-ed piece. "The re-creation of an effective instrument of public diplomacy has been urged by many in Congress and across the political spectrum." They endorsed a well-thought-out proposal for creation of a new U.S. Agency for Public Diplomacy, linked to State but with an autonomous structure and budget. Amen!

Even before she takes over at State, Hughes is receiving plenty of unsolicited advice. Gordon Robison, executive director of the Middle East Media Project, urged her to use her White House ties to assert control over public diplomacy. He said American embassy public affairs officers must be authorized to respond quickly and forcefully to wild rumors and disinformation, rather than waiting for the State Department's daily news briefings in Washington.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute, called State's PD post "one of the most important jobs in the U.S. government," and advised Hughes to be ready to "do battle with a bureaucracy hard-wired for quiet, capital-to-capital (traditional) diplomacy."

John Hughes, a respected journalist and former State Department spokesman, writes that Hughes (no relation to him) should reinvigorate people-to-people programs involving cultural and educational exchanges that promote better international understanding. And Ambassador Bill Rugh, a former USIA officer who has served in several Mideastern countries, advocates a restructuring of U.S. government broadcasting in that part of the world to target government officials and policy-makers rather than mass audiences.

While structural changes are necessary, it's even more important to recognize that in the final analysis, our PR is only as good (or bad) as our policies. As we used to say at USIA, no matter how much perfume you pour on a goat, it's still a goat.

In other words, if our policies are flawed, our public diplomacy will be flawed and foreign audiences are smart enough to figure that out. For example, as Robison notes, our unquestioning support for Israel "simply cannot be presented in a way that makes it palatable to the Arab world." And the seemingly endless war in Iraq is a hard sell, both at home and abroad.

During efforts to impeach President Nixon in the 1970s, USIA officers explained the complex impeachment process to foreign audiences, and they respected us for doing so. No other country in the world is as open and honest about its mistakes and its problems, and that's a positive public diplomacy message - a ringing endorsement of the participatory democracy that we're promoting in the Middle East.

Influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a Middle East specialist, has written that the best PR is straight talk.

"The greatest respect we can show to Arabs and Muslims ... is to take them seriously and stop gazing at our own navels," he wrote. "That means demanding that they answer for their lies, hypocrisy and profane behavior, just as much as we must answer for ours."

Karen Hughes would do well to keep that wise advice in mind when she takes over our nation's public diplomacy portfolio.

n Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, worked in public diplomacy for nearly 30 years with the old U.S. Information Agency before retiring in 1995.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment