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US Public Diplomacy Explains America to Skeptical World Audience - 2004-05-14


As anti-Americanism rises around the world, Americans are trying to combat it. One of the proposed remedies is so-called public diplomacy; that is, communicating in various ways with people abroad to make them more understanding of America and less hostile. Conceding that U.S. policies are the main influence on opinion about America, advocates of public diplomacy insist it is a crucial factor. VOA’s Ed Warner reports some views on how best to communicate with the rest of the world.

Communication works both ways, said Phillip Reeker, a U.S. State Department spokesman at a conference held in Washington by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Dialogue is necessary in speaking to other nations, says Mr. Reeker. We have to listen, discuss, reach out. Others will heed us if we heed them. And there is nothing wrong with conflicting opinions. That is what discussion is all about. “To practice successful American public diplomacy does not require agreement with every foreign policy taken by any one administration or another,” he says. “It is crucial to understand and to explain to foreign audiences that debate, often angry and impassioned, is a critical and necessary part of the American system.”

The mission of public diplomacy is to tell the truth, says Ken Tomlinson, chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Broadcasting Bureau. That applies to the revelations of mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and the efforts to deal with it: “I hope that people in the Arab world and people around the world will see how we approach problems in a democracy because there is no evidence of a cover-up. We are addressing the situation, and this is what happens in a democracy because the people in the United States are demanding an answer for what happened every bit as much as people in Iraq.”

The Congressional hearings on prisoner abuse are good public diplomacy, says Ted Kattouf, president of Amideast, an organization that brings people from the Middle East to study in the United States. Viewers get the unvarnished truth. “They were seeing some of the most powerful people in this country being scrutinized not just by the senators who serve on the committee but by all the viewers in America who could form their own judgments,” he says. “They were hearing calls for resignations, calls for accountability, calls for apologies. I cannot think of anything that would have a bigger impact on an Arab audience than just being able to watch that hearing.”

Mr. Kattouf notes that al-Jazeera TV, often harshly criticized by the U.S. Government, covered the hearings. The adversary, in effect, was helping American public diplomacy.

But too much emphasis on the American reaction is not good public diplomacy, says Ambassador Robert Hutchings, chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council. Americans should take into account the feelings of the Iraqi victims and their families. Perhaps the U.S. Government should send delegations to as many Muslim capitals as possible to express regrets and discuss better treatment of prisoners. Since America is so powerful, says Ambassador Hutchings, all the more reason to show another face to the world. “The irreducible requirement for successful public diplomacy is empathy,” he says. “One has not only to understand one’s audience but actually to feel what it feels in order to be successful. If public diplomacy means simply projecting our policies, our interests, our values on the rest of the world, it will fail every time.”

Don’t think our image problems are confined to the Muslim world, cautions Ambassador Hutchings. On a recent trip to South Korea, for example, he found growing anti-Americanism in this U.S. ally. Public diplomacy must transcend the “us versus them” kind of thinking, says Ambassador Hutchings. We are all in it together.

Public diplomacy is not just a government affair, says Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies with 206 offices in 96 countries. Alarmed by anti-Americanism, he and other business executives have formed Business for Diplomatic Action, a group that responds to criticism of American companies overseas as arrogant and exploitative.

“This job of reversing the trend of anti-American sentiment is too big for the government,” Mr. Reinhard says. “Business needs to activate its foundations, its resources in a public diplomacy program. American business can mobilize itself without the bureaucratic entanglements confronted by people who try to mount diplomacy programs through the government.”

This is not a matter of advertising, says Mr. Reinhard, but of discussion.

And that discussion best takes place in person, says Phillip Reeker. That is the ultimate public diplomacy. “In this day of the Internet and the non-stop news,” he says, “we have to remember the human element in public diplomacy. As a wise colleague of mine once said: ‘I’ve never met a website that could reach out and shake your hand.’”

Ambassador Kattouf notes there was a lot of hand-shaking with Arabs who were brought here to study. That had an impressive result in at least one case: “I would venture to say that if in places like Saudi Arabia there is relative stability, despite all the stresses and strain, it is not least because in the 1960’s and 70’s thousands and thousands of university students came to this country, got their education here, got their PhD’s here and became the technocratic and professional and business class in Saudi Arabia.”

So make use of such people in public diplomacy, urges Nadia Bilbassy, Washington correspondent for al-Arabiya TV, based in Dubai. She says Arab-Americans, with experience in both worlds, would make a good contrast to the bad images of America in Muslim countries - too many weapons stamped “made in USA.”

And she adds there are good things they can say about America. “There is a perception that America is a fair society,” she says. “It is a society where anybody can flourish. You can make it here. You can come as an immigrant and you can hold the highest office. In Britain, you can come from the Indian subcontinent and you can never be British. And it is the same in France. You are always viewed as a foreigner. And I think that is the attraction and strength of America.”

IBB Chairman Tomlinson says there are even good things to say about America in Iraq – efforts of U.S. troops to help, not just fight Iraqis. This is a side of the American character worthy of report along with less desirable behavior.

Mr. Tomlinson is presiding over a number of innovations, including establishment of al-Hurra, a 24-hour satellite television station aimed at the Middle East. While some Arab media have mocked it as superficial, Mr. Tomlinson expects it to be competitive: “Al-Hurra is a very important broadcast-public diplomacy initiative on the part of the United States - an attempt to give objective news to the region but also an attempt to put together debates of various points of views so that people can hear the pro-western, pro-democracy point of view as well as the radical points of view. They can hear the debates and make up their own minds.”

Mr. Tomlinson cautions that while broadcasting is part of public diplomacy, it must be independent of government and not subject to its rules.

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