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Dateline: Role of Public Diplomacy In US War Against Terrorism - 2001-12-06

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States government has been waging war on two fronts. The military-led effort in Afghanistan is accompanied by a global public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the international community, particularly in the Muslim world. This edition of Dateline examines the central role of U.S. public diplomacy in the wake of September 11, and the daunting challenges posed by a rapidly changing media environment.

There is a growing belief in foreign policy circles that the key to United States preeminence in world affairs lies not in the country's military power, but in what is called its "soft power", the ability to convince people around the world to accept American leadership, values and policies.

Public diplomacy campaigns are not new to U.S. foreign policy. They have been an integral part of every American war since the founding of this country. From the Revolutionary War to World War II to the Cold War, the United States has employed information strategies to bolster its military campaigns.

"This is a voice speaking from America. Daily at this time we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad, we shall tell you the truth," says the German Service Announcer. Announcer Harlan Hale opened the first Voice of America broadcast with those legendary words on February 24, 1942, 79 days after the United States entered World War II. Since the Second World War, technological innovations have radically altered the global media environment.

Speaking at a recent forum on "Public Diplomacy and Propaganda in the Age of Information" sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, media analyst Steven Livingston says the capability of communicating live with pictures from almost anywhere in the world, has revolutionized broadcasting.

"Today media are mobile, global and they're perhaps in some measure uncontrollable. The other important consideration when talking about this global media environment is that the nature of the technology that is being utilized today has nothing to do with the nature of the technology that was being utilized in 1991 for example during the Persian Gulf War. Furthermore, the change in the ability to communicate live from almost anywhere in the world, including with pictures, we're in the midst of a radical, revolutionary change in that," he says.

Through an anecdote, Steven Livingston illustrates the dire implications such innovative media technology has for American foreign policy. "Most recently I was told that NBC in a news account offered a satellite image of a suspected terrorist training facility south of Baghdad. What's the effect of that? The effect of that is that if the administration was interested in delaying with that issue, of not confronting the possibility that Baghdad is indeed directly involved in the training of terrorists, they can no longer do that. It's a part of the public domain brought to us by a technology that was hitherto not available to news organizations, private and voluntary organizations, NGO's, advocacy groups around the world. It changes the nature of the dynamic of the dialogue going on between journalists, communities and world events," he says.

This fast paced media environment poses a challenge to the U.S. government as it attempts to fashion a public information strategy in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent American led-war in Afghanistan. The crisis precipitated by September 11 has reminded Americans that they do not necessarily enjoy popularity in many parts of the world, particularly in the Arab world.

To combat this anti American sentiment, President Bush has directed more attention and resources to public diplomacy. In addition to increased broadcasts by the Voice of America, the U.S. government has developed web materials on Islam in America, dropped leaflets for civilians in Afghanistan and deployed Arabic speakers to appear on the popular Al-Jazeera satellite television network, all this and more, in an effort to win the hearts and minds of America's adversaries. Conference panelist John Alterman further describes the administration's efforts.

"The government has set up a number of coalition information centers to try to coordinate messages from Islamabad to London to Washington to make sure all the time, as we're in a 24 hour news cycle somebody is thinking about a coalition message 24 hours a day, depending upon where the news is and when people are awake. Chris Ross, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Algeria is a fluent Arabic speaker and has been making very, very frequent appearances on the Arab satellite networks, not just Al-Jazeera but national networks and others. We honestly have a paucity of foreign service officers who can do that who can interact. I argued several years ago that we have to think about creating a cadre of individuals who can do that, developing the language ability. Because the media are only going to get more interactive, they're only going to want more images, because television requires images. And somebody stiffly speaking in English doesn't do it," he says.

Meanwhile, recent facts on the ground have changed perceptions in the Arab world. "In the Arab world, for the last two months, nothing succeeds like success. With the military campaign in Afghanistan has proved successful, the pictures of jubilant Afghans on all the different Arab satellite stations in addition to CNN, NBC and the other U.S. stations that have a following in the Middle East changes the environment," said Mr. Alterman. "It's no longer us beating up a bunch of poor Afghans. It's not to say that people love U.S. policy in the Middle East or people love U.S.-Afghan policy but people aren't portraying it anymore as a U.S. battle against the Muslim world," he says.

Nonetheless, Mr. Alterman suggests that such short-term success is no substitute for addressing the larger problem of combating anti American sentiment around the world. "Much of the anti U.S. backlash in the Arab world and much of the support for Osama Bin Laden in the Arab world it seems to me is a sort of endemic level of anti imperialism that exists not only in the Arab world, but also in Latin America, in Europe, in lots of places. And we have to have a way to deal with the contradictions that we have when people on the one hand want to embrace U.S. culture, embrace U.S. technology but want to bash the U.S. either the U.S. government or Americans more broadly," he says.

Former Foreign Service Officer and current Professor of Public Diplomacy at George Washington University Barry Fulton has a long-term answer. He advocates nothing less than the formation of a bold, national information policy to complement economic and security policies. "It seems to me the necessary outcomes, if we look forward to a wise information strategy, is to try to find where it exists and create it where it does not, a sense of community with parts of the Islamic world and a sense of hope. I recommend we consider a national debate about our relations with the rest of the world including those parts of the world which most constitute a threat to us and from this debate we should try to find a national information policy which is integrated with economic and security policies.

"Information is always a Public Service; it's not part of an integrated view of what this country should do. It can't be something we think about when there is a war. It's something we should think about before a war. We now spend $30 billion on information gathering and intelligence and approximately $1 billion a year in information sharing through its public diplomacy activities. Would it be a surprise if those figures were reversed. It might be a start toward bridging the enormous cultural gap that divides us. We need a robust international information and educational policy as a complement not a substitute for our security and economic policies," he says.

America's emerging public diplomacy strategy has been thrust into the limelight as a result of September 11. Many analysts agree that short-term reactive measures are imperative in this fast-paced global and political environment. However, many like Professor Barry Fulton also think the United States must commit the resources necessary to implement a long-term policy of effective public diplomacy. He would like such a policy to be based on educational and cultural exchanges which he believes will foster greater understanding between our culture and those around the world. Also, he says, it will help the United States win the battle for the international community's hearts and minds.