CHAPTER II - Stumbling Blocks to Greater Effectiveness
Three key points emerged from the initial discussion, pointing up the problems that American public diplomacy faces in the current environment: voice, audience, and authenticity.
America’s Voice. First, America’s voice is being heard but not being listened to. Even though American culture is pervasive and dominant throughout the world, it does not translate into support for American policies. Other cultures are becoming equally influential.
The unprecedented media sophistication of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni jihadist group now dominating parts of Syria and Iraq, and known for its extreme brutality, is the most recent example of how America’s enemies are using information as an essential part of their growth strategy and to emasculate America’s security strategy. As one participant pointed out, ISIL “sets the information space before it moves to kinetic action.”
ISIL’s strategy is also aided by other competitors in the information space. Rising Chinese and Russian capabilities have narrowed the opportunities for the American voice to be listened to. As was seen in the recent Russian incursions into Ukrainian territory, Russia mobilized hundreds of bloggers in support of a greater Russian political and military strategy. In contrast, the U.S. has no historic precedent for using citizen media as a political tool in foreign policy.
The United States needs different messages for different audiences. Other voices, including that of its enemies’, are more effective than the United States in reaching their target audiences—even if their message is disparaged by the majority of the world. For example, Russia Today is effective with Russians and Russian-speaking populations, and ISIL is effective with wannabe terrorists, even though the rest of the world remains hostile to their messages. However, it is easier for authoritarian governments and terrorist groups to develop and target their messages because they do not need a transparent, open process requiring consensus before making policy.
The American message is limited by its limited embrace of new communications tools and technology, by the messages it is using, and also by the deafening sense of silence of America on the world stage. As a State Department participant observed, even as the United States is being challenged as to what it is doing, there is a sense that it does not care. As another noted, America is paying less attention and playing less of a role even in the international organizations that the United States was instrumental in creating. These organizations may mean little to the U.S. Congress or American public, but they are important to everyone else. Not being engaged in these institutions signals a wider American lack of concern to non-Americans. Why listen to someone if they are not listening to you?
It is a self-reinforcing paradigm: equivocating over our response to international problems feeds the perception of a lack of concern. Furthermore, the new information space means that America’s traditional democratic narrative is being lost in an echo chamber of other voices. As Freedom House’s 2014 report noted, this is the eighth consecutive year of a decline in freedom around the world.i Authoritarian actors have learned to hijack democratized communications platforms to spread their messages, making it difficult for the United States to counter them. While the message still matters in this era of new information technologies and platforms, unfortunately, the message is often not the one America intends.
As a Congressional participant suggested, “The person who comes up with the best hash tag on Twitter has more impact than the professional journalist.” The State Department has more than 100 social media accounts, with active Twitter, Facebook and Flickr feeds. But communications research consistently shows that journalists are still the gatekeepers and the agenda setters around the globe. Hash tags are normally based on news articles and news programs, which legitimize issues.
The high ground of the information battlefield is won by the entity or individual who can control the delivery of a message, with the appearance—if not the reality—of authenticity, which appeals to the population receiving it. As ISIL’s success on the battlefield has demonstrated, freedom is not relevant to a jihadist. What matters is the authenticity of the jihadist message, even if it includes beheading. But authenticity is usually lacking in messages delivered by government entities, concluded a non-American conferee. Rapid response requires the capability to voice a discriminating and authentic message, in multiple languages over multiple web links, to capture the hearts and minds of foreign listeners. Authenticity is one of the key drivers of communications success, which means that the United States may often do better showing its disagreements than a packaged line.
The United States has been able to address this in some instances. As a Congressional participant commented, for example, President George W. Bush demonstrated American interest and support for Africa with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). American commitment to the success of this program was essential to the perception of American interest in Africa and its problems. U.S. commitment is once again being challenged by the spread of the Ebola virus. The question is, are there other policy issues or developmental or humanitarian challenges that have the same degree of consensus elsewhere in the world and would not be open to politicization?
In responding to international challenges, the United States should focus on the credibility of its actions, which demonstrate American leadership; the authenticity of the measures taken, which show the truth of American values; and the creativity of American responses, which are evidence of the vitality of the American system. More simply, walk the walk and talk the talk.
The Audience. Secondly, the traditional focus of public diplomacy has become more complex. The audience for American policy has become amplified by technologies for which there are no barriers to entry. American policymakers are constrained by the need to engage the traditional audience of foreign governments first, and then foreign publics.
Foreign officials and elites remain the primary raison d’etre for official diplomatic engagement. The formulation of American policy requires, as one former senior American official commented, a painful bureaucratic process of internal debate, interagency discussion and finally public issuance. The second tier of official American engagement in public diplomacy has been the foreign public. This engagement has traditionally been the focus of cultural exchanges, cultural programs and American libraries—now named “American Spaces.” There was a consensus among conferees that these and the traditional international exchange programs still remain vital focal points for American public diplomacy efforts, but they need to be reinvigorated and expanded.
The Cold War broadened the audience for American public diplomacy efforts. The rise of the Iron Curtain forced American diplomats to seek alternative ways to reach beyond totalitarian governments and directly to the people. VOA and the other radio broadcasters were and remain, according to participants, important components of efforts to reach and educate publics in denied areas.ii However, there was agreement that the audience for those forms of communication is diminishing and that they are less effective in reaching the vast numbers of people who may live in restrictive societies but who have other means for accessing information that even their governments have trouble limiting. As one participant with a technological background noted, to some degree governments have lost control over their publics, too. The conundrum of this complex environment is that the United States may be concentrating its resources on maintaining relationships with governments that have lost touch with their own people.
Strong views were expressed that the United States is spending a large portion of its public diplomacy budget on activities that are not relevant or are not reaching the vast new and complex audiences that American policymakers must reach if the United States is going to remain competitive in today’s global market for ideas.iii This is especially true of the younger, under age 25 audience.
There was a consensus that in this new world of multiple networks and instantaneous communications with no barriers to entry—in which any person can be a reporter or any person can become a movement—governments need to seek new approaches to achieving credibility for their message. One former State Department official asked, “What is the ability of the United States to grow power and influence in the future as non-state actors grow in influence?” Is the allocation of power changing from states to non-state actors? The power of illusive networks of sometimes vaguely affiliated individuals and organizations is growing in influence. The focus of military power is away from states towards these new organizations. The demographic shift to cities is concentrating power as never before. An oft-quoted statistic is that by 2050 cities will contain almost three-quarters of the world’s population.iv Indeed some of the credibility of non-states is derived precisely because they are not states.
i Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2014, 2014. Available online: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2014#.VOJbpGd0y00.
In mid-2014 a DOS Inspector General report noted the absence of a State Department-wide public diplomacy strategy tying resources to priorities. In almost a decade there has been no progress. See United State Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Office of the Inspector General, Compliance Follow up Review of the Bureau of International Information Programs, ISP-I-14-13, 2014. Available online: http://oig.state.gov/reports/8733.