The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views. For blogger guidelines, click here.

Viewpoint: Hughes’ Work Has Just Begun

Aug 8, 2006


It was just over a year ago that Karen Hughes, then nominee for Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before her swift appointment as the nation's chief public diplomat. Striking all the right chords along the way, Hughes affirmed that "the mission of public diplomacy is to engage, inform, and help others (read 'foreign populations') understand our policies, actions and values. "But," she continued, "I am mindful that before we seek to be understood, we must first work to understand…I recognize that the job ahead will be difficult. Perceptions do not change quickly or easily." Now with a year under her belt, Hughes has shown characteristic resolve by simply showing up to work and setting about the business of telling America's story to the world. How has she fared?

Unlike Hughes' smooth passage into the Department of State, progress in waging the illustrious battle for hearts and minds -- including the formidable tasks of reversing the anti-American tide abroad and selling American foreign policy to skeptical masses in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere -- has been hard to come by. And sadly, such has been the plight of her predecessors: Hughes is the fourth person in five years to hold perhaps the least desirable Under Secretary post at the State Department, thereby mortgaging her sterling reputation on a failing enterprise.

Her first foray into the Middle East last September, billed as "listening tour" through Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, brought on hard questions about the war in Iraq, democracy promotion and women's rights. Why does the president always mention God in his speeches, an Egyptian asked. A female Saudi student challenged Hughes' assumption that Saudi women suffered intolerable social injustice, and insisted "we're all pretty happy" to raucous applause. "It's a huge challenge, it's confirmed," Hughes conceded afterwards.

In November, Hughes adopted a page from her own playbook as director of White House Office of Global Communications, and announced the creation of a Rapid Response Unit to ensure cabinet offices stayed on message in dealing with emerging news items on America's foreign engagements. This quick-hit tactic proved essential in domestic political campaigns, but would it withstand the onslaught of the international media and its steady criticisms of U.S. policies toward Iraq, prosecuting the war on terror, holding detainees at Guantanamo, rebuffing the election of Hamas, or dealing with Iran?

Hughes remained committed to the personal touch of changing hearts and minds one audience at a time, visiting Southeast Asia twice, South Asia, Central America, South America, Africa, and the Middle East for a second time. Over the coming months the tide showed little sign of turning. In fact, it worsened. The 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project, regarded by many as the holy grail of world opinion, indicated that between 2005 and 2006 favorability towards the United States suffered downturns amongst our most trusted allies as well as the very skeptics Hughes sought to win over.

The news did not improve at home either. In May 2006, the Government Accountability Office cited several deep fissures in the current public diplomacy strategy, and that the frameworks of the Hughes team could not being implemented by a Foreign Service corps unclear on how to conduct public diplomacy. "Posts throughout the world and particularly in the Muslim world," it states, "face several challenges in implementing their public diplomacy programs, including concerns related to staff numbers and language capabilities and the need to balance security with public outreach."

Yet the fact remains that ongoing efforts to deliver consistent and timely messages to target audiences abroad may have more to do with what we say rather than how we are saying it. On this point, it has often been said that good public diplomacy cannot be sustained by the widespread perception of bad foreign policy. At the same time, it is wholly unwise to base foreign policy on pleasing one's detractors – this serves no one for the better, least of all the United States. So what is Hughes to do?

In the case of the "happy" Saudi woman, you cannot effectively sell something that is not wanted With the time she has left in Washington, Hughes has the opportunity and, crucially, the benefit of direct access to her boss to continuously demonstrate that America is interested in listening more and selling less. Progress, as is invariably the case with hearts and minds, will nevertheless remain painfully slow, and Hughes knows this: "This is not something that I expect will change probably much in [the time] we have left." However, should Hughes recognize that foreign public opinion has more to offer the architects of policy, it may change more than she might expect.

John Robert Kelley served under Secretary Colin L. Powell at the U.S. Department of State and is currently a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Shortly after 9/11, then

Shortly after 9/11, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that we had to do a better job of public diplomacy. That was five years ago. That was the golden opportunity and it has long passed.

With no disrespect to Secretary Hughes, her work is over. There is no room for public diplomacy in the Bush Administration. It has embraced a forward, "bring it on," preemptive foreign policy. If anything, the administration has taken the public diplomacy apparatus, particularly US international broadcasting, and used it as a shill for this policy, creating even more international anger and resentment.

John Robert Kelley's column is correct on many points, including the one that we can't please our detractors. But the more important point is in the sentence before, in which he notes that "good public diplomacy cannot be sustained by the widespread perception of bad foreign policy." Public diplomacy and foreign policy are inseparable. If one is out of step with the other, both suffer. And right now, international anti-American sentiment is running at dangerously high speed.

There are two, great foreign policy failures of this administration that will haunt the next administration and perhaps future ones. First, is the failure to find Osama bin Laden in a timely manner. It was not an easy task to begin with. But now, with the passage of time and events, his elusiveness from the Americans (but not from al-Jazeera) has made him a legend larger than life and an inspiration for those who subscribe to his cause. Therein lies the second great failure of this administration. Rather than marginalize extremist fundamentalism, the administration has broadened its appeal and made it embraceable. It has emboldened the insurgency in Iraq and the overt Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has given the North Korean regime the excuse to move boldly on its own agenda. In short, things have gone from bad to worse.

And it should not be forgotten that it has alienated support from some of our traditional allies.

At best, public diplomacy is on hiatus until after the Bush Administration passes into history. Recovering from the collapse of this valuable asset may be long and painful.

Gary A Marco
President, AFSCME Local 1418
Voice of America
Washington, DC

An interesting article that

An interesting article that can be summed up as "She Failed!"

Karen Hughes, with the personality of a rabid Pit Bull, was the wrong person for a very important job. Her attitude for her own staff, and the personnel she had to deal with day by day was a recipe for failure from day 1.

Despite all the rhetoric about her noble task she was not alone in seeking to influence opinion for Bush. In parallel was the effort by Rumsfeld to seed misinformation and bribe foreign and domestic journalists to write "Nice" stories, contracts of over a hundred million dollars giving to the fledgling Lincoln Group. The White House also got caught buying positive stories, and planting questions through Jeff Gannon. What a team. A local Scout troop in rural Montana could have done a better job!

No matter how Mr. Kelly seeks to explain her role, or her lack of accomplishments with the growing legions of detractors, the fact is she has failed miserably, as has the Bush Administration.

The global media message from Bush this year has been that ordinary people need to band together to fight imperialism and aggression, or they will be bombed and their homes destroyed, and nations with nuclear weapons will be left alone, no matter how cruel their regimes become.

We have very stormy seas ahead.

I would not look at America

I would not look at America or its values as a enterprise. I would not even consider America as a role model. I mean if I were to plan the best World Peace Plan America would still not be able to manage as there are to many factors which prevail against American leadership, most likely language and culture. Our rules and laws we have would have little affect to the making of a New World Peace Plan, our diplomacy would be of little value as the survival of a new World Peace Plan would be ultimately decided on the success of how everyone worked together as a whole to achieve success. America can and will work with everyone and I summize China will be of a great asset in this challenge not to bring superstitions but real engineers that understand what needs to be accomlplished. As I see it China has a opportunity to provide education and support for astronautics, that is becoming a big interest of the Chinese people. But they as we and every nation are forgetting that space is that final frontier and efforts to grasp mother earth need to be part of this New World Peace Plan instead.

So efforts to make settlements in space and the moon are not the reality here but efforts to design underwater sities instead on earth. There are dangers in space we have yet to understand fully. Especially dangers that originate from deep space and our sun known as a Gamma Ray Burst. The future of the earth is most important, we should pay more attention to working with what nature provides, rock formations that grow out of oxygen production is the key to managing a better atmosphere. Scientific advancement has brough us robotics and we should use what means we have to achieve our goasl using robotics as the main objective in building underwater cities. With this in mind all the world will appreciate the diplomatic concerns as the less important isssue. These challenges need to have a outreach to all those diplomats that can perceive the needs of the future as being a immediate cause. China has no major project right now that would make them less committed to this challenge. China has just completed a Dam Reservoir Project, tell me they don't need underwater cities and I'll show you all the land mass they now have underwater because of their Dam Reservoir Project.

Freedom to make a New World Peace needs leadership but also needs all nations capable of and having needs for, support. We have freedom of speech to design the culture which does not become selfish and dominating. Diplomats will have to wait the result of all national's supporting a New World peace Plan. It can happen overnight, like a Boston Tea Party Event we have seen in American history. Ous laws show the people are required to pay land tax, what land tax is necessary under the ocean I might ask. I find the best method to gain support and to keep support is No Taxation period, and with the introduction of Bonds For Business. Building on a premise that business has the advantage we can see from whom wants to support underwater cities as being the founders of and the new managers to aid in conceiving what needs to be as opposed to what needs do not need attention. We Americans can see by success that Bonding would work to replace taxation if the lobbiest did not have their pork budgets tied into legislation. Why did government stray from a leadership role to a taxation role in history, the leadership role lobbied for taxation and never perceived what Bonded Business is because government was a little squeak in a big loud storm, well not much changes over 100 years cause government still got squeaks and the method they worked for still plaques the population that now has become infiltarted by immigrants and uninvited guests we recognize as Latinos and we now have to endorse the Spanish language so this history is not really something to squeak loudly about knowing how we need to reshape the future.

First we need to get control of our thoughts, we need to work on the future together as tomorrow is a new dawn and brings a New World Peace. Being beneath the seas is one way of challenging the storm we will experience bad weather and there will be more wars,there seems to be no way out excepting for creating a New World Peace. We should not litter our coastlines with shipping ports and ship building ports, we need to design these locations to accommidate ourselves with what earth offers.

Chinese -- in Baghdad?:
Iraqis are getting their first taste of Chinese food. A new restaurant called Food the Chinese Way has made its home in Baghdad. Managed by three Chinese steelworkers who speak neither Arabic nor English, the trio has somehow managed to win over hungry Iraqis with their culinary creations. ABC's Hilary Brown decided to try it for herself.


Visit CPD's Online Library

Explore CPD's vast online database featuring the latest books, articles, speeches and information on international organizations dedicated to public diplomacy. 

Join the Conversation

Interested in contributing to the CPD Blog? We welcome your posts. Read our guidelines and find out how you can submit blogs and photo essays >