If there is one constant in discussion about public diplomacy in the United States these days, it is policy criticism. Such criticism has been a booming industry since the early days of the Bush administration – as U.S. popularity abroad continues to plummet. This is not to say, however, that the stewards of public diplomacy have ignored their charge. The now familiar Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra television supposedly beam models of pluralistic, democratic news culture to the Middle East.
The latest Middle East TV ratings that list actual tune-in of news channels, obtained exclusively by Worldcasting, show business as usual but also some surprises.
Al Jazeera, the Qatari government-owned channel, continues to hold forth in popularity in Egypt. Al Arabiya, funded in part by the Saudi government through a holding company, once again tops others in Saudi Arabia by a wide margin, but it also garnered impressive audience ratings in Iraq, where Alhurra, the U.S. government service, continues to trail its competition, there and elsewhere.
Since the events of September 11, 2001 the foreign policy establishment of Washington has exhausted much energy debating America's public diplomacy efforts. I've watched this debate with interest because I work on a contract basis for State Department public diplomacy programs. I have also tried to create private sector public diplomacy projects. I've traveled with foreign journalists, politicians, and other notable figures all over the United States. You might say that I'm a "foot soldier" in the public diplomacy battle.
An article by George Packer in the December 18, 2006 issue of the New Yorker raises some interesting questions for public diplomacy. The article, titled "Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the 'War on Terror'?" highlights how insights from counter-insurgency and cultural anthropology studies have revealed that the U.S. conflict with jihadist groups is largely informational.
Much of the discussion on the Public Diplomacy blog dwells on how a nation can persuade others about its image and its policies. The most common observation has been that actions (e.g. a foreign policy) can "speak" louder than any communication campaign. Again and again, this argument is presented: U.S. public diplomacy programs face difficulty because U.S. policy actions so obviously overpower any attempt to persuade publics through international broadcasting, cultural exchanges, and the other components of U.S. public diplomacy.
No matter how small their post, every embassy public affairs officer who ever arranged an exchange, distributed a pamphlet, or in the jargon of contemporary public diplomacy fretted over "moving the needle" of foreign public opinion knows that a U.S. presidential election is an opportunity. Traditionally they have been animated quadrennial civics classes, dramatizing America's democratic process and contrasting starkly with the brutality with which power changes hands or not in too much of the world.
Who is the fairest of them all?
Worldcasting refers to White House presidential aspirants, and where public diplomacy could be headed in the next administration.
I'd like to respond to Simon Anholt's remarks on my previous post about "branding" as a defining discourse for public diplomacy. Anholt seizes on what I feel is a very real and lingering confusion surrounding the term and its relevance for public diplomacy.