Q&A: 'U.S. Must Take Seriously What the World Thinks'

  • William Fisher interviews JOHN BROWN, public diplomacy expert (new york)
  • Inter Press Service

Brown spoke with IPS about how Obama can restore the U.S. image overseas, which sunk to a new low under the eight-year tenure of the George W. Bush administration.

IPS: What do you think the Obama administration should be doing in the area of public diplomacy? What should the strategy be?

JB: The most important public diplomacy priority for the Obama administration is having a 'PD perspective' when formulating and then implementing policy. Greater resources for well-crafted overseas outreach programmes are all well and good, but public diplomacy must be present during the policy-making process and after.

Foreign public opinion must be taken into serious consideration. 'Selling' a policy framed in a vacuum in Washington without considering the reactions of overseas publics has little chance of success. Indeed, efforts to convince foreigners that a policy conceived without their concerns in mind deserves their support often backfires by being considered propaganda overseas. The Bush administration's 'justification' for the invasion of Iraq is a tragic example of this mistaken viewpoint.

IPS: Do you think Obama's decision to give his first public interview to an Arab television network was a wise decision?

JB: The Obama interview represents a significant public diplomacy departure from the Bush years in that it uses regional media in sending a presidential foreign policy message directly to Middle East audiences. In the U.S., liberal commentators praised the interview, while conservative ones expressed reservations.

As for the Middle East, it is too early to tell what the interview's long- or even short-term impact will be, although the State Department reports that, based what they've observed so far, the reaction has been very positive.

IPS: What should be Obama's public diplomacy goals?

JB: Some will say that our policy goal should be advancing American 'national interests', not winning over non-Americans and making them 'like us' - in both senses of those words. But in today's interconnected world America's national interests cannot be advanced without the support of - or at least the tolerance of - foreign publics. The reaction of 'the masses', like it or not, must be part of any U.S. diplomatic equation for policies aiming to protect and promote the United States.

Taking seriously 'what the world thinks' could be considered America's great contribution to diplomacy. Our diplomatic challenge in the coming decades is not seeking the restoration of a global U.S. hegemony, but implementing policies that overcome the legacy of Bush's aggressive and unilateral actions overseas - disastrous misadventures that were setting the stage for an 'anti-American century' which I hope we will be able to avoid under new leadership in Washington.

IPS: What kinds of programmes can you suggest that would support that strategy?

JB: In my view, the best way of 'teaching democracy' is to continue programmes that make it possible for foreign leaders to observe the American political system in action. They can do this is by their visiting the United States for an extended period and coming to their own conclusions about the applicability of its political system to conditions in their own countries. I far prefer such programmes to all-too-brief, 'in-country' training led by American 'specialists', many of whom are unfamiliar with the local culture and language of the countries where they are parachuted for a few weeks.

IPS: In his farewell address, former President Bush said: 'I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged.' He said he thought 'most people around the world, they respect America. They view us as strong, compassionate people who care deeply about the universality of freedom.' What is your reaction to Bush's view?

JB: We Americans tend to believe we're exceptional, and in some ways we are, for better or for worse. But the U.S. model may not be as attractive to others as we flatter ourselves it to be.

My sense from living abroad for over 20 years as a Foreign Service officer is that the attitude of foreigners toward the United States is ambivalent.

Most people throughout the world have conflicting interpretations of the United States, admiring and criticising it at the same time. Thanks to new media such as the Internet, individual overseas now can see the many sides the U.S. - negative and positive - far more readily than during the past century.

IPS: What errors do you think the Bush administration made that Obama can avoid?

JB: During the Bush years, no one in the White House, obsessed as it was with military solutions to solve international problems, never quite knew what public diplomacy was all about - I recall a White House spokesman equating it with humanitarian aid. The State department defines it as 'engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences'.

So U.S. public diplomacy - in a state of near complete confusion and staff turnovers under Bush - was plagued by an obsession with 'new initiatives.' Every incoming under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs - there were four of them between 2000 and 2008 - tried to leave her mark with special programmes of her own before going on to the private sector. Much of this superficial hyperactivity, often lacking direction or continuity, had little to do with outreach to foreign publics. Rather it was an attempt to get favourable publicity in the United States for narrow domestic political purposes.

My hope is that the new administration - aside from cultivating a public diplomacy mentality and carefully innovating in the public diplomacy field, including by the use of modern communication tools - will make sure that time-tested programmes that have proven their worth over decades - e.g., the Fulbright programme, the International Visitor programme, both admired by distinguished foreigners - have enough staff and resources to continue making an impact.

Finally, public diplomacy practitioners in the field must be given more independence and a larger budget, even in these hard economic times. It is a waste of money to send a PD diplomat overseas - at considerable cost to the taxpayer - and not give him or her the leeway and funding to carry out activities that can contribute to America's dialogue with the world.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service