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Wars of Ideas

Hearts, minds, and the continuation of diplomacy by other means.

Jan 25, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 18 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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Toward a New Public Diplomacy

Wars of Ideas

Hillary Clinton in South Africa, 2009

edited by Philip Seib
Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pp., $30

The State Department defines public diplomacy as “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” Because this can be done by governments or by private actors, the chief virtue of this book, edited by Philip Seib, director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, is its generous scope. Along with U. S. international broadcasting, military strategic communication, and cultural diplomacy, it also contains chapters on outsourcing; the new social media (Web 2.0); the views from Russia, China, and Egypt; and the role of religion.

As hinted in the subtitle, public diplomacy does not consist wholly of persuading or pressuring foreigners to go along with U. S. policy in the short term. Some forms of public diplomacy work better in the long term and at arm’s length from policy, especially when that policy is unpopular. At the same time, it borders on wishful thinking to suggest that public diplomats will ever be able to “redirect” foreign policy. The longer they live overseas, the better they get at their jobs. But in most cases, this also means the less clout they have in Washington.

In the opening chapters, William Rugh, former ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, wrestles with Joseph Nye’s useful but cloudy concept of “soft power”; and
Nicholas Cull, author of the definitive history of the U.S. Information Agency, crams a century of bureaucratic churning into 26 pages. Because most Americans are barely aware of how public diplomacy works, such an introduction may be necessary. But there’s no getting around the eye-glazing
nature of this material.

Since 9/11 the U. S. government has spent more than $600 million on a satellite TV service (Al Hurra) and an FM radio channel (Radio Sawa) aimed at Arab audiences. It has also lavished untold billions on military strategic communications, a term that overlaps with civilian public diplomacy but also refers to deceptive practices used in war. Both subjects are hard to get one’s mind around, but Toward a New Public Diplomacy does a fair job with the first.

In their chapter on Al Hurra, Shawn Powers and Ahmed El Gody recite the litany of criticisms leveled at the service since it was launched in 2004: Shoddy production; corrupt management; ethnic and religious bias; failure to compete in the crowded Arab market; excessive reliance on AP, Reuters, and the other wire services; and the occasional gross error of editorial judgment, such as “extensive and deferential coverage” of a Holocaust deniers’ conference in Iran.

Another contributor, Amelia Arsenault, cogently analyzes the promise—and pitfalls—of the new social media. To her credit, Arsenault questions the current cliché that these media are automatically on the side of freedom and democracy. As she notes, Web 2.0 has the potential of “engaging and/or alienating foreign constituencies” and can be used to “disseminate information and/or disinformation.” Yet what’s missing from these chapters, and from the discussion of news media in Neal Rosendorf’s chapter on cultural diplomacy, is a proper assessment of the older, more established components of international broadcasting: the Voice of America and the “surrogate” services, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and (more recently) Radio Free Asia, whose mission is to provide local, regional, and world news to populations in unfree and partly free media environments.

Despite the occasional lapse, most of these services have adapted quite well to the post-Cold War world, shifting to new regions and adopting new media platforms. For example, the Persian-language services of VOA and RFE/RL now attract a significant enough following in Iran that the government labors to jam their signals and block their websites. In a similar vein RFA has been winning industry awards for its on-the-ground reporting from restricted areas in China, Burma, and Vietnam.

The real story, untold in this volume, is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has starved VOA and the surrogates to fatten Al Hurra and Radio Sawa—which plays Arab and Western pop music interspersed with news segments also taken from the wire services. In contrast, VOA and the better surrogates employ local journalists who risk and sometimes lose their lives to get on-the-ground stories. To call these efforts “propaganda” (Rosendorf), or assert flatly that they “do not work any more” (Powers/El Gody), is to do them a disservice.

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