Op Eds

‘Can You Hear Us Now?’

The aim of public diplomacy is to communicate America’s policies abroad and to engage international audiences about all things American. The problem is, we’re failing, and that’s to the detriment of our national security as well as commercial, cultural, and education interests.

America’s public diplomacy has a budget of about one billion dollars a year and a staff of thousands of foreign service officers and civil servants who are engaging in, among other things, broadcasting in 53 languages, staffing exchanges, deciding on Fulbright fellowships, and building websites. Since 2001, budgets and staff have increased and, in all fairness, exchanges, broadcasting to Arabic-speaking countries, and Internet tools have improved. But the question remains—are we better able to communicate with the world today than we were before 9/11? The increased budgets, augmented staff, and more modern websites were necessary but insufficient upgrades.

And that is a travesty, because the U.S. is the world’s driver of technology. Google, Twitter, Facebook, and the iPad were all born in America. Likewise, other goods and services produced by American corporations are equally popular in the U.S. and abroad. And American culture—from movies to music to TV—is a key American export.

In terms of the public sector, U.S. government programs are also the envy of the world. NASA, the U.S. government’s space agency, is the unquestionable leader in exploring our universe. The National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide much of the cutting-edge medicine in the world. And those are just two of a host of extraordinary government programs.

A recent Gallup survey of Global Perceptions of U.S. Leadership shows that the median approval of American leadership in the world jumped from 34 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2009—a change that is attributable to the change from the Bush to Obama administration. This buttresses the common perception that President Obama is at least as popular with international audiences as with American ones.


But despite all this, our ability to communicate with the world is still broken. How can we channel the international popularity of our president to engage international audiences?

One of the biggest criticisms is misguided—that American policies stink to some of our key audiences, and if we are going to reengage in a meaningful way with the world, those policies must change.

Let’s talk about this “policy question” for a minute. During the Cold War, it was in the interest of key European allies and the U.S. to position nuclear weapons on European soil, an act that caused much disdain among rank and file European populations. But America and our allies went ahead with these installations. We didn’t change our policies to encourage people to like us. Rather, we stood our ground in favor of our national interest and earned the respect, if not the admiration, of our tentative audiences. There are lots of lessons to be drawn from this on how to engage hostile audiences, but instead, there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to blame policies as an easy way to explain away the more complex problem.

Because there are procedural problems that need work, since 9/11 a bunch of well-meaning and very smart people have looked at this issue and identified a few things that need fixing. One compelling and frequent finding concerns the nature of our messages to our key audiences. The consensus maintains that our messages are at best poorly received by “the Arab street,” and in some cases, insulting. Not only do we have an inadequate number of Arabic-speaking foreign service officers but our communications are also hindered by an absence of meaningful cultural sensitivity. Another common finding is that there is “insufficient” bureaucratic coordination from the White House. Additionally, there are too many educational and cultural exchanges with historical Cold War allies and too few with people of countries less friendly to America today. Our international broadcasting has few devotees.

America needs a new way of communicating with the world. We don’t just need new tools, although some new tools will be useful. We don’t just need to fix the bureaucratic process, which is rife with power plays between the State and Defense Departments. These are just some of the problems; the fixes are wonky, legislative, and statutory.

We need a call to action—we need a nod from our president that demonstrates how important it is for America to effectively communicate with the world and to remind us that Americans traveling and living abroad are as much U.S. ambassadors as the Senate-confirmed official representatives.

Let’s end this debate about why America has an international communications problem and start figuring out how to fix it with common-sense solutions, new technology, and a new generation of diplomats to tell our story to the world.

M.C. Andrews is a Spring 2010 Institute of Politics Fellow. She is a former Special Assistant to the President, former White House Director of Global Communications and former Director for Democracy on the National Security Council Staff.