By Jim Miles
Toward a New Public Diplomacy – Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy. Ed. Philip Seib. Palgrave MacMillan, New York. 2009.
This collection of essays could be summed up in one word: image. Other words used throughout the text range from the more benign terms of “perception” and “communication tactics” through to the harder terms of “propaganda,” the military “strategic communications” and the rather laborious military phrase of “coordinated information dissemination.” At its base however it wall returns to the one word, image.
Image as opposed to actions, in that U.S. public diplomacy rarely if ever admits to mistakes in the grand purpose of the U.S. and will only do so under limited circumstances when media exposure catches their actions at cross purposes with their purported rhetorical ideology. The underlying assumption of all authors, some more boldly stated than others, is that the U.S. right, it is good, and therefore we do not need to change our actions, what we need to adjust is our image.
The book is divided into roughly three sections. The first looks at the case for public diplomacy. The second examines three different view points from the outside looking in (essentially all three give ‘fails’). Finally, there are five essays on what the future should hold for U.S. public diplomacy – none of which mention the essential factor that the U.S. is a highly militarized society occupying several countries with military bases in over 150 countries at a huge cost to the U.S. economy.
The book attempts to make the case for “soft power”, all those things that are non-military that can “establish the legitimacy of American action,” partly because “The current struggle against terrorism is a struggle to win hearts and minds.” The assumptions supporting all these arguments are the over-used phrases about “our democracy and our political system generally,” including the neo-liberal free market capitalism as a large part of that system. The first chapter on soft power ends with the statement that the “natural soft power advantages America enjoys can be of great benefit to the national interest.” Not the Iraqi national interest… nor Afghanistan… Pakistan… Mexico… any country in Latin America… in other words, the U.S. “national interest” is seldom one that serves other countries well, in spite of the jargon, in spite of the rhetoric, in spite of the image, in spite of the attempts to use soft power in the face of hugely militarized foreign geopolitical policy.
The second chapter provides a rather boring history of attempts by various U.S. agencies/departments to organize public diplomacy. If this is the stuff of U.S. academia and its insights into foreign policy, it is no wonder U.S. diplomacy is so dismal.
Legacies of Colonialism and More
In chapter three, “The Lessons of Al Hurra Television,” the U.S. sponsored Arab language TV station, the general commentary is on its failure. Within the discussion is the statement that the station “may have further strengthened perceptions, of the United States as an arrogant, disrespectful and bullying nations.” Or perhaps the realities on the ground, of the extensive use of pre-emptive hard force, military force, and occupation, and torture, and murder and all those other things that go along with the military might have had some influence. Or perhaps the rest of the world is not as ignorant as the U.S. assumes they are, and are quite aware of the U.S. interests in oil, containment of Russia and China, and the harvesting of the wealth of the world for their own purposes.
The U.S. assumes ignorance in viewers/recipients of U.S. propaganda when their own population is highly ignorant of world geography, cultural, and political issues. The author recognizes this somewhat saying, “Arab anti-American sentiment and opposition to U.S. policies in the region stem from a number of historical factors,, including the legacies of European colonialism, as well as some important substantive disagreements about the purpose and effect of U.S. policy, not a lack of access to information.”
That legacy includes the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government, the support of the Shah and his SAVAK inquisitors, the unparallel support given to Saudi Arabia for its oil in counterpoint to its multi-billion dollar support of Israel in its occupation of Palestinian land. I would imagine that the “important substantive disagreements” would include the sanctions on Iraq/Iran, the occupation of Iran, the occupation of Afghanistan, the drone attacks on Pakistan and the many covert government and private actions that are spread throughout the Middle East.
The three essays looking at U.S. public diplomacy from the outside can be summed up in one word: fail. The views arrive from Russia, Egypt, and China.
Russia is identified as a lost opportunity, lost after the dismantling of the Soviet empire. The author recognizes that “The convergence of business and public diplomacy activity can be successful because r today’s global business is deeply engaged in global politics and international affairs.” All too true, both for Russia and the rest of the world.
What is not discussed in this essay is the huge impact the IMF interests had on an unstructured post-Soviet economy and how all the rhetoric of free markets and globalization robbed much of the wealth of Russia into the hands of a few powerful oligarchs as well as western financial interests. Further, throughout all the essays, there is little recognition that along with the military hardware that the U.S. throws around the globe, there is also a lot of influence, hard influence on the politics and financial well being of many countries under the negative influence of IMF/World Bank/WTO/OECD regulations under supranational corporate power. Not all of that is U.S. power, but the initiatives come from the Washington consensus and most other countries fall into line behind their leadership. Otherwise, even more invasive hard power is used, covert or overt.
China Reveals the World
The essay on China brings forward some interesting statements. Foremost is the line, “The gap between American ideals and reality harms the American image all over the world.” Simply stated, very true – what you do speaks so loud we can’t hear what you say. Another curious statement arising from these China observations is “The world’s perception of America is very much dependent on American foreign policy not only toward its own region, but also in other areas, like Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan.” The latter is obvious, but one could also add Pakistan, its abrogation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in its actions with India and Israel, and on. The question arises about the meaning of “its own region.” Does that mean the author accepts U.S. dominance of Latin America and all the pain that has brought to the region? Or does it mean more narrowly its internal problems with its economy, racism (its double standards on human rights at home and abroad), the environment, corporate business, and its flawed electoral system?
A final global truth about U.S. diplomacy states, “in the era of “us against them” and the absolute battle between “good and evil,” the United States has no room for another worldview and little if any inclination to consider the victims of U.S. economic, political, and military dominance.” The Chinese, of all nations, are making the U.S. confront its realities as its own economy declines, its foreign relations sour, and its military might is proving itself ineffective against asymmetric warfare, not that they could not simply destroy the enemy wholesale, civilians and all, but in the recognition that their overwhelming pre-emptive power is not conducive to a positive foreign policy image.
Egypt Says the Same
Similar insights come from the writing on Egypt. Simply put, “Much of the hostility toward America is driven by opposition to American foreign policy.” In Egypt, U.S. actions are interpreted as “interfering in domestic politics.” And more, “An 80 per cent of the Arabs surveyed responded that their attitudes toward the United States were based more on American policy than American values.” The answer to the question “Why do they hate us?” is rather obvious, yet not for the domestic political consumer within the U.S. who is told it is their values.
U.S. values are generally fine in a freedom peace-loving democratic rhetorical sense. It is the application of supreme military dominance and all the contradictions that go along with a highly militarized society that makes the world antagonistic to the U.S. – again the refrain, what you do speaks so loud….
The way forward for this author is to counter claims that “The United States is engaging ina crusade against Islam.” This obviously will be a supremely difficult task: from the instance of George Bush’s claim about a “Crusade;” to the ongoing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by sometimes overtly Christian occupiers; and the faithful support that the U.S. congress, backed by many right wing fundamentalist Christian groups, and coerced by the powerful AIPAC lobby have given to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Image, again and again and over and over ad nauseum….
These writers just don’t get it. As per the author on Egypt in his closing remarks, “True progress on improving the image of the United States will only occur when the substantive issues that have angered Egyptians and other Middle East public are recognized as legitimate….” Once again it all comes back to image, although here admittedly it is related to “substantive issues” being recognized…but nowhere, here or in any of the other essays, is there a demand to pull recall the U.S. military, to recognize U.S. corporate influence in globalization and its tie ins to the military and political realms of U.S. culture and governance. Until the military goes home, until the U.S. sorts its own internal issues, until the U.S. can stand up to domestic Israeli influence, only then will any true substantive changes be made in the way the world perceives the U.S.
The final section of “Public Diplomacy” tries to indicate where that diplomacy should be going in the future. Written just as Obama was arriving at the White House, the messages are all relatively positive. Unfortunately again, the way forward is less about reality than about image, and the writers, not surprisingly share a particular U.S. optimism that it is their country that can safely lead the world forward.
The first section deals with “Privatized Public Diplomacy,” which is really about privatizing the image making ideas through Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Silicon Valley…where the most advanced communications tactics are developed.” If that does not speak for image over reality not much else will. As for privatization, the evidence from the private militaries that are operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (and more than likely in many other parts of the world) and the overall thrust of privatization within the U.S. economy (health care as an example) should give ample warning against the success of any privatization of public diplomacy. Having said that, public diplomacy, the ultimate soft power, the ultimate image, is already ‘directed’ by the personnel of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Silicon Valley.
A strange surprise is mentioned in this essay – the Smith-Mundt Act, “enacted in 1948, which prohibits the domestic dissemination of American public diplomacy materials, virtually guaranteeing U.S. citizens would be ignorant of their government’s efforts to influence foreign public opinion….” The act guarantees confusion, and guarantees some questions, the most obvious being “Why? What are you trying to hide from us?”
A bit too much U.S. hubris enters directly into the discussion “A Cultural Public Diplomacy Strategy,” as “There will be the unavoidable jealousies that come with being the global economic, military, and cultural colossus.” Jealous? Of an economy in decline, of an economy supported by massive government social assistance to banks and finance institutions, of an economy that operates on credit consumption that has created huge unimaginable debt loads that will probably never be paid off except for a period of hyperinflation? Jealous? Of a military that threatens to destroy the planet, that consumes huge economic resources adding greatly to the deficit and debt of the country, that kills civilians in order to win their hearts and minds…
…there, how is this image making process going so far…
…that has purportedly quit Iraq leaving ‘only’ 50,000 “non-combat” troops behind (now there is an image hard to work around), that has tortured detainees and citizens without juridical oversight of any kind, that fails to control countries even with overwhelming firepower? Jealous? Of a culture that is all about consumption and glitter and glitz and the shallow pursuit of self-interest at the expense of others, that will not heal the sick nor care for the poor. Okay, maybe a bit jealous of the influence of the Black culture and the Hispanic culture that has provided some amazing music synthesis.
The author follows with the statement, “the [U.S.] is on balance a strong force for good in the world.” Yes, its words and rhetoric about freedom and peace and justice and the goodwill of men are all just fine sounding, but the reality put into practice is largely underwhelming.
Other highly arguable statements enter the discussion, the most egregious stating, “There is no serious philosophical or ideological competitor to the model of liberal democracy that embraces some variant of capitalism,” followed by a comment indicating that this somehow “rehabilitates” Francis Fukuyama’s “…poorly understood “End of History” thesis.” Somehow the author does not seem to see the perhaps too subtle contradiction for himself when he says later, “Money talks, and what currently tells the world is that America is a militarized democracy.” If its militarized, is it a liberal democracy? Is it even a democracy? Is militarism a variant of capitalism…okay I can answer that one with a yes, all the way from Thomas Friedman’s hidden fist thesis right through to the not very subtle and rather exposed capitalism that seeks out the oil of Iraq and Saudi Arabia (good democratic states) and on into the strategic requirements of the geopolitical sphere in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, and elsewhere.
We are nowhere near the end of history, liberal democracy is a nice sounding essentially unused sound-bite, and capitalism and democracy have very little in common – only an ‘image’ distilled through arrogance and ignorance. The author’s final statement about the “remaking of America’s image cannot be done without cultural diplomacy” sinks the whole argument. In a lesser way because the world is not ignorant of U.S. culture, it is already widespread and obvious, especially the part that you “do” as compared to the part that you “say.” Which leads to the greater way because it is still all about image, and again, the world is not as stupid as U.S. arrogance and ignorance deem it to be (pardon the repetition here, but it does fit) but is quite capable of seeing the contrast between ideals and actions.
The essay on “Public Diplomacy in an Age of Faith.” has similar weaknesses. It is much too presumptuous that religion carries the answer to democracy and wealth (among other presumptions). The authors state that “A more expansive religious freedom agenda should seek to promote regimes that consistently apply religious liberty tenets rooted in constitutional government. [italics added] There are two major developments left out of the authors’ arguments. First are the evangelical right wing Christian organizations in the U.S. that support Israel and that tend to deny religious liberty to others, especially Islam and those that do not hold any belief.
Secondly, and this a major problem, is Israel. This “Jewish and democratic state” that is yet to exist within defined boundaries and occupies most of Palestine, is neither democratic (yes it has the institutions, but it does not have the laws nor the rationale) nor is it a constitutional government. Without discussing this issue, in light of events in the Middle East, without discussing the power of the AIPAC lobby, without discussing the huge amount of aid, much of it military, and support, much of it military, given to Israel, then any arguments about liberty and constitutional governments becomes worthless.
To make it more worthless, the author’s conflate through statistical co-relations the idea that religious practice promotes economic growth and development. Certainly the first world countries have a good degree of religious freedom, but cause and effect are certainly not defined but assumed and implied in this argument. One could also co-relate science and technology with economic growth and development and have a far stronger case for proving it.
Again there is a significant difference between a co-relation and a cause and effect relationship – it’s like saying because trees sway and bend in the wind that swaying and bending trees cause the wind. It is the obverse with the wind – the wind causes the swaying and bending – as it probably is with society – development and economic growth promote religious freedom – although that is even arguable as it is more than likely that a true democracy with well developed judiciary and other social systems will cause – or allow – the occurrence of religious freedom.
The authors’ final statement leads back to Israel and a constitutional government, “The [U.S.] needs an overarching policy that communicates a consistent message about the importance of religion and religious liberty in a constitutional order.” That will be seen when Palestine and Israel come to grips with each other, when the “crusade” in the Middle East “war on terror” is finished, when AIPAC no longer drives the U.S. congress, when the U.S. stops profiling those of Islamic and Arabic descent. A very tall order.
This essay, “The U.S. Military and Public Diplomacy,” comprises nothing more than a huge extended oxymoron and is not really worth any deconstruction. Just one line of arrogance, nay, ignorance, to highlight that: “Public diplomacy is too important to be left entirely to civilian agencies, particularly as the actions of the U.S. military critically affect the way other countries and their citizens view the United States.”
This statement in particular dumbfounds me. It is so….oblivious…?…to the actions that the rest of the world detests that it simply does not make any kind of sense, unless…here I go again….viewed through lenses clouded with arrogance and ignorance.
So there, four words to describe this book – arrogant, ignorant, image, FAIL. It would certainly make my critique shorter if that was all I wrote, but my pen ran over in disgust.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.