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The author discusses why U. S. public diplomacy is a “mess” and how to clean it up. Mr. Helmke is a senior professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These remarks were made at the Public Diplomacy Institute of the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University, on June 9, 2003. The author has updated his remarks and has given American Diplomacy permission to publish his commentary. — Assoc. Ed.

The Mess of American Public Diplomacy by Mark Helmke

American public diplomacy is in a mess.

As my boss, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, said, it lacks “vision.” It also lacks strong political leadership, and an organizational structure required to implement a strategic plan over the long term.

It is a tragedy that the United States, a nation that created the strategy and tactics of political communications and spin, of branding, advertising and marketing, is held in such low regard around the world.

For the past week, all of us have been reacting to the June 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project. Careful analysis of the 279-page Pew survey, however, rather than giving us depressing news, actually helps us gain some perspective on the issue.

Before getting into that, let’s first of all remember that American public diplomacy is about one thing and one thing only, American national security. It’s about defending and protecting American interests in a dangerous world. It is not about making the rest of the world “like us” more, or winning popularity contests.

Branding the United States of America has nothing to do with American national security. The USA is the best-known brand in the world, and that has not stopped people from not liking us.

Maintaining alliances and explaining ourselves better is important, but at the end of the day, American national security is not threatened by people in other countries not liking us. It is only threatened if they take that dislike, turn it into hatred and terrorist actions against us.

The United States of America is the most powerful nation in world history. We are not an empire, but we need to understand that the United States is perceived as an empire, because no other nation in history has had the military, political, economic, social and cultural power and reach as the United States has today. This is why people don’t like the United States. It is human nature to fear and blame the powerful for all that is wrong with their lives and with the world.

The United States is a reluctant empire-builder. We either shy away from force when we shouldn’t, or exhibit our natural exuberance on the wrong occasions. Americans are still innocents abroad, as Mark Twain said more than 100 years ago.

And what has been the response by American public diplomats to this problem? We ran an advertising campaign touting our “shared values;” how we here in America are just one big, happy, melting-pot of a family. My 13-year daughter who has grown up in multicultural Fairfax County laughed out loud when she watched these ads. Thankfully that ad campaign is now dead.

So what is evident from the Pew survey? People around the world want what America has. They want democracy; even in the Islamic nations. And they are angry that America is not delivering on its promise of supporting democracy.

This is the point when whether people in other countries “like” the United States becomes a national security issue. It’s also when public diplomacy becomes a policy issue. It’s when the perceived fluff of public relations becomes real; when the magic of advertising meets substance; when those in charge of delivering the message have to be part and parcel of developing the message.

For the past 12 years, Senator Lugar has spent a great deal of his time focusing on the biggest national security threat facing the Unites States since the collapse of the Soviet Union; the control, cleanup and destruction of the thousands of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons left behind in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The important work of the Nunn-Lugar program continues, and in fact Chairman Lugar is trying to expand these programs to deal with threats outside the former Soviet Union.

The war to liberate Iraq reveals another national security threat left over from the Cold War. The geopolitics of the Middle East left an existential security threat as serious and complicated as the weapons of mass destruction in the Soviet Union.

Even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Senator Lugar began advocating the end to the American policy of supporting dictatorships in the name of containing communism. Lugar’s historic role in the democratic revolution in the Philippines in 1986 helped spread an important message of America’s commitment to democracy that changed governments throughout South America and Central Europe in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Supporting democracy, however, is much different than helping to build and sustain democracy. Too often American policy has confused elections for democracy. Democracy is more than elections. It is a complex and often messy combination of institutions, associations and laws that maintain and sustain a free and democratic society. That takes time and a great deal of effort.

The United States has shown in Iraq that it, and it alone in the world today, has the military force, to quickly and overwhelmingly defeat an enemy force. The “shock and awe” military victory has also shown that the United States could “risk” losing the peace, as Chairman Lugar has argued, unless there is a coordinated and sustained effort at rebuilding Iraq into a thriving democracy. Lugar has also argued that this is a role that our NATO allies should play with the United States.

Gaining allied and international support for the costly work of rebuilding Iraq is critical because sustaining American political support for this work will not be easy. Cleaning-up is not something for which Americans like to pay. Every year it’s a struggle to get Congress to fund the Nunn-Lugar programs.

The House Armed Services Committee Chairman openly states that cleaning up weapons of mass destruction shouldn’t be the job of the Pentagon. We may have to start thinking about creating a department of cleanup, reconstruction, and democratic nation building. This would have been a mission Charlie Wick would have loved for USIA, and boy, could he have sold it!

Chairman Lugar is beginning to look at these broad challenges in a comprehensive way. His first mission since becoming Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee after a 16-year hiatus was to pass the State Department Authorization and Foreign Assistance bills. This was no mean feat, since the last time the Committee passed a Foreign Assistance bill was the last time Lugar was Chairman. Passing these authorizing bills is how the Committee and its Chairman assert their Constitutional power in foreign policy. It’s how Lugar asserts his political oversight power, and he intends to do this on a yearly basis. In so doing Lugar will strengthen and reshape the foreign policy—and public diplomacy—apparatus of the United States Government.

I apologize for detouring into these big picture issues, but they are important for understanding how Senator Lugar sees the role of public diplomacy in the context of overall American foreign policy development.

Let me just report what Chairman Lugar, with the great cooperation of Senator Biden, the Ranking Member, has done this year on public diplomacy to begin the process. In the Foreign Assistance bill for Fiscal Year 2004, S. 1161, funding for the Freedom Support Act for the former Soviet Union was set at $646 million, restoring $70 million of the $184 million in cuts proposed by the Administration. Most of these funds are for education, cultural exchange and democracy building activities. The bill also authorizes $15 million for a Middle East Foundation to promote democracy and greater understanding.

In the State Department Authorization for Fiscal Year 2004, S.925, funding was set at $698,909,000; a $57 million increase over the President’s budget request. The bulk of that increase was for more exchanges with the Middle East. Report language in the bill calls for increased public diplomacy training for foreign service officers.

The total authorization for the Broadcasting Board of Governors is $572,400,000; a $8,900,000 increase over the Administration’s request. The authorization includes $30 million for the new Middle East Television Network. Another $32 million was appropriated two months ago.

The $8.9 million increase to the BBG budget deals with an interesting issue which I touched on earlier. It’s part of the whole cleaning up, reconstruction and democracy building issue. The BBG had proposed eliminating 14 different language services provided by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They are primarily in central Europe from the Balkans south to Bulgaria. These cuts were not proposed by the BBG, but by the OMB, which argued that these countries were now democracies, and many now members of NATO.

These are valid points, but at the same time, almost all these countries’ leaders wrote to Chairman Lugar complaining about the planned cutbacks in service. The Chairman asked the BBG if there was a free, fair and legally protected press in each of these countries. The BBG replied that they did not do a study. Chairman Lugar then asked several of the visiting representatives of these countries if they had a free, fair and legally protected press. Some said yes, and some said kind-of, but all said they liked our broadcast service the best. But is that something the American taxpayer should be paying for, Lugar asked. Should that be a continuing role for American public diplomacy, or should the United States find a way to help Radio Free Europe—and that is a good brand—in say, Romania spin off and privatize? I spoke to Tom Dine at RFE/RL about this idea, and he thinks it deserves study. That’s why in the bill, Chairman Lugar restored funding for at least a year to study this issue.

Chairman Lugar believes this is how we should be looking at Iraq and the rest of the Arabic world as we start this new Middle East Network. As the BBG begins this broadcasting, USAID and State should be working on the educational and cultural exchanges to train the journalists who help fulfill one pillar of a free and democratic society. At the same time, USAID will be providing grants for training programs, and helping newspapers get started, television stations built, and legal systems developed

Who should oversee and coordinate this process? That’s the big question, because this is a tough job, and it will take vision, and political savvy to do it.

This is nation building, pure and simple. As Chairman Lugar has argued, let’s be honest about it. Let’s work to get our allies and the rest of the international community to help. Let’s keep at it in a coordinated and committed way. If the United States does do that, we will see, slowly but surely, those poll numbers go up. A point or two a year is the best we can hope for. But those increases will translate exponentially into greater national security faster than any high priced, quick-fix marketing or advertising campaign aimed at trying to make the rest of the world “like” us more.

Iraq is the ball game. Everything we do there today affects global perceptions of America. This is the local gone global. How many potholes we’ve filled. How many lights we’ve turned on. How many schools we’ve opened. No amount of broadcast, advertising, or spin can influence the reality of what we do on the ground in Iraq, if it’s not real. What we do right, however, has to be communicated to every corner of the earth. We have to be open, understanding, truthful, honest, but persistent and persuasive as all get out.

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