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Using Exchanges to Extend the Reach of U.S. Soft Power

by Giles Scott-Smith

An accomplished public diplomacy scholar points out that perhaps “branded” exchanges programs could do for U.S. foreign policy interests what Holland’s top beer brand has done for its brewing industry. Three interesting case studies seem to make his point.–Ed.


Public diplomacy…deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. It encompasses dimensions of international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation by governments of public opinion in other countries; the interaction of private groups and interests in one country with those of another; the reporting of foreign affairs and its impact on policy; communication between those whose job is communication, as between diplomats and foreign correspondents; and the processes of inter-cultural communications.1
– Dean Edmund Gullion, a former diplomat, speaking at the opening of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy at Tufts University, 1965.

In a period when much attention is being given to the pros and cons of social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and digital environments as new terrain for public diplomacy activity,2 it would seem that ‘old media’ or ‘slow media’ such as exchange programs are becoming somewhat passé.3 The recent declarations from the Obama administration promoting Internet freedom and embracing new forms of communication to facilitate democratic reforms in the Middle East point strongly in this direction.4 Yet alongside this technology-driven shift, the human, face-to-face aspect of exchanges continues to generate positive results on individual perceptions and cross-cultural understanding. In particular, the opportunity they provide for direct personal experience with another culture (and thereby perhaps undermining previously held stereotypes or prejudices) remains widely significant in the global political environment of the 21st century. In contrast to the short-term news-driven impact of online campaigns, exchanges are predominantly about relationship building over the longer term.5

As President Obama stated in his Cairo speech of 4 June 2010, “On education, we will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities,” and no foreign visit of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton takes place without at least one reference to the importance of expanding educational exchanges.6 This is not just about government activity either. The role of the private sector is also vital for its ability to establish cross-border bridges outside of diplomatic channels, as the recent Pyongyang Project, set up by two Americans to run exchanges between North Korea, the U.S., and the UK fully demonstrates.7

President Obama’s Cairo Speech June 2009

This article uses three case studies to explore the continuing use-value of exchanges for favorably altering the opinions of visitors coming to the United States. The case studies have been chosen for their direct relevance for U.S. relations with the Middle East and the Muslim community in general, this being the most problematic field for U.S. public diplomacy activities in recent years. These three case studies look at the application of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in different settings. Other studies have examined the value of student exchanges (particularly Fulbright) and military programs for extending U.S. influence.8

The IVLP is of special interest here because of its flexibility as a tool of U.S. public diplomacy for building contacts with specific communities and fields of interest over time.9 While Fulbright has been described as the closest the State Department comes to possessing a “brand name,” the IVLP is nevertheless its “stellar companion.”10 The article asks the following questions: what exactly should these exchanges be for? Is it sensible to direct them according to short-term national security concerns, or should the problems this creates not determine that a longer-term drive to spread liberal values with no need for immediate return should prevail? What are some of the pitfalls and risks that can be expected in pursuing this activity, and are they acceptable? These questions can partly be answered by adopting Alan Henrikson’s five scenarios where public diplomacy can make a contribution to political action abroad: consolidation (strengthen allies); containment (limit the spread of harmful powers and ideas); penetration (open up closed societies); enlargement (expansion of political, economic, and cultural influence on a broad front); and transformation (change other societies).11

The potential for exchanges to deliver desired political results would seem to be great. Referring back to Gullion’s seminal quote above, exchanges contribute to nearly all the fields he mentions: influencing attitudes, cultivation of opinion, interaction of private groups, and inter-cultural communications. Likewise, exchanges fit perfectly within Peter Krause’ and Stephen van Evera’s requirement that “U.S. public diplomacy should emphasize dialogue over one-way monologue. Instead of simply turning up the volume of its message, the United States should provide mechanisms for Americans and the world’s Muslims to talk to one another.”12

Yet the special role of exchanges in U.S. public diplomacy has generally been downplayed. In his extensive history of the United States Information Agency (USIA), Nick Cull identified five broad fields of public diplomacy activity: Listening (USIA’s input into U.S. foreign policy making); Advocacy (advancing the goals of U.S. foreign policy); Cultural Diplomacy (the use of cultural forms and activities to promote the U.S. abroad); Exchange Diplomacy (exchange programs); and International Broadcasting (Voice of America).13 Of the five, exchanges receive very little attention in his book.14 This is unfortunate, since while conclusive proof of impact remains elusive, evaluation techniques have certainly moved the needle out of the realm of the anecdotal. Carol Atkinson has provided impressive evidence of the use-value of exchanges for “liberal norm diffusion” in authoritarian states.15 Bellamy and Weinberg have made the case that “any successful [information] strategy needs to be delivered by messengers who are perceived to be authentic and by media that move information in multiple directions.” In this arena the possibility that exchanges can foster ‘cultural carriers’ or ‘multipliers’ (those who feel encouraged to spread positive messages after their return home, outside of any deliberate design) continues to make them advantageous, even when compared to emerging “Web-based technologies.”16

But there remain some inescapable problems. Firstly, it is difficult to test effectiveness by involving participants in in-depth surveys without telegraphing the fact that the purpose was to influence their opinions.17 However, opinion on this is mixed, since a carefully judged evaluation process can also form part of an ongoing relationship with a ‘grantee’.18 Secondly, while there is always the hope for political gain, even broadly such that “at the level of foreign policy implementation, better understanding creates an enabling environment as cross-cultural friction is reduced,” there are definite limits to what can be achieved: “sworn enemies will never be persuaded by exchange programs or other public diplomacy instruments.”19

Sayyid Qutb in prison

The definitive example of this is the experience of Sayyid Qutb, the civil servant sent by the Egyptian Ministry of Education to study American pedagogical methods. Qutb spent two years at Wilson Teacher’s College (the current University of the District of Columbia); the University of Northern Colorado’s Teachers’ College; and Stanford, returning to Egypt in 1950 with a Masters degree. Qutb went on to publish an infamous negative account of his impressions, in which American social and political norms provided the epitome of everything that Egypt, on the path to modernization, should not become.20 Qutb’s subsequent radicalization as a prominent theologian with the Muslim Brotherhood and the fact that Qutb has since been singled out as a prominent source for anti-Western Islamic radicalism has led some to question the merits of educational exchange in toto. Yet in the context of the hundreds of thousands of exchange visitors to the United States since World War II, Qutb is important precisely because he stands out. The dangers for any liberal society are exactly based on the fact that it makes itself open to those who may not necessarily like what they see. While the careful selection of candidates can reduce this problem, so that those most negatively inclined or least able to absorb cultural difference are not among the visitors, it is unlikely that this would have excluded Qutb. This is part of the risk of trying to achieve ‘mutual understanding’ through exchanges. As another commentator has put it, the use of exchanges, “whether government-organized or entirely private in initiative, is a subtle business.”21

What is the scale of the US Government’s involvement in exchanges? An official survey from 2009 lists the following:22

Total number government-sponsored exchanges: 243

Number of government bodies involved:
14 Departments, 49 independent agencies and commissions

Total number of participants involved: 2,744,136

Of which non-US participants: 2,699,899

Total funding: $ 2,510,863,032

Of which US government funding: $ 1,802,578,972

In terms of numbers of participants from abroad, USAID is way out in front (87 % of all federally-sponsored participants), followed by the State Department (6 %). The Department of Defense represents only 1 %.23 Significantly, while 32.3 % of US participants have Europe as their destination, the predominant region from which foreign participants come to the U.S. is South Asia (56.8 %), followed by the Western Hemisphere (17.7 %). The Near East receives only 7.3 % of all U.S. participants going abroad, and sends only 7.7 % of all exchange and training participants going to the U.S.

Exchanges cover everything from school children to students and scholars to professionals, from short to long-term stay, from study to training and work experience. The investment is therefore considerable, if unevenly spread across the globe in terms of race and gender. As part of the move to adapt U.S. diplomacy to the conditions of the 21st century, the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) includes a section on the need for public diplomacy that states the following:

People-to-people exchanges between the United States and other countries have for decades been effective in increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and those of other countries, but we must broaden the demographic base of people—including youth and women—with whom we engage, encouraging a wider circle of participation in programs and visit American venues.24

The QDDR expresses a need to transform the way U.S. diplomacy works, re-directing the way embassies operate and aligning government more with NGOs and business to extend its reach abroad. This approach, shifting the emphasis from defense to development, is a move away from the Bush administration’s view that public diplomacy should provide some kind of quick-fix ‘magic bullet’ to change opinion abroad in line with the needs of U.S. interests.25 The Pentagon’s adoption of Strategic Communication (which saw appropriations for Department of Defense information programs skyrocket from $9m in FY 2005 to $988m in FY 2010)26 is the most obvious example of this post-9/11 U.S. public diplomacy culture that looked for rapid-response quick fixes and media management to influence how the US and its policies are viewed abroad. While this approach has been contested,27 it still dominates much of the thinking on public diplomacy activity.28

It is against this backdrop that the following case studies are presented, in order to illustrate the pros and cons of different exchange program models for achieving influence with Muslim communities: firstly, by using exchanges to overcome static diplomatic / political obstacles, as in the case of relations with Iran; secondly, by using multi-cultural / multi-national groups to overcome on-the-ground prejudices, as with the State Department’s “Pluralism in U.S. Society” Regional Project in 1983; thirdly, attempting to reach second- and third-generation European immigrants, through the Muslim Incentive Program in Western Europe.

Overcoming Obstacles: Iran 2006-2009

Since 2009 exchanges with Iran have been put on hold, and despite the fact that recent events suggest tentative moves towards diplomatic engagement,29 there is no doubt that U.S.-Iran relations remain dominated by the nuclear issue, and this is unlikely to change in the near term. In these circumstances it is worth examining the efforts made during 2005-2008 to establish links with Iranian society via exchanges, considering the de facto refusal of the U.S. to re-instate full diplomatic relations with the Islamic regime in Tehran, an act which would grant the regime international legitimacy. The context for these contacts was therefore hostile, since during the Bush administration it appeared that these efforts were not aimed at normalizing relations but were instead part of an overall effort to promote regime change.

The first fruits of this approach in relation to Iran came to light in March 2006, with an unclassified State Department cable entitled “Recruiting the Next Generation of Iran Experts: New Opportunities in Washington, Dubai and Europe”.30 This was part of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s new strategy, Transformational Diplomacy, the aim of which she outlined in January 2006 as “to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.”31 The cable announced the formation of an Office of Iranian Affairs to coordinate a network of “outreach posts” for political/economic reporting, the most significant being the Regional Presence Office (RPO) in Dubai, UAE, designed to connect with the Iranian people and “promote freedom and democracy in Iran.” Around the same time, $85m in emergency funding was earmarked for the promotion of democracy in Iran, including support for dissidents and exiles groups; 24-hour radio and television broadcasting; increasing internet gateways; and study opportunities for Iranians to go to the U.S.

As the major civil disobedience and rioting following the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009 showed, there are plenty of pro-democracy, anti-Islamic fundamentalism groups inside Iran, and the political situation is unstable enough for there still to be some hope that they can shift the political pendulum in a more favourable, Western-orientated direction. But this presents a quandary for any U.S. strategy to try and assist the process. President Obama condemned the “unjust actions” of the police but took care to stress that he respected Iranian sovereignty.32 This was in stark contrast to what occurred during the Bush administration, when U.S. policy effectively telegraphed that democracy and human rights advocates were tools in a policy aimed at regime change. This placed potential allies of the U.S. in an impossible situation, since it indelibly linked their cause with the interests of an enemy power. In the words of the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize-winner and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, “whoever speaks about democracy in Iran will be accused of having been paid by the United States.”33

Shirin Ebadi

In these circumstances, effective engagement was not going to be easy, yet it was attempted. With the Dubai outpost operating as the U.S. visa registration center and by making use of private institutions as hosts, groups of Iranians were invited to visit the United States on tailor-made tours from late 2006 onwards. The first, a group of Iranian teachers of English, arrived in September that year to stay on U.S. university campuses as “cultural ambassadors” and Foreign Language Teaching Assistants in Persian. They were followed by groups of physicians and medical academics, artists, cultural managers, filmmakers, and drug rehabilitation experts. By carefully avoiding ostensibly political topics, the aim was to nurture connections, curiosity, and mutual interests between both civil societies. This appeared to be succeeding up until May 2007, when then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice attended the Iranian art exhibit “Wishes and Dreams” at the Meridian International Center (a private institution contracted to run some of the exchanges for the State Department). The public presence of Rice, however well intended it may have been, politicized the exchanges and led the Iranian government to postpone or cancel a series of planned group trips.

It was an important lesson. While some doors in Iran stayed open, it remained a delicate operation. One participant, speaking from experience, stated at the time “Any taint of U.S. government influence will kill academic diplomacy. Yet, when independently initiated by a university and undertaken on the basis of exchange between intellectual peers, it may be the only way to engage Iran today.”34

Secretary Rice at the “Wishes and Dreams” exhibit

In August 2009, in the wake of the street protests in Tehran against the presidential election results, evidence came out on how these exchanges were interpreted by the Iranian legal and internal security authorities. The state prosecutors used the exchanges as further evidence of U.S. efforts to secure a “velvet revolution” and regime change:

IRPO [Dubai] is “modelled on the Riga [station]” which was set up to engineer the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to the indictment, and its goals in Dubai are to attract the Iranian elite and convince them to act against the interests of the Islamic Republic. In a description of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), run by IRPO… Iranian authorities also seemed to have conflated public diplomacy programs with separate democracy programming in describing US regime overthrow efforts…35

What is more, the efforts to engage with Iranians and bring them to the United States via cultural diplomacy initiatives and exchange programs stumbled up against U.S. national security. The Department of Homeland Security’s staff led to delays, humiliations, frustrations, and above all a disastrously negative image of the United States. “It is fair to say,” writes a recent commentator, “that security procedures make it much more difficult and expensive for sponsored exchange programs to keep up with the demands made on them to promote better connections and understanding with the Islamic world.”36 Due to the lack of any U.S. consular representation in Iran itself, Iranians wanting to take part were required to travel first to Dubai to secure a visa. Yet the Department of Homeland Security, not a party to this outreach program, rejected the visa applications of many of the Iranians on the grounds either that they were security risks or that there was no guarantee that they would leave the United States if granted admission. As a result they experienced delays and extreme disappointment, forcing them to return to Iran when they had taken substantial personal risk and the burden of extra costs for no reason. This was all the more disastrous because the Iranians who suffered this indignation had been personally invited as guests of the U.S. government, making it impossible to explain to them why others in that same government rejected them.

There were also concerns that these kinds of programs were being promoted under false labelling, as with the series of human rights workshops held in Dubai in April-May 2005 held under the aegis of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre at Yale, but which also included sessions on civil resistance.37 Exchanges can only work successfully if they are run according to a sense of openness, with no alternative motives involved. But the inability to secure a single perspective across the U.S. government apparatus did not allow this.

Successful diplomacy relies on mutual recognition of the status of all parties involved, a recognition tinged with respect for the others’ interests and capabilities. As Ivo Daalder stated soon after the announcement in May 2006 that negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program would begin, “we must be clear that we are willing to settle all our differences through negotiations – including, ultimately, re-establishing economic and diplomatic relations and providing security guarantees as part of a regional framework.”38 This has unfortunately never materialized (despite the attempt by the Bush administration in 2008 to establish a U.S. “interests section” at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to function as a public diplomacy and consular office).39 Nevertheless, the Dubai RPO report from August 2009 cited above did include some optimism. Although the program had been halted “out of concern for the safety of the participants,” almost 250 participants had taken part, including three groups who travelled during summer 2009, and there was evidence that the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Health, “and even the Ministry of Intelligence and Security” showed interest, “perhaps as a sign of Iranian interest in better relations.” Even the indictment at the trial noted, “participants had returned ‘impressed’ by their trips to the US and often volunteered to help with future exchange groups.”40 This brief experiment with U.S.-Iranian exchanges therefore showed that in such a delicate environment privately run cultural interactions could nevertheless take place and could build bridges, however small and full of risk for those involved.

Overcoming Prejudices: The 1983 “Pluralism in U.S. Society” Regional Project

During April-May 1983, for a period of four weeks, a group of seven academics and civil servants from Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and the West Bank undertook a tour of the United States. The grantees were academics (primarily theologians), legal officers, and civil servants in their home societies, all of them involved with the interpretation and practice of religious doctrine in everyday life.41 While the goal of these kinds of tours was to illustrate the broad differences in U.S. society for outsiders, this tour had five aims, the most important being these three:

1) To demonstrate American interest in the history, culture and traditions of Islam, and to give participants an understanding of the knowledge and practice of Islam in America;

2) To demonstrate to participants the importance of freedom of religion in American, and the rights of worship enjoyed by all religious groups

3) To allow participants to express their views to official and private American audiences.42

The program took in the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, a three-day seminar on “American Perceptions of the Social Role of Religion” at Duke University, leaders of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, and the Semitic Museum and Divinity School at Harvard.

The evaluation reports of the tour make for interesting reading. The general view was that it had been successful in providing a cross-section of both U.S. society in general and American perspectives on Islam and the Middle East in particular. As the United States Information Agency report stated, “They were able to see that pluralism, after all, is a valid concept….”43 It is significant to see how particular themes could trigger cross-cultural understanding rather than simply appreciation for U.S. achievement, such as the group’s response to the film Flying at the Air and Space Museum which made them “transcend their political and cultural convictions and differences and be more able to see their fellow American human beings as partners in dialogue, not just as an adversary,” and “they also saw man’s landing on the moon and other such feats as a blessing from Allah.”

On a religious level, the tour also acts as a kind of signpost for what can and cannot be attempted in public diplomacy of this kind. The Mormons, whom the group apprehensively thought of as “a far out sect with peculiar ideas,” charmed the visitors without difficulty. On the other hand, deep divisions within the Muslim world did surface, such as between “militant Moslem students in Iowa City and the Imam of the mosque in Cedar Rapids, ” and in the meeting with the hard-line Shi’ite Imam Chiri in Detroit. The issue of Iran and its revolution was never far away, and this was exemplified by group member Dr. Okla from Jordan supporting the Iranian regime’s use of violence on religious grounds, something which separated him from the others. The report’s author rightly suggested “the issue of Shiite vs. Sunni Moslems be carefully considered beforehand,” but this begs the question of how religious issues are to be dealt with in general if individuals of this kind are invited.44

What conclusions can be drawn from this tour? The first concerns the issue of selection. The post-tour report by the USIA official correctly points out that while the U. S. embassy officials on the ground clearly thought it would be a “good idea” to invite these individuals to see the U.S. for themselves, not much thought went into considering the likely reaction of the grantees, their ability to assimilate what they would see with their own beliefs, and the likelihood of them making positive use of the tour after their return home. In short – the grantees occupied positions in their respective societies that made them ideal on paper as potential interlocutors between the U.S. and the Middle East and their respective belief systems, but in reality they did not possess the personality or the inclination to do so, or they were simply affronted by what they experienced in the U.S. and wanted nothing to do with it. Careful judgement and selection of individuals based on their openness and willingness to experience another culture is a vital component of this whole process – while it will never be perfect and there are always risks of an unintended outcome, it will reduce instances such as that with Dr. Okla from Jordan who “could not stand seeing young American girls wearing light, revealing summer clothes” and for whom “everything around him was evil.” The report concluded: “He will probably return to his country and do nothing but malign the US – certainly not the purpose of his being brought here.”45

A second conclusion concerns the linkage with U.S. foreign policy, which is never far away for individuals from this region. In an interview for the Cedar Rapids Gazette during their tour, Sheikh Al-Tammimi from the West Bank remarked that he previously only knew the U.S. through media coverage, and three things had struck him. Two were good: the cleanliness and industriousness of the United States. The third, however, was “sad”: the fact that the US government “backs the Israeli people against the Palestinians.” Whereas the group did receive an impressive cross-section of the American Muslim community during their tour, which gave (most of) them a positive image of U.S. society, this could only go so far because of the experience they had of U.S. foreign policy on the ground in their home countries.46 In other words, there are limits to what can be achieved by concentrating on the merits of U.S. society aside from addressing the negative reactions to U.S. policies abroad (Al-Tammimi expressed his hope that the American people would eventually influence their government to change its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian question).

We have seen more recent examples of this phenomenon, for instance the Shared Values Initiative (SVI), run by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers, launched in October 2002, and costing $15 million to produce. It was an integrated communication campaign involving public speeches abroad by U.S. diplomats and American Muslims, Internet sites and online chat rooms, the magazine Muslim Life in America, and newspaper advertisements.

At the center of the campaign were five television commercials depicting American Muslims discussing their life in the United States. The commercials, or ‘mini-documentaries’ as the State Department called them, depicted religious tolerance in the United States and the positive experience of living there for ordinary citizens who were Muslim. The aim was to display a different view to the highly critical assumptions about U.S. interests and values that were then circulating in the Middle East, not least that the U.S. was in principle hostile to Islam. The SVI series began broadcasting in Indonesia on 29 October 2002. However, hopes for a large-scale campaign were dented by the fact that several states either refused to air the commercials free of charge or, as in the case of Egypt, rejected them outright as no more than propaganda. As a result the series was discontinued prematurely in December 2002.

In June 2003 the U.S. State Department launched an inquiry into the failure of SVI to improve America’s image abroad, after an opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press found that negative views of the United States were on the rise in the Middle East.47 Post-campaign polls conducted in Indonesia did indicate that the local population had taken in the basic message, and that it was a mistake to shut it down so soon.48 A top-level public diplomacy advisory group determined that while the concept was good, there was a greater need to examine why so many intended recipient countries rejected the campaign, which demonstrated that “earlier incorporation of host-country expertise” was essential for a successful outcome.49 The conclusion was therefore similar to the 1983 exchange project: while positive results can be achieved by presenting the positive sides of U.S. society to an international audience, it can equally lead to a backlash because it appears to be promoting the message of U.S. superiority, and the fact that the U.S. possesses benefits that are not available to others elsewhere (indeed, others who may feel that they possess none of them precisely because the U.S. possesses so many).

Using Diasporas: The Muslim Incentive Program in Western Europe 2003-2010

In the wake of 9/11 much attention was given to the problem of radicalisation amongst European Muslims. The contribution of the ‘Hamburg cell’, centred on the Taiba mosque in that city, to the lead-up to the attacks, plus the many other signs that radical Islam had a foothold within certain communities, placed this issue high on the U.S. national security agenda.50 Yet this also produced an awkward dilemma, because any obvious ‘targeting’ of this community would only add fuel to the criticism that the Bush administration was anti-Islam. While coordination between intelligence agencies could at least reap rewards in terms of sharing surveillance data, these behind-the-scenes efforts could only be preventive. Extra efforts were required to engage with Muslim youth in Western Europe in more public ways that would highlight more the positive values of the U.S. itself. As James Bullock, head of public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, put it in 2008, the aim was both “de-legitimizing the appeal of terrorist recruiters” and “getting to know the future movers and shakers of Europe, because these young people are part of the future of Europe.”51

One result of this was various programmes that aimed to bring groups of young European Muslims to the U.S. on informal learning tours. Two pilot projects, the Muslim Youth Workers Exchange and Muslim (Teenager) Youth Exchange, were contracted out by the State Department to private sector partners, and they both ran twice. The Youth Exchange was run as a joint project: in the U.S. there was the Institute for Training and Development in Amherst,52 a body dedicated to crafting “inter-cultural experiences” and training programmes for a variety of sponsors and partners; in the Netherlands there was the Nederlandse Jeugdinstituut (Dutch Youth Institute),53 backed by the ministries of Justice and Home Affairs as part of their action programs for social integration and ‘de-radicalisation’. These were followed up by the Muslim Incentive Program (MIP), which ran from 2003 to 2010 and which will continue in 2011 as the Minority Outreach Incentive Program to reflect a broader focus on all minorities, expanded beyond Western Europe to include Eurasian nations. The aim of the Program was to stimulate a ‘transatlantic outlook’ amongst these communities who, by and large, had no direct first-hand experience of the United States. Up till 2010 the Program ran only in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, the UK, and the Scandinavian countries. Through the Program, U.S. embassies in these countries could claim extra exchange grants if they could show that they were being offered to local Muslim grantees. Alongside the MIP, other group projects specifically aimed at building bridges between the US and otherwise unconnected communities were developed. For instance, in FY 2010 the State Department circulated 25 European Regional Programs for which U.S. embassies could select candidates, with topics ranging from human trafficking and the role of the arts to U.S.-European Foreign Policy Challenges. Several were directly related to topics of concern as regards U.S. relations with Europe: “Managing Diversity in a Multi-Ethnic Society,” “Religion and Community Activism in a Democratic Society,” and, in particular, “Current U.S. Political, Social and Educational Issues for Young Muslim Leaders,” a two-and-a-half week program in the US which was described as follows:

This project is designed for young, emerging Muslim leaders of minority communities in Europe representing universities, government agencies, political organizations, media, and religious and community groups. The project will expose these young leaders to the pluralistic nature of the United States and the impact of diversity on political, social and educational issues and institutions in this country. The participants will gain insights into U.S. federalism, the American political system, and the foreign policy decision-making process. They will visit schools and universities to speak with student groups, and explore community issues such as ethnic diversity and integration, gender equality, religious tolerance, and the impact of American values and ethics on local groups and institutions.

The incentive behind these programs is understandable. While the initial goal was to contribute towards de-radicalization in European societies (a goal which has been pushed into the background but has never fully disappeared), the overall aim is to be “all-inclusive.” The attractions of U.S. soft power – its cultural products, its messages, its opportunities – will not reach everyone. It will also continue to cause reactions from those who see these artefacts and activities as forms of (cultural) power, regardless of whether it is soft, sticky, social, or whatever.54 The possibility for U.S. public diplomacy – here referring to those public and public-private programmes that seek to influence foreign publics – is that it can extend the reach of U.S. soft power to those communities that are otherwise beyond its range. It can do so by establishing the opportunity for channels of dialogue that would not otherwise exist, and by using first-hand experience with the United States and its people as a trigger through which individuals (and groups) might reflect on their own identities and interests.

U. S. Embassy, The Hague

This approach coincided with efforts by the Dutch government itself to promote a positive understanding of citizenship in alliance with civil organizations. One important partner in this venture was the Islam and Citizenship Foundation, founded in 2000 to stimulate ”dual-citizenship” awareness by highlighting the compatibility of Islamic values with a multicultural Dutch society. As part of its function, the Foundation compiled a comprehensive database of all Muslims active in Dutch society and evolved into the main mouthpiece for this diverse and disconnected community. In the wake of 9/11 the Foundation, led by Islamic convert Yassin Hartog, became a key ally in the U.S. Embassy’s public diplomacy outreach effort, providing contacts on “the future Muslim leadership of tomorrow.” Hartog was a member of a predominantly Muslim multi-regional group that toured the U. S. in 2003, and he has described how, despite the evident suspicion amongst the participants, the program’s openness and ability to provide access to a genuine cross-section of opinion in the U.S. had the desired effect. At some point everyone “was cured of their paranoia,” generating a real awareness of what the U.S. could offer. Hartog himself was most struck by the ability of U.S. citizens to accommodate dual identities (e.g. Japanese-American), in contrast to the situation in the Netherlands. From Hartog’s unique position in facilitating the program, he remains convinced that it “touched” in some way all the Dutch Muslims who participated, from removing “insensitive judgements” to being “inspired that things can happen in a different way.”55 By 2005, in the wake of the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri, the U.S. embassy in The Hague was running an all-mission Integration Issues Working Group to prioritise and coordinate these efforts. The IVLP was said to be an “especially effective tool.”56

Theo Van Gogh

Yet there are some difficulties involved. Firstly, the community it is focusing on is relatively small. To take the Netherlands as an example: around 8% of the Dutch population is Muslim, a total of around 1.3 million people. While this appears to be a substantial number, the MIP and similar programs are focused on nurturing role models within this community – individuals who will function both formally and informally as ‘multipliers’ in the way that they may circulate and disseminate positive images and narratives about the United States following their visit. In this respect, the actual number of those who could be identified as potential leaders in their community is small. Hartog has commented that these kinds of programs only reach the open-minded – in his pre-selection role, he deliberately aimed at those who would be open to such an experience. Even with the ‘multiplier effect’, this excludes the more radical elements in society. Hartog has also stated that the focus on Muslims “was obvious” and that this caused suspicion about receiving undue attention from U.S. embassy outreach, attention that was disproportionate to their actual numbers in Dutch society as a whole.57 This form of public diplomacy ‘overkill’ was replicated in the immediate post-9/11 years by the numbers of U.S. visitors (often members of congress) who toured Europe to observe its social minorities, which also raised undue attention.

Secondly, it is difficult to “propel” someone to become the kind of local “opinion leader” that you might want, since the grantees are allowed to make up their own minds. The freedom offered by the U.S. exchange programs and their lack of any sense of indoctrination always generates a positive response, but it cannot guarantee that their will be a pre-ordained outcome. There is always the danger that prejudices of U.S. society and politics will be confirmed, not dispelled. Careful planning is essential. The booking of one Dutch Muslim group into a New York hotel that overlooked Ground Zero did not help matters, even though it was probably due to carelessness. Thirdly, the Muslim community is itself too diverse, and the divisions (be they national, ethnic, or religious) too multiple, to have a far-reaching impact via individuals in this way. Fourthly, those with a Muslim background do not necessarily like being identified primarily in these terms. This is especially the case with members of parliament, who do not want to be singled out to ‘represent’ the community they come from, but who prefer to represent their political party as an active member of Dutch society in general. The MIP and similar programs could therefore backfire by focusing on individuals in this way, in the process unfavourably labelling these grantees, and giving away the ultimate motives of the programs by overtly including minority issues in the U.S. itinerary of the exchange as a standard practice.

One of the central conclusions of the above list is that the wish to “over-politicize” the message through overt programming should be avoided or at least downplayed by merging it with other concerns of equal importance. The (well-organised) exchange experience can have a substantial impact on opinions and attitudes if it opens up the space and opportunity for the unplanned (but favorable) encounter – what Sherry Mueller, director of the National Council for International Visitors, refers to as “unorchestrated learning”.58 Speaking about their experience at a gathering for the alumni of the International Visitor Leadership Program in the Netherlands in 2009, several Dutch grantees who benefitted from the MIP referred to how the trips didn’t alter their attitude towards the United States. Instead they felt that being in the United States with others of similar social and professional backgrounds from Europe instead prompted their own self-reflection on who they were, what they were doing, and how they might link up with others in similar situations. This is using the United States, in a way, as essential backdrop for social change, rather than as deliberate instigator for social change. As Hartog said, “a trip like that encourages you to take on responsibility,” in whichever direction that may go.59 Similarly, French Muslim participants “learned as much about France as the United States as a result of the program.”60

Other public diplomacy initiatives have also gone down this path, such as the Alliance for Youth Movements that seeks to promote “technology-driven grassroots activism campaigns.”61 While the State Department (specifically, then Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman) initiated the project by teaming up with corporate partners (Facebook, YouTube, Google, MTV) to encourage the use of social media outlets as a tool against oppression, the aim was thereafter to allow the network to go its own way and exactly not manipulate it in the direction of U.S. foreign policy interests. The goal is therefore not to control a process, but simply to trigger it and let it take its course.


What lessons can be drawn from these three examples? Returning to Henrikson’s five-scenario formula, it can be seen that the three case studies demonstrate clear potential for contributing toward consolidation and containment, and while penetration is possible, it comes with evident risks. The other two, enlargement and transformation, are only linked to the effects of exchange activity over the long term, whereby it becomes difficult to ascertain cause and effect.62

This prompts some further conclusions. The first is fairly clear, but difficult to implement: Be wary of running exchange programs with an obvious connection to foreign policy goals. These forms of cultural interchange can only succeed if they are given the free space to function without any set agenda behind them. This will also contribute to reducing suspicions and encourage further participation. Throughout the Cold War, participants on US government-sponsored exchange programs were pleasantly surprised to find that there was no obligation to comply with U.S. interests in return. This continues to be the case. Relations between public and private organizations therefore have to be carefully managed to maintain the utmost credibility.

The second is that a certain amount of sober realism is always required. Public diplomacy in general – and exchanges in particular – can only achieve so much. A realistic approach that accepts there is no magic bullet – even a strategic communication magic bullet – is always necessary. This is especially so since it is predominantly policy that guides opinion. As the Djerejian report on U.S. public diplomacy put it back in 2003:

If it is true that public opinion in Arab and Muslim countries responds more to policies than to public diplomacy, it is clear that successful public diplomacy will not be able to change minds dramatically in the presence of strong opposition to policy.62

The third is the need for partnerships. While government coordination and staying ‘on message’ is one thing, quite another is the opportunity to promote partnership between initiator and recipient. Partnership in the fullest sense of the word flattens out any real or perceived inequalities and focuses more on unlocking the self-realization of opportunities for empowerment amongst the grantees themselves. This can (and should) work in many directions, but in particular it is important lay the basis with an opening for dialogue with the intended audience. Partnership suggests common problems and working towards common solutions. It is non-coercive, non-hierarchical, related to joint ownership and mutual benefit. Of course it is easier said than done to actually apply it, but the first steps should always be framed in terms of looking for entrance points that emphasize self-criticism and a willingness to consider the experience of others as an essential input. This can then lay the basis, however fragile, for building some sense of community or, better, a “parapublic”, referring to cross-border relations that are not intergovernmental or conducted by official national representatives, but which are nonetheless “to a significant or decisive degree publicly funded.”64 Exchanges should function to bring participants voluntarily into contact with others who they would not otherwise encounter, enabling them to benefit in ways that would not otherwise be available to them. Prejudices can be overcome in this way, within limits.

One of the lessons of U.S. public diplomacy in the Cold War is that it is not possible to engage with a hardened critic, but it is possible to sway a doubtful opponent, and you will always strengthen a friend. Identifying these types is essential. This interchange should be arranged with no conditionality attached, so that individuals feel free to express themselves without any hint of coercion. Opinion does not have to be changed in any set pattern – as the case studies show, gains can also be made from at least a normalizing of contacts and an appreciation of difference. ‘Friends’ may be isolated and vulnerable in instances where public diplomacy aims to open up a ‘closed society’. There will be risks. But cultural exchange, if managed with care and awareness, can only result in more openness, not less.bluestar

*The Heineken Beer label is the property of Heineken and is used herein for illustrative purposes only


1 See (accessed 14 November 2010).

2. This paper takes the approach of Joseph Nye on Soft Power being “the ability to shape the preferences of others” (Soft Power, New York: Public Affairs, 2004, p. 5), and public diplomacy as the set of instruments and techniques that can be used to implement and achieve it by influencing opinion in other countries.

3 See for instance Ali Fisher, ‘Mapping the Great Beyond: Identifying Meaningful Networks in Public Diplomacy,’ CPD Perspectives on Public Diplomacy, USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School. Online, available at <> (accessed 22 February 2011).

4 Hillary Clinton, ‘Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World,’ speech at George Washington University, 15 February 2011. Online, available at <> (accessed 22 February 2011).

5 See M. Leonard, C. Snewing, and C. Stead, Public Diplomacy (London: Foreign Policy Centre, 2002).

6 Obama speech available at the New York Times site: <> (accessed 14 March 2011).

7 Matt Danzico, ‘Educational programme brings foreigners to North Korea,’ BBC News, 3 January 2011. Online, available at <> (accessed 22 February 2011).

8 On student exchanges and international education see for instance W. Johnson and F. Colligan, The Fulbright Program: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); G.Xu, ‘The Ideological and Political Impact of US Fulbrighters on Chinese Students: 1979-1989,’ Asian Affairs 26 (1999), pp. 139-157; Liping Bu, Making the World Like Us: Education, Cultural Expansion, and the American Century (Westport CT: Praeger, 2003); Paul Kramer, ‘Is the World Our Campus? International Students and US Global Power in the Long Twentieth Century,’ Diplomatic History 33 (2009), pp. 775-806. On military exchanges see Robert Kaplan, ‘Supremacy by Stealth,’ The Atlantic (July-August 2003). Online, available at <> (accessed 23 February 2011)

9 On the history of the IVLP see G. Scott-Smith, Networks of Empire: The US State Department’s Foreign Leader Program in the Netherlands, France and Britain 1950-1970 (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2008).

10 H.K.Finn, ‘Cultural Diplomacy and US Security,’ paper presented at Arts and Minds: A Conference on Cultural Diplomacy, Columbia University, 14-15 April 2003. Online, available at <> (accessed 23 February 2011)

11 Alan K. Henrikson, ‘What Can Public Diplomacy Achieve?’ Clingendael Discussion Papers in Diplomacy, 2006. Online, available at <> (accessed 22 February 2011).

12 Peter Krause and Stephen van Evera, ‘Public Diplomacy: Ideas for the War of Ideas,’ Middle East Policy 16 (Fall 2009), p. 106.

13 Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. xviii.

14 Arguably this is because the State Deparment was responsible for running US government (sponsored) exchange programs. Nevertheless, USIA personnel in all US embassies abroad effectively ran the programs in the field.

15 Carol Atkinson, ‘Does Soft Power Matter? A Comparative Analysis of Student Exchange Programs 1980-2006,’ Foreign Policy Analysis 6 (2010), pp. 1-22.

16 Carol Bellamy and Adam Weinberg, ‘Educational and Cultural Exchanges to Restore America’s Image,’ Washington Quarterly (Summer 2008), p. 58. The term ‘cultural carrier’ comes from I. Eide, Students as Links between Cultures (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1970).

17 This was especially noticed with the evaluation studies of exchanges as part of the large-scale re-education program in post-war Germany. See Giles Scott-Smith, Networks of Empire: The US State Department’s Foreign Leader Program in the Netherlands, France, and Britain, 1950-1970 (Brussles: Peter Lang, 2008), pp. 404-410.

18 See for instance the work of Liudmila Mikhailova at CRDF Global:

19 Antonio de Lima Jr., ‘The Role of International Educational Exchanges in Public Diplomacy,’ Place Branding and Public Diplomacy 3 (2007), pp. 240-241.

20 Sayyid Qutb ash- Shaheed, ‘“The America I Have Seen”: In the Scale of Human Values,’ Al- Risala (1951), republished in Kamal Abdel-Malek (ed.), America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

21 Alan K. Henrikson, ‘What Can Public Diplomacy Achieve?’ Clingendael Discussion Papers in Diplomacy, 2006. Online, available at <> (accessed 22 February 2011).

22 ‘FY 2009 Inventory of Programs,’ Interagency Working Group on US Government-Sponsored International Exchanges and Training. Online, available at <> (accessed 3 March 2011). The report states that “Not all programs submitted funding data in all categories and program dollar figures may include expenditures for larger programs that happen to include exchange and training components.”

23 On the possibilities for USAID programs see Jerrold Keilson, ‘Opportunities for Public Diplomacy Programs in USAID and the Peace Corps,’ in William Kiehl (ed.), America’s Dialogue with the World (Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, 2006), pp. 129-144.

24 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, 2010. Online, available at <> (accessed 3 March 2011).

25 See Giles Scott-Smith and Martijn Mos, ‘Democracy Promotion and the New Public Diplomacy,’ in Inderjeet Parmar, Linda Miller, and Mark Ledwidge (eds.), New Directions in US Foreign Policy (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 225-240.

26 See Walter Pincus, ‘Congressional Committees raise concerns over Pentagon’s Strategic Communications,’ Washington Post, 28 July 2009. Online, available at <> (accessed 22 February 2011)

27 Although even here the malaise in terms of goals and direction is also present. See Christopher Paul, ‘Whither Strategic Communication? A Survey of Current Proposals and Recommendations,’ RAND Occasional Paper, 2009. Online, available at <> (accessed 23 February 2011)

28 See for instance the influential discussion forum run by Matt Armstrong at

29 In October 2010 Iran sent a senior diplomat to a 44-country international contact group forum on Afghanistan for the first time. ‘Iran sends Delegate to International Meeting on Afghanistan,’ New York Times, 18 October 2010. Online, available at <> (accessed 8 November 2010).

30 Cable available at <> (accessed 30 October 2008).

31 Text was available via (accessed 2 September 2008)

32 ‘Obama Condemns Unjust Violence,’ BBC News, 23 June 2009. Online, available at <> (accessed 22 February 2011)

33 Quoted in William Fisher, ‘Buying Democracy in Iran,’ 16 June 2006. Online, available at <> (accessed 2 September 2008).

34 William Burke-White and Adam Kolker, ‘Don’t shut the door on dialogue with Iran,’ Philadelphia Enquirer, 19 June 2007. Online, available at <> (accessed 14 November 2010).

35‘Iran: Tehran Show Trial again cites USG Exchange Programs as ‘Velvet Revolution’ Tools,’ 25 August 2009, Iran RPO Dubai. Online, available at (accessed 3 March 2011).

36 Barry Ballow, ‘Academic and Professional Exchanges with the Islamic World: An Undervalued Tool,’ in William Rugh (ed.), Engaging the Arab and Muslim Worlds through Public Diplomacy (Washington DC: Public Diplomacy Council, 2002), p. 120.

37 See Negar Azimi, ‘Hard Realities of Soft Power,’ New York Times Magazine, 24 June 2007, pp. 50-55.

38 ‘The Iran Talks,’ 31 May 2006, America Abroad Weblog, Brookings Institution. Online, available at <> (accessed 30 October 2008).

[39] See (accessed 14 November 2010).

39 Berman, op. cit.

40 ‘Iran: Tehran Show Trial again cites USG Exchange Programs as ‘Velvet Revolution’ Tools,’ 25 August 2009, Iran RPO Dubai. Online, available at (accessed 3 March 2011).

41 The group consisted of Dr Ibrahim Kaylani (Vice-Dean, Faculty of Sharia, University of Jordan), Dr Mohammed Okla Ibrahim (Assistant Professor of Jurisprudence in Islam, University of Jordan), Izzidine Al-Tamini (Education Committee, National Consultative Council, Jordanian Parliament), Sheikh Wasif Fakhriddine (Judge of Religious Law, Jordan), Arafat Al-Ashi (Chief of Research and Translation, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Kuwait), Redouan Chaoudri (Deputy Attorney General, Court of Appeals, Morocco), and Sheikh Kamil Al-Tammimi (Head of Library, Council for Religious Affairs, West Bank/Jerusalem).

42‘Cluster Project Agreement, Pluralism in US Society, April 3 – May 2 1983,’ Archive of Meridian International, Washington DC.

43 ‘Report on International Visitor Program of Pluralism of US Society,’ Osama Sadek, USIA, ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46“They felt very happy when [they] realized that a great number of the black population are entering Islam. When the visitors were told that there are no deliberate obstacles put in the path of these new converts a surprise and disbelief expressions [sic] were seen on their faces.” Report: Pluralism of US Society, Jasim Al-Azzawi (interpreter), Archive of Meridian International, Washington DC.

47 The report is online, available at <> (accessed 12 November 2010).

48 J. Fullerton & A. Kendrick, Advertising’s War on Terrorism: The Story of the US State Department’s Shared Values Initiative (Spokane WA: Marquette Books, 2006).

49 Changing Minds, Winning Peace, Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, October 2003, Washington DC, p. 72.

50 See for instance Christopher Dickey, ‘Europe’s Time Bomb,’ Newsweek, 146/21, 21 November 2005; Robert Leiken, ‘Europe’s Angry Muslims,’ Foreign Affairs (July-August 2005). Online, available at <> (accessed 18 October 2010).

51 Katrin Bennold, ‘US courts the support of French Muslims,’ 26 May 2008, International Herald Tribune.

52See (accessed 2 November 2010).

53 See (accessed 2 November 2010).

54 See Walter Russell Mead, ‘America’s Sticky Power,’ Foreign Policy (1 March 2004); Peter van Ham, Social Power in International Politics (London: Routledge, 2010).

55 Interview with Yassin Hartog, The Hague, 26 January 2011.

56 ‘The Netherlands: Combating Extremism through Engagement and Outreach,’ 30 September 2005, US Embassy The Hague to Department of State. Online, available on the Dutch NOS news site at <http:// wikileaks/05THEHAGUE2651.pdf> (accessed 3 March 2011).

57 Ibid.

58 Sherry Mueller, ‘International Exchanges from an American Perspective,’ paper given at the seminar The Future of Exchanges: Assessing their Value in Building Relations Abroad, 6 November 2009, Netherlands Institute for Foreign Affairs Clingendael, The Hague.

59 Interview with Yassin Hartog, The Hague, 26 January 2011.

60 Katrin Bennold, ‘US courts the support of French Muslims,’ 26 May 2008, International Herald Tribune.

61 See (accessed 5 November 2010).

62 Henrikson himself is rather dismissive of exchanges as tools for achieving change, regarding them as “a subtle business,” and “excessive claims have been made for the effectiveness of these and related programs.” Henrikson, ‘What Can Public Diplomacy Achieve?’ p. 25.

63 Edward Djerejian, Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for US Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World (Washington DC: Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, 2003), p. 66.

64 See Ulrich Krotz, ‘Ties That Bind? The Parapublic Underpinnings of Franco-German Relations as Construction of International Value,’ Working Paper 02.4, Peogram for the Study of Germany and Europe, Harvard University. Online, available at <> (accessed 23 February 2011).


Giles Scott-Smith
Giles Scott-Smith

Giles Scott-Smith holds the Ernst van der Beugel Chair in Transatlantic Diplomatic History at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is also Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Roosevelt Academy and Senior Researcher at the Roosevelt Study Centre, both in Middelburg, the Netherlands. He has been researching the theory and practice of Cold War and post Cold War public diplomacy for many years, with a special interest in exchange programs. He may be contacted at:

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