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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Ethics and the Conduct of Public Diplomacy

January 12, 2009


Good morning. Thank you very much for that kind introduction.

First, I want to thank Dr. Wasson, Emily, and the student committee for inviting me to speak today.

It is a real pleasure to participate in the Tower Hill Forum. As you have heard, I was privileged to serve on the Tower Hill board of trustees for many years, and I remember hearing about the Rappolt family’s extraordinary gift and vision for the forum more than ten years ago. It is a real honor to be included in the group of speakers that have come to the school since then.

* * * * *

If I have done the math correctly, the current group of Tower Hill upper school students was born between 1991 and 1995. You may not recall much of it, but trust me when I tell you that you spent your early years living in a time in which America reigned supreme. In a memorable phrase, columnist Charles Krauthammer called it the “Unipolar moment.”

In nearly every aspect of human endeavor, America dominated the globe. Most Americans didn’t give much thought to those who lived outside our borders. The Cold War was over and we had won. Russia was in disarray. Europe was struggling to expand its culture and institutions eastward into the former Soviet territories, and to define what it would become. Japan was mired in a decade long recession. China and India had yet to begin their great economic expansion.

All that changed on September 11, 2001. Despite our extraordinary economic, cultural and military strengths, we were vulnerable in the most basic sense: we could not defend our great cities from terrorist attack. Even as we struggled with the security issues inherent in an open society, it was clear that we could no longer ignore the attitudes and perspectives of those around the world.

And this was very uncomfortable. For the first time in a long while, we had to face the stark prospect that many folks didn’t much like us, and we weren’t sure we liked them either! A picture is worth a thousand words, so i have brought along a couple of visuals to illustrate.

[In the first, a couple considering a trip abroad obviously is worried about the reception they will get from the local population, so much so that they are advised to consider vacationing in Iowa. In the second, our own government clearly is not too interested in the views of foreign populations or their governments, not even our closest allies in Europe.]

After the shock of 9/11, Americans tried to understand what had happened, and considered what we might do in response. The 9/11 commission report recommended a series of actions to “engage in the struggle of ideas,” which included better defining the American message and defending our ideals and values.

The process by which we define our message and defend our ideals and values is called public diplomacy.

Today, I am going to address five questions.

What is public diplomacy?  Why is public diplomacy important?  How are we doing in our public diplomacy efforts?

Are there ethical implications associated with the conduct of public diplomacy?

And finally, what is the path forward in our communications and relations with Muslims and the Islamic world?

* * * * *

How many of you are familiar with the term public diplomacy?

Public diplomacy has been an essential element of our foreign policy for decades. It was an important tool in influencing public opinion in Europe during the cold war. It is now back in vogue, as our government has struggled to improve our reputation, particularly in the Middle East and among Muslims throughout the world.

While traditional diplomacy is a government-to-government effort conducted largely behind closed doors, public diplomacy is a mostly transparent process directed toward influential leaders and private citizens in other countries; that is to say the foreign public. Public diplomacy involves explaining our foreign policy and influencing others to support it. It is also about helping others understand America and its essential values.

In simple terms, public diplomacy is about the two c’s: communicating and connecting with people in a meaningful way that enables them to regard America and Americans more positively than they would otherwise. The goal is to build a reservoir of good will that will help to support our policies and principles in good times and bad.

How do we do this?

The United States sends 193 ambassadors around the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Together with career Foreign Service officers who specialize in public affairs and public diplomacy, they interpret, explain, and advocate the United States perspective on foreign policy issues to the overseas media and the local community. They make speeches, put out press releases, host community leaders for receptions and programs, establish and maintain American centers, which include English language libraries and internet access.

But public diplomacy is much more than direct communication. It also involves a wide range of educational and cultural exchanges that are coordinated and supported by the government. Public diplomacy is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing to a cheering audience in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is conflict resolution specialists from the East-West Center in Honolulu mediating an ethnic dispute on the island of Fiji. It is American troops bringing aid to victims of the Asian tsunami. It is a private film screening for Muslim community leaders at the American Embassy in London. It is the Fulbright scholar and Eisenhower fellowship programs sending Americans abroad and bringing foreign students here for life changing travel and study opportunities.

This gives you a sense of the breadth of public diplomacy, the underlying purpose of which is to support the American brand.

None of this is to say that we should expect to be loved. After all, we are the big kids on the block. We would, however, like to be respected. We would like to be understood and appreciated for what the United States and its people and institutions have contributed to the world. We would like to be perceived favorably or at least fairly. People will not always agree with our policies, but we should not allow our policies or our national interests and objectives to be mischaracterized or distorted. Even when our policies are unpopular, we want to use public diplomacy as a tool to promote universal values: democracy, the rule of law, human and civil rights, free markets, and cultural openness.

* * * * *

Since we care about our image and reputation abroad, the next question is how are we doing? This is a difficult question to answer directly, but if you recall, after the 9/11 attacks one of the more common refrains was “why do they hate us?”

Well, hate is such an unfortunate word, so if you will permit to rephrase the question: do they still dislike us, and if so, how much?

We are clearly much more popular than we were at the end of the Bush Administration in many countries, but we are still deeply unpopular in others. Not surprisingly, the election of President Obama improved our rating markedly in Western Europe, and in Canada where the favorable impression of America has moved up in only a year from 38 to 68 percent. On the other hand, the impression of America in the Middle East and central Asia is still not very good: in Egypt (where, by the way, America annually provides billions in foreign aid) it is 27 percent positive; in Jordan, 25 percent; in Pakistan, 16 percent; and in Turkey, a NATO member and critically important country for our security, just 14 percent.

Beyond the polling data, I can tell you that most outside experts (including the advisory commission on which I serve) do not believe that our current efforts in public diplomacy are remotely adequate to meet the challenges we face as a nation.

One problem has been resources. With the Cold War won, our priorities shifted away from public diplomacy. In making the case for a reinvigorated public diplomacy effort, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates recently noted that there are more members of military bands than there are Foreign Service officers. Think about that for a moment . . . during the 1990s, overall funding for public diplomacy declined precipitously, to the point where by 2001, we spent only a little more than $1 billion dollars annually – not a small amount for you and me, but in relative terms only one-third of one percent of the annual Defense Department budget.

Another big reason for our public diplomacy shortcomings is the State Department workforce, and the nature of the bureaucracy. At literally every stage of the human resource food chain, the State Department falls short: in recruiting, hiring, training, deploying, and promoting effective public affairs officers.

For starters, there is no effort to identify or recruit Foreign Service officers who have communications or public affairs training or talent. Things like media savvy, persuasiveness, and cross-cultural familiarity are not even considered. Indeed, other than general aptitude and analytical ability, the only specific goal of the Department’s hiring focus relates to diversity.

Once hired, many of the most talented recruits opt to specialize in political or economic affairs, which have long been seen as the best tracks to advance. As a result, the vacancy rate for authorized public diplomacy spots has stood at around 15 percent for many years. For those who do choose this path, specialized training in communications and public affairs is limited. There are also severe shortages of public diplomacy officers who speak critical languages such as Arabic and Farsi. This is an acute problem at our embassies in the Middle East. A GAO report found that in Arabic language posts, 36 percent of language designated public affairs positions were filled by staff unable to speak Arabic.

Lastly, it is worth recalling the words of the prominent CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, an early head of the US Information Agency. In considering the job, he was reported to have said to President Kennedy, “if you want me in on the landings, I’d better be there for the takeoffs.” In other words, don’t just expect me to clean up the mess made by the policy folks. Unfortunately, very few public diplomacy officers today are in on the takeoffs, as we have failed to effectively integrate our public affairs officers into the policy making process.

* * * * *

Now that you know something about public diplomacy, you should also know that some people refer to it by another name: propaganda.

Believe it or not, despite the obvious negative implications of that word, some of the people who use it are not intending to be critical. Shortly after 9/11, diplomat Richard Holbrooke wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post that argued for more effective public diplomacy in the war against terrorism. We need, he said, “public diplomacy or public affairs, or psychological warfare, or – if you really want to be blunt – propaganda.”

I don’t think this is just a matter of semantics. While propaganda is not necessarily false – and people have categorized it as white, grey, and black depending upon its features -- it is consciously manipulative.

The idea of truth as the foundation of ethical behavior is an ancient concept that goes back at least to Plato. “Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both in heaven and on earth.” You all know that. It arises daily in your lives as students.

On the other hand, as we get older we realize that truth can be a complicated thing. “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” That was Oscar Wilde in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'.

[Remember that quote; it might come in handy at some point, maybe if you find yourself in Dr. Wheeler’s office?]

During the two world wars, propaganda was employed by the American Government on a massive scale to demonize the enemy, win allegiance from neutrals and mobilize civilian support. Its use was institutionalized during the cold war. Diplomat George Kennan, the leading Russian authority and author of our containment policy against the soviets, was a strong proponent of using various sorts of tools and tricks, including psychological warfare and covert action. As recently as 2002, the Pentagon closed its office of strategic influence following allegations that it had provided false information to foreign journalists.

It has been said that the first casualty of war is truth. When societies are threatened by the likes of Nazi fascism, Soviet communism, and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, it is tempting to employ tactics that we would never consider under normal circumstances. But this justification does not make these tactics ethical. Like water-boarding, it only makes the rest of the world regard us as no better than our enemies.

We all have a perspective. We should express it freely. Moreover, it is critically important to correct the lies and inaccurate information put out by our enemies, and to try to influence people with advocacy based on our honest appraisal. But there are serious ethical implications that arise if we resort to deception and distortion – even if it is in the service of a good cause.

* * * * *

There is another reason why I do not support lying in the context of public diplomacy. And it’s pretty basic. It’s because I don’t think it works.

The world is a very different place from what it was in 1945. The success of Radio Free Europe had much to do with the fact that if you were living in Prague after World War II, there were very few other sources of information. Today, we all suffer from information overload. Even in remote parts of Afghanistan, there is access to the internet. The inherent transparency of the modern world is such that our credibility as a nation depends upon our being truthful and consistent, because eventually the truth will emerge.

With all that said, how do we do a better job of engaging in effective, ethically responsible public diplomacy?

There are a host of ideas that have been proposed, here are some of them:

--Some believe that we should carve public diplomacy out of the State Department, and create a nonprofit organization to collaborate with the private sector in an effort to better “sell” America. I don’t know if any of you watch the television show “Mad Men” that portrays a New York advertising firm in the early 1960s. I am a big fan, and I like to think of this idea as “mad men” does 21st century geopolitics. Granted, there is some merit to the idea of removing cultural and educational programs from the State Department, and getting the private sector more involved. But there are limits as to what we can expect to gain from this approach. Promoting our values simply is not akin to getting kids to drink Coca-Cola.

--Some believe we should be more focused on winning over young Muslims, and clearly this is important; and that the way to do that is to use social networking tools. There is even a clever label for this: public diplomacy 2.0. Facebook is now global, and the State Department is Twittering away. But here again, there are limits as to what we can expect. New technology is only as good as the message conveyed.

--Some believe that we need to expand our exchange programs and bring more students and young professionals to the United States from abroad. I am a big proponent of these programs. But in the end only a tiny portion of the population can come to America.

Even if we do all this, and do it well, I am skeptical that we can affect in a significant way the prevailing political dynamic in the Middle East.

The problem lies within the Islamic community, and we are virtually powerless to change it. It stems from the political environment prevailing in many Arab states that foments extremism and convinces young men to strap on explosives in the cause of jihad.

Rather than working to reform and modernize their societies, Arab leaders have instead tacitly supported the dissemination of a theology that blames America and the west for their troubles. The primary tenet of the theology is that America has declared war on Islam to prevent Muslims from advancing.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls this theology “the narrative.” A Jordanian counterterrorism expert told Friedman that “this narrative is now omnipresent in Arab and Muslim communities . . . [they] are bombarded with this narrative in huge doses and on a daily basis. . . . [to the effect that] the west, and right now mostly the US and Israel, is single-handedly and completely responsible for all the grievances of the Arab and the Muslim worlds.”

This is what we face in the great struggle of ideas.

But I don’t want you to leave today feeling glum, so let me try to end on a more hopeful note.

A truly bright spot in the Islamic world is Indonesia. Indonesia is a very important country; it is the fourth largest country in the world and the home of more Muslims than any other country on earth. Indonesia was ruled by a military dictatorship for decades following a revolution in the 1960s that was portrayed in the film “the year of living dangerously.” But it has successfully made the transition to democracy. In recent years the Islamic extremists there have been losing ground to the secular political parties.

I went to Indonesia last year, and visited a Muslim boarding school in west Jakarta. It is a type of values based school called a pesantren, which offer scholarships to lower income kids. These schools emphasize character, the study of the Koran as well as English and traditional subjects. They offer a path to the middle class.

We sat down with the headmaster and some of the teachers, and after a while they asked if we would like to meet the students. We walked across a courtyard and entered an open air pavilion, with Arabic words painted around the perimeter. Several hundred students were seated quietly before us. In keeping with Muslim tradition, the boys and girls were divided, with a floor to ceiling curtain running down the middle of the room. The boys wore shirts and ties, and the girl’s side was an ocean of white, as they all wore full length burkas with head scarves.

I was not really prepared for this scene. I have to tell you, it was pretty intimidating!

I realized later that I was suffering from a kind of intellectual and emotional hangover from 9/11. My visceral reaction left me feeling very anxious indeed about standing in front of a large room full of Muslim students. But the exchange that we had was so thoughtful that my anxiety quickly evaporated. There was no hostility, just an evident fascination with America. What I remember to this day was a teenage boy, who had a simple but striking question: “what do American students think of us?” he asked it with a tone of genuine concern, almost as if to say, “I hope that American students don’t believe that all Muslims are terrorists, because we will all inherit the same world and we have to work together to make it better.”

With that, I will take your questions. Thank you very much.

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