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 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. is right, it is good, and therefore we do not need to change our actions, what we need to adjust is our image.
Toward a New Public Diplomacy is divided into roughly three sections. The first looks at the case for public diplomacy. The second examines three different viewpoints 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… or 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 nation.” 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” (emphasis added).
That legacy includes the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government, the support of the Shah and his SAVAK inquisitors, the unparalleled 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 Iraq, 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 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.