21 August 2003
Public Diplomacy Necessary for Policy Success, Says State's Ross
Amb. Christopher Ross article in Harvard Review
(This article by Ambassador Christopher Ross, State Department
Senior Adviser (Arab World Public Diplomacy), was published in
the Harvard Review Summer 2003 and is in the public domain. No
Pillars of Public Diplomacy
Grappling with International Public Opinion
By Christopher Ross
(Ambassador Christopher Ross is U.S. State Department Senior Adviser
for Arab World Public Diplomacy.)
Modern diplomacy, once a largely one-dimensional, nation-to-nation
process, is now a multidimensional enterprise in which so-called "non-state" actors
and foreign publics play an increasingly prominent role. The latest
Iraq war is the most dramatic, but hardly the first, example of
this phenomenon. The rise its influence of non-state actors has
been paralleled by two other equally important developments: globalization
-- the integration of peoples, societies, and economies -- and
information technologies that now link nations, cultures, and societies
in complex and unprecedented ways.
This is the transformed international environment in which public
diplomacy now operates. In such a world, the public-diplomacy quotient
of virtually every foreign policy issue today has risen dramatically,
whether regarding a trade negotiation over genetically modified
corn, the reconstruction of Iraq, or the threat of HIV/AIDS.
Policies can still be forged in private, confidential talks among
professional diplomats, much as they were 200 years ago, but no
policy initiative can succeed over the long term without the understanding
and support of multiple foreign publics and other non-state actors.
Equally vital is a shift in US State Department culture that moves
public diplomacy closer to the center of diplomatic work. To shape
mindsets abroad, mindsets at home must be changed first. This process
began with the integration of the US Information Agency into the
Department of State in 1999. More recently, the administration
of US President George Bush has reversed a decade of declining
resources for public diplomacy through substantial increases in
funds, personnel, and training.
The disciplines of persuasive communication are inescapable, and
the realm of foreign policy is no exception. The public diplomacy
and international communications of the United States must reflect
a basic set of principles and practices -- the seven pillars of
public diplomacy -- to meet its mandate "to inform, engage, and
influence" foreign publics.
The Seven Pillars
The first of these so-called pillars is policy advocacy, and all
public diplomacy activities, however varied, are designed to support
US national interests and meet its international duties. Above
all else, the first responsibility must always be to ensure that
foreign audiences understand US policies for what they are, not
for what others say they are.
To be more than a series of ad hoc responses to changing events,
public diplomacy must be incorporated into the ground floor of
foreign policy. Policy makers must take to heart the maxim that
a policy that cannot be explained clearly and understandably, to
many different audiences is not sustainable. In the Bush administration's
national communications strategy, therefore, foreign policy and
public diplomacy are inextricable and integrated throughout the
process of policy formulation and implementation.
An effective national public diplomacy effort must be coordinated
throughout the government to ensure that information priorities
are clear, overall themes are established, messages are consistent,
and resources are used effectively. Types of messages, language,
audience, format, and media will vary greatly. All, however, should
be part of a comprehensive public diplomacy strategy linked to
the formulation of policy at its inception and coordinated broadly
throughout the foreign affairs community.
The daily point-counterpoint of policy debate is only one element
of public diplomacy. It is equally vital to systematically address
the slower pulse of public attitudes, to connect with human emotions
and perceptions where our values and worldviews reside most deeply.
As one writer has said, "People are drowning in information, yet
desperate for context."
It is here, in the quest for deeper understanding and broader
dialogue with states and peoples, that the Bush administration
has worked hard to reenergize US public diplomacy, which has lost
focus and funding since the end of the Cold War.
Advocacy alone is rarely enough to build genuine understanding,
much less active support. Therefore, the United States must also
rely on the second pillar's providing reasons and rationale --
the context -- for its policies. Such context requires US policies
to remain rooted in the fundamental values and culture of the United
States. In the words of the US National Security Strategy report: "We
do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek
instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom."
Media coverage of the Iraq war offers an immediate and dramatic
example. Arab, European, and US media outlets have certainly reported
different or conflicting "facts," but the most dramatic differences
in coverage reflect deep-seated, often divergent assumptions about
the context, or meaning of the conflict -- from its origins to
its outcome. As a pre-war example, the Bush administration designed
its Shared Values Initiative for the Arab and Muslim world to provide
channels of dialogue and foundations of mutual trust, which are
critical to any understanding or agreement on key policy issues.
The most frequent question about the Shared Values effort is why
it does not directly address the most divisive policy issues in
the US-Arab relationship, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
and the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. But this is
the wrong question. The Shared Values Initiative, by intent, does
not address divisive policy issues directly. Instead, it tries
to establish broader arenas of mutual interests, common ground,
and interaction by talking about such subjects as religious tolerance
and family life-values deeply held and respected by US citizens
and residents of the Arab world.
Some commentators have responded by saying, in effect: "Everyone
knows about US freedoms and religious tolerance -- it is irrelevant
to the pressing issues of the day." Yet every international poll
of attitudes in the Middle East and Asia consistently suggests
the contrary -- that publics in Arab and Muslim countries are neither
knowledgeable about the United States nor simply critical of US
policies. These polls conclude that their governments and Western-educated
elites may be familiar with US values and culture, but the general
population clearly is not. Instead, many regard the United States
as irreligious and hostile to Islam, espousing a culture antithetical
to their own culture and values. In such an environment, it is
unlikely that US policy messages will even be heard, much less
judged fairly. Coverage of the US and coalition military campaign
in Iraq by the Arab media is a vivid example of this dynamic in
To suggest silence on these subjects until the Middle East conflict,
Iraqi reconstruction, or other policy issues are resolved in misguided.
To the extent that the administration's policy message is discounted
because of strongly held stereotypes, such as "The United States
is anti-Muslim," policy advocacy will fail. Audiences co-opted
by the myth of US hostility to Islam, for example, will not support
our call for international action because they will discount our
values and motives.
The immediate pressure of the Iraq war's information dimension
has not obviated the need for such initiatives; to the contrary,
it has made it more vital than ever -- even if the benefits of
such "values-based" communications are usually long-term and often
obscured, literally, by the immediate, polarizing images of conflict.
The third pillar of diplomacy is that US international messages
must be consistent, truthful, and credible. To formulate a public
message for a single exclusive audience is to make a fundamental
conceptual and operational mistake: all public messages can, and
will, reach multiple publics. In the end, credibility is the sine
qua non of international communication. We must always say what
we mean and mean what we say.
The US State Department is a leader in developing public diplomacy
initiatives for the United States, as reflected in its role as
co-chair of a new interagency Policy Coordinating Committee. At
the same time, the Bush administration has also established a new
White House Office of Global Communications, which grew out of
the Coalition Information Centers established during the Afghanistan
conflict to strengthen the focus and responsiveness of public diplomacy.
The White House office can help identify themes, set priorities,
coordinate foreign policy communications within the government,
and sensitize decision makers to the importance of public opinion
Both the Office of Global Communications and a strengthened public
diplomacy function in the State Department are key to developing
consistent, authoritative international information messages and
The fourth pillar is a corollary to the third. The obverse of
consistency is our ability to tailor messages for specific audiences.
There need be no contradiction between consistency and tailoring.
For example, an information campaign in support of open trade or
religious freedom will employ vastly different images and words
for different audiences. The values that stand behind such efforts,
however, are enduring.
In an age of satellite television and the Internet, policy messages
must be not only accurate, but fast. Silence is a vacuum that the
media will fill with someone else's viewpoint if the United States
is unwilling or unable to speak with one voice, and speak immediately.
The new digital technologies, moreover, provide unprecedented
opportunities for taking "content" -- a basic statement or explanation
of a US policy, for instance -- and "pouring" it into containers
that range from web page and e-mail publishing to print products
or broadcast materials for television, radio, or digital video
US public diplomacy has done well in some aspects of information
flexibility, notably the use of Listserv e-mail and web sites to
provide fast, authoritative transmission of official texts and
transcripts, often in local or regional language versions. At the
same time, new opportunities and challenges abound. The US has
not yet fully come to grips with ensuring its share of the voices
on the Internet, notably in chat rooms and other types of online
conversations that routinely discuss US foreign policy with no
official voice or presence providing balance or counterpoint.
By contrast, the US State Department has long recognized the potential
of satellite circuits for allowing experts and officials in the
United States to interact formally and informally with journalists
and opinion leaders throughout the world through digital video
conferencing. In 2002, for example, the State Department conducted
over 450 video conferences through more than 150 facilities located
in Washington, DC, and at our missions throughout the world.
In shaping specific programs for specific audiences, we must conduct
audience research that is as frequent and in-depth as resources
permit. The discipline of persuasive communication in this regard
is compelling: it is not what is said that counts, it is what is
heard. And it is only through research and feed-back -- coupled
with a sure understanding of the cultures in which we operate --
that we can craft the right messages for the right audience.
For example, in the case of the Shared Values documentaries of
US Muslims, we conducted careful pre-campaign attitude and message
testing through polls and focus groups -- as well as an intensive
follow-up assessment of their effectiveness, most notably in Indonesia.
When we tested Indonesians for the levels of recall and message
retention, we found them to be significantly higher than, for instance,
those of a typical soft drink campaign run at much higher spending
levels for many more months.
This kind of exceptional result means that the messages were both
relevant and very interesting to their audience. In random taped
interviews, people made it clear that these messages literally
opened their minds and challenged the carefully taught fiction
that the Muslim population of the United States is harshly treated,
illustrating instead that religious tolerance is a fundamental
value and practice in the United States.
The Role of Mass Media
At a time when many large and diverse publics are informed and
energized about foreign affairs, it is no longer sufficient to
explain our policies to 200 opinion leaders; the United States
must also find ways to repeat key messages for audiences of two
million, or 20 million, through national and transnational media,
which make up the fifth pillar.
We must leverage our messages through all the communications channels
at our command: Internet-based media (email publishing and websites),
broadcasting (radio and television), print publications and press
placements, traveling speakers, and educational and cultural exchanges.
Such channels include the independent government broadcasting services
administered by the International Bureau of Broadcasting (IBB)
under the supervision of the Board of Broadcasting Governors: Voice
of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa (Arabic),
Radio Farda (Persian), Radio/TV Marti (Cuba), and WorldNet television.
These broadcasting services demonstrate that support for US values
and interests is entirely consistent with independent journalism
and news reporting.
In seeking out channels for reaching broader audiences, the primacy
of television, and, consequently, the impact of images, cannot
be overestimated. In media terms, for instance, the Iraq war was
really two wars. The Arab media displayed one set of images of
the conflict, and US media outlets showed another, each playing
to different assumptions and audience biases. One clear lesson
from this experience is that the globalization of information --
especially the immediacy and impact of television -- can divide
as well as unite.
For the pre-war Shared Values Initiative, we estimated that more
than 280 million people were exposed to these messages through
pan-Arab satellite television and newspapers, as well as through
selected national media, during the holy month of Ramadan.
In Egypt, we invited local broadcasters to film the story of several
US Agency for International Development projects, highlighting
the families that benefited from the clean water, improved education,
and micro-loans that resulted. The television coverage, readily
available to a mass audience, confirmed the commitment of the United
States to improving the quality of life around the globe.
Building upon the Shared Values initiative and continuing to focus
on the Middle East, we are initiating a new program called Shared
Futures, which will bring sustained attention in the new postwar
era to our interest in and contributions to economic, political,
and educational change in the Muslim world through media campaigns,
television, media co-ops, exchanges, and other creative programming
-- in partnership with local institutions wherever possible.
Alliances and Partnerships
The sixth pillar, alliances and partnerships, recognizes that
as the number and importance of non-state actors have grown in
international affairs, the official voice of the United States
has grown smaller. We cannot reach these new audiences by ourselves.
We need the strength of international alliances and private-sector
partners, whether global corporations, Humanitarian organizations,
or US ex-patriot communities abroad.
Such partnerships not only bring fresh ideas and added resources
to our efforts, they can also offer third-party authenticity and
verification for messages that might otherwise be dismissed when
communicated through official channels.
We need to take the best of the United States to other countries,
to offer who we are and what we stand for, sharing with them our
contributions in representative government, science, technology,
literature, the arts, and English teaching. We may never be able
to match the massive, sometimes pernicious weight of Hollywood
and pop culture, but we can ensure that the diversity of our society
and culture is better represented to foreign audiences.
In the case of Shared Values, for instance, we worked with the
Council for American Muslim Understanding (CAMU) not only in preparing
the mini-documentaries, but also in recruiting speakers to travel
overseas and talk about Muslim life in the United States. CAMU
also assisted in creating an interactive web site (www.opendialogue.org)
where US citizens and people from Muslim-majority countries can
interact and share ideas.
Dialogue and Exchanges
The final pillar of public diplomacy recognizes that the United
States must build the foundations of trust and mutual understanding
through a genuine commitment to dialogue. We must listen to the
world as well as speak to it. The failure to listen and to provide
more avenues for dialogue will only strengthen the stereotype of
the United States as arrogant, when, in fact, we are often only
Opportunities and avenues for feedback and dialogue, therefore,
should be built into our public diplomacy efforts whenever possible.
US Secretary of State Cohn Powell has said, "We touch every nation
and every nation touches us." We must demonstrate both sides of
this equation in all our international communications.
Our most important tool for enhancing dialogue and understanding
is one of our most durable: the estimated 35,000 educational and
cultural exchanges that the US State Department conducts or sponsors
every year. These exchange programs are only a small fraction of
the total universe of US international exchanges, now an estimated
US$12 billion annual venture in the United States.
Such exchanges -- the celebrated "last three feet" of communication
-- are inestimable in demonstrating the ideas of freed optimism,
and sense of future possibilities that make the United States so
compelling to the world. The United States has had long experience
with a wide range of educational and cultural exchanges -- whether
young political leaders, academics, students, journalists, artists,
or others -- and we have found that the experiences of our grantees
are almost always positive and transformative.
The significance of this conclusion cannot be overstated, especially
at a time when there is so much focus on the policy and cultural
differences among the United States and many of its allies in Europe,
Asia, and elsewhere. At present, more than 50 percent of the leaders
of the global coalition in the war against terrorism are former
participants in our largest exchange effort, the International
Visitors Program. More than 200 current and former heads of state,
1,500 cabinet-level ministers, and many other distinguished worldwide
leaders in government and the private sector have participated
in this same program.
The prime directive of US public diplomacy will always be to ensure
that we advocate the policies of the United States as clearly and
powerfully as possible. At the same time, it is crucial that communications
be delivered in a proper context, through a commitment to sustained
dialogue and engagement. By adhering to the principles embodied
in the seven pillars of public diplomacy, the United States can
advance not only its national interests, but the universal values
of freedom, equality, and opportunity that we share with the world.