Analysis: Public Diplomacy and the Other F-Word

By Angela Trethewey

America’s ability to win the hearts of minds of global citizens has plummeted over the past several years.  According to the Pew Global Attitudes project, the image of America across the globe has steadily declined over the past several years, support for the U.S. led War on Terror is waning even among close allies like Japan and Britain, and the extent and depth of anti-Americanism among Muslims is growing.

The reasons for the spike in anti-American sentiment are many, including American foreign policy (particularly in terms of the war in Iraq and support for Israel), the “smear campaigns” against the U.S. by Arab media, and the failure of American public diplomacy to adequately engage local meanings and interests. Whatever the reasons, anti-Americanism is alive and well and is a force that is thwarting the potential of American diplomatic efforts.

Yet, there are encouraging notes that Americans and Muslims can find points of agreement.  Not surprisingly, Americans and Muslims both agree that relations between the two groups are strained, and there are Westerners who accept some responsibility for the problem.  There is also data to suggest that the number of Muslims who support suicide bombings and Islamic extremism has dropped dramatically over the past five years.  Importantly, Muslims and Americans both value democracy, as Muqtedar Khan points out:  “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the democratic ideal is quite widely upheld in the Muslim world [and there] is nothing in Islam and in Muslim practice that is fundamentally opposed to democracy, justice, freedom, fairness, equality or tolerance.” 

Principles

The challenge for U.S. diplomacy is to key into and amplify shared values with Muslim audiences who are loathe to embrace anything that smacks of “American-ism.”  In many ways, the U. S. government’s struggle is one that feminists have faced for many years.  Backlash against feminism has manifested in many young women’s disavowal of the feminist label, despite their beliefs in feminist principles. When asked if they support equality, tolerance, and equal pay for equal work, for example, women are likely to agree.  And yet, the word “feminism” has become toxic in large parts of the American culture; it has become the (other) F-word.

Rather than trying to convince women of the rightness of feminism, as a label and a way of life, feminist scholars have suggested that the way to win the hearts and minds of women and progressive men is to inspire would-be allies with a feminist imagination (Wheatley, 1994).  Messages that are characterized by a feminist imagination exhibit a flexibility of mind that does not impose a false unity, remains appreciative of and engages the multiplicity of positions among it audience(s), and is not necessarily theoretically or politically pure but open to multiple, ambiguous, and sometimes even contradictory interpretations.  The point of a feminist imagination is to harness the principles of feminism differently depending upon the goals of the speaker/author and the unique position(s) of the audience.  In short, a feminist imagination resists pinning down the “correct” meaning of feminism, and instead focuses on expanding and enriching the possibilities for feminist action.  

Analysis

Taking a page from the feminists’ book, the State Department might also infuse their diplomacy efforts with an “American imagination” as a means of combating the backlash against “American-ism,” particularly in the Muslim world. Doing so would mean moving away from creating clear and consistent messages that are unambiguously and unapologetically American in their orientation.  As the CSC has argued, the State Department’s efforts have been informed by a public relations model that relies on a one-way model of communication and presents a unified and seamless vision of American democracy.  These messages are designed to create a shared meaning for America around the world.  And yet, as the Pragmatic Complexity Model of Communication makes clear, communication does not simply transfer meanings from sender to receiver, however well-crafted the message.  And, indeed, sometimes repeating messages can and does erode the sender’s credibility.  

Public diplomacy inspired by an “American imagination” would focus on creating communication venues and processes that embody core American values and ideals (e.g., participation, democracy, free speech, public dialogue) but do not necessarily label them as such or insist that America’s interpretation of those values is the only correct interpretation.  Such an effort would allow individuals around the world to represent themselves, their environments, and their ideas in creative and collaborative ways that need not be determined by cultural, religious or social conventions.

An inclusive, participatory and dialogic environment can empower individuals, particularly those in Muslim communities, to tell their own local stories about the negative consequences of terrorism in their economic, social, familial and personal lives, as well as narrate alternative possibilities for the future.  Such a communication venue can offer up a model of the best of American ideals in practice–not just in message–and in so doing inspire others to more fully embrace rather than reject “American-ism.” Beyond such special venues, public diplomacy exchanges, official briefings, and policy also need to become a places of American imagination.

Further Reading

  • Wheatley, E. E. (1994). How can we engender ethnography with a feminist imagination? Women’s Studies International Forum, 17, 403-416.
  • Corman, S., Trethewey, A., Goodall, H. L. (2007, April) “A 21st Century Model for Communication in the Global War of Ideas From Simplistic Influence to Pragmatic Complexity,” http://comops.org/publications/CSC_report_0701-pragmatic_complexity.pdf