Candidates’ PD Positions Miss the Point

by Steven R. Corman

Earlier this week Marc Lynch did a nice post (that had been on my impossibly long to-do list for some time) critiquing the presidential candidates’ positions on post-Bush public diplomacy. As Lynch points out, Clinton avoids the subject except for a vague assertion that we have to restore our moral authority, a position that comes with no attached plan of action. His assessment is that McCain has got a well-developed set of ideas on the subject, albeit ones that are over-militarized and more oriented toward information operations than diplomacy. Lynch saw a lot to like in Obama’s statements, and I agree it comes close to the right thinking. Obama sees our public diplomacy efforts as disastrously ineffective and notes the need to “speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women’s rights.”

Where all of these positions, including Obama’s, fall short is in their failure to accurately assess our shortcomings. They all seem to assume that the problem is in the way we have been designing, organizing and/or deploying messages, and that if we just correct that we will start winning the “war of ideas.” But the problem goes much deeper than that: As study after study has shown, the international credibility of the U.S. is in the basement, if not underground.

Without credibility, we simply have no hope of persuading anyone of anything. When Obama says that we need to speak to Muslims and tell them that we will work for the good, he assumes that when we say that we will be believed. When McCain says we need to help moderate Muslims against the extremists, he assumes that they will believe we are there to help. But because of a consistent failure to align words with actions they will not believe us.

To talk about alternative messaging strategies in these circumstances is to miss the point. The real challenge is getting the U.S. back into a position where our public diplomacy efforts have a chance of working. I look for three components in a convincing plan for reforming public diplomacy:

  1. Candidates should explain how they plan to restore our lost credibility. There is research to show that credibility has three dimensions: Trustworthiness, competence, and goodwill. Trust can be defined as confidence in the reliability of people or systems. How would the candidates restore the belief in strategically important audiences that we will be reliable? Competence is the ability to carry out one’s plans. How will the candidates restore confidence in strategically important audiences that we not only will but can do what we say we will do? Goodwill is the perception that a person or entity takes actions that benefits others and avoids causing them harm. How will candidates restore the belief in strategically important audiences that we act with their best interests in mind?
  2. Candidates should explain how they will operate with low credibility in the mean time. Restoring lost credibility is a slow, long-term process. Proceeding with business-as-usual efforts to persuade people in the normal ways when we don’t have the credibility to do so makes us look clueless. This in turn harms perceptions of competence, impeding efforts to restore lost credibility. There needs to be an interim strategy for public diplomacy in conditions of low credibility. There are some techniques for doing this, like reducing U.S. “branding” on messages, using trusted third parties as messengers, and so on. The candidates should tell us their plans for the interim period when our credibility is being rebuilt.
  3. Candidates should explain how they will transform outdated concepts of communication. As we argued in a recent white paper, U.S. public diplomacy (and strategic communication more broadly) remains mired in a model of communication that was cutting-edge around the time of the Eisenhower administration. It conceptualizes communication as a process of transmission that involves delivering messages to an audience, as if the messages were little packets that could be implanted in hearers’ brains. Every time you hear a government official talking about “sending a signal” to some foreign government/group/population, he or she is paying homage to this model. Since the 1950s, theorists have come to understand that the situation is much more complex than that, involving a mutual interaction of communicators that is not fully under the control of anyone. How will the candidates come to grips with the modern complexities of communication, on which public diplomacy depends?

Hearing a candidate address any of those issues would assure me that s/he is coming to grips with the real problems of public diplomacy facing the United States. Talking about how to jigger our messaging strategy without facing these three issues continues to miss the point.