Narrowing the Listen-Do Gap in U.S. Public Diplomacy

by Steven R. Corman

On Monday, recently sworn-in Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Jim Glassman published an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune.  Entitled “The Animosity Does Not Run Deep,” it interprets the latest Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey.

In a nutshell, he says that the survey is not all bad news.  Some metrics are not as bad as on the last survey, and the dislike is not uniform.  In general people like the U.S. even though they disagree with our policies.  Deep down, they understand that we’re a super-power that will set policy according to our own interests, as it should be.

John Brown of Georgetown University  likens Glassman to Vice President Cheney, who, when presented with numbers showing 2 out of 3 Americans said the Iraq War was not worth it, responded “So?”  Brown says Glassman “appears to be a representative of the Bush/Cheney ‘So?’ coterie as pertains to America’s place in the world.”  He acknowledges Glassman’s statements that we should listen to what foreigners have to say.

Glassman’s bottom line, however, is that no matter how negatively other countries view and react to US policy, the United States government should go about doing exactly what its leaders have set out to do. Moreover, he gives no hint that, as foreign policy is formulated, world public opinion should be taken into consideration. “Foreigners,” he proclaims, “recognize that the United States is the world’s most powerful nation and that ultimately we will do what is in our own national interest, as we should.” In other words, US might makes right, a view Mr. Glassman somehow believes is universally held by non-Americans.

Though I don’t read the essay as a big “so what?” as does Brown, I have a reservation about a seeming contradiction in Glassman’s analysis.   Regarding “where the animosity of foreigners comes from,”  he says they believe

that we don’t listen carefully to them, or act as a reliable partner, or take their views into account.  They want a more respectful hearning.

But, I would emphasize, they don’t just want a hearing.  The Bush administration has really been quite dutiful about giving respectful hearings.  Yet the impression is often that they are just “going through the motions,” checking off the listening box so they can carry on with their plans.  It’s not often clear that the hearings result in an impact on plans and actions, creating a perceived listen-do gap (an analogue of the well-known “say-do gap”).  I think this is what foreigners are really upset about.

This relates to another reason Glassman’s gives for foreign animosity, disagreement with our policies.  On this he says

Certainly, a knowledge of how foreigners will react plays a role in deciding how we pursue our national interest. But, in the end, global public opinion polls cannot determine the foreign policy of the United States.

Can we do a better job explaining and advancing our policies? Yes, indeed. Will those policies always and everywhere be embraced? Absolutely not.

The idea that we should consider “how foreigners will react” evokes an old linear model of communication that has long outlived its usefulness in the U.S. government.  The image is that policies are launched or broadcast into a population of foreigners, and it is our job to control how the policies are deployed to minimize the chances of negative effects.  If things go wrong it is because we did not manage the deployment of the policies skillfully enough.  The problem is not the policy per se, it’s the marketing of the policy to foreign audiences.

But this is neither acting as a reliable partner to the foreigners, nor taking their views (not their after the fact reactions) into account.  And by Glassman’s own account, this failure is where the animosity of foreigners comes from.  In other words, it appears that his framing of the policy-making process precludes the fixes that he says are needed for reducing the animosity.

Glassman’s overarching point, that the U.S. has to make policies in its own interests and not someone else’s, is absolutely true. In a recently published book, we have argued that that the U.S. should be more forthright about which interests it is willing to defend unilaterally, abandoning the unrealistic “partnership” language in the current U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication.  That he has taken a step in this direction is positive.

On the other hand, near absolute unilateralism is the current perception of U.S. policy among foreigners, if not the reality.  Glassman’s challenge is to find some middle ground between that and near absolute surrender of U.S. policy to foreign interests.  That will require some path by which the concerns of foreigners can be channeled into the policy formulation process, so the things we listen to will begin to have some visible impact on the things we do.

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