Glassman is Right

by Steven R. Corman

Though I’m not too sure what he has been doing in terms of actual public diplomacy lately, it’s apparent that Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Jim Glassman has been working overtime on public affairs.  Since his recent confirmation he has produced a a slew of speeches, TV appearances, op-eds and other communication intended for domestic consumption.

Though earlier I joined John Brown in expressing some reservations about Glassman’s approach, I have also found things to like about his recent statements, particularly a speech he gave at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Yesterday Melinda Brower published a critique of his strategy for the “War of Ideas” (WoI), as expressed in the speech where he said:

In the war of ideas, our core task is not how to fix foreigners’ perceptions of the United States. Those perceptions are important — and I would be happy to address the issue of America’s image in the question-and-answer period. But America’s image — indeed, the United States itself — is not at the center of the war of ideas.

To this Brower replied:

Huh??! Does “Death to America” ring a bell? How could negative views of the United States NOT play a role in violent extremism? Osama bin Laden wants death to America. 9/11 happened to Americans. Al Qaeda members are coming to Iraq to fight America. Disdain for America sticks to violent extremism like white on rice.

The problem with this view, she says, is that it

de-links the US, the image of itself that it projects, and more importantly its policies, from the behavior of violent extremists—when these are the very factors that the US can directly manipulate in order to persuade extremists to change their behavior.

There are three mistakes in this line of reasoning.  First, it conflates the image that the United States projects through intentional acts of public diplomacy with policy.  Though policy definitely has an important effect on the perception of the United States, it is not public diplomacy.  It’s…well, policy.  In the present administration others’ perceptions just do not seem to be a very important factor in policy formulation (a mistake that my colleagues and I have written about).  So although it’s something we could theoretically control, it’s not something we will control, at least during Glassman’s tenure.  We’re stuck with the policy we’ve got, and its effects.

Given that, Brower’s second mistake is to assume that we can manipulate the U.S. image in a way that would have an effect in the WoI.  We have been trying that for the past six years: Charlotte Beers using an advertising approach, Karen Hughes using a political campaign approach, even Disney using the Disney approach.  And where has it gotten us?  Nowhere.  As the last couple of Pew Global Attitudes surveys show, people don’t hate America or Americans, they hate our policies.  No matter how hard you rub, you ain’t gonna get that apple to shine.

Brower’s third mistake is to think of the WoI as a simple struggle between us and the Bad Guys, and that our best hope is to get them to quit hating us.  They’re not going to quit hating us any more than we are going to quit hating them, and nothing either side says or does is likely to change that.  The crucial play is for unallied third parties–the “good guys” (from the extremists’ perspective) in the Muslim community who could provide emotional and/or material and/or political support, and who might even be converted into sympathizers and supporters.

There are two ways to approach this group.  We could try to make them love us, so they reject those who are against us.  But this won’t work for reasons explained in the previous two points.  Glassman, I think, realizes this, and therefore favors the other option:  Doing what we can to help drive them away from the extremists.

The extremists are very helpful in this regard, as they do all kinds of heinous things to their fellow Muslims.  We can assist in making such acts well known without depending on a good image that we don’t have.  In doing this we degrade the extremists’ image and public support.  Recent WoI successes, like the “Awakening Councils” in Iraq, have come about because ordinary people turned against the extremists, not because they came to love the United States.

Now I will grant that what Glassman is talking about here doesn’t fit the definition of public diplomacy very well.  It better fits the overarching category of strategic communication, and we could legitimately ask whether that broader subject is really Glassman’s charge.

But what the public diplomacy chief is essentially telling is that (at least in the short run between now and January 2009) there is not a lot public diplomacy is going to do to change things with respect to the WoI.  He is right.

UPDATE

Melinda Brower responds.

SECOND UPDATE

Matt over at Mountain Runner disagreed with the second to last paragraph of my post.  Well, OK…what he’s talking about does not fit most definitions of PD, which emphasize dealing with the image/perception of the country doing the PD.  But it doesn’t matter anyway because I was definitely wrong in the second statement of the paragraph.  Besides being PD honcho, Glassman officially “heads the U.S. Government-wide War of Ideas effort countering violent extremism.”

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