Sen. Lieberman’s Not-So-Straight Talk on Public Diplomacy

by Angela Trethewey and Joe Faina

In addition to his prime time speech last week at the Republican National Convention, Senator Lieberman also appeared at a convention panel in place of McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Sheunnemann.  In that talk, Lieberman outlined what a McCain administration would mean for foreign policy.

Lieberman promised that McCain would provide more support for public diplomacy and USAID than his predecessor.  That would be a useful first step to improving our standing in the world.  But otherwise, he described a “stay the course” approach.

First, Lieberman claimed that “there is good and evil in the world and there are some people in the world who just hate us for various reasons,” and that threats from these America-haters must be dealt with forcefully.  Andrew Bacevich, author of the provocative best-seller The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, disagrees. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University,  retired Army colonel, and self-identified conservative, said in a recent interview:

We need to see the world as it actually is.  We need to recognize that the world, or history, is not a morality play.  It’s not a contest between good and evil. History does not have some predetermined direction toward the triumph of freedom.

We also need to see ourselves as we really are, says Bacevich, a country that pursues its self interest, often through the use of force.  This kind of approach, rather than the re-heated morality play offered by Lieberman, opens new possibilities for diplomacy and intervening in the ideologies that support “evil doers” of the world.

Second, Liberman argued, “We need a lot better public diplomacy to get our case out in the Islamic world,” he said. “We’ve tried, but we still haven’t figured out how to do it.”  The main reason we haven’t figured it out is that the United States continues to rely on an outmoded model of strategic communication from the 1950s. It says that if the message is not getting through, it’s because we’re not trying hard enough.  But the truth is that our message falls on deaf ears, and shouting it louder won’t help.

The current Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Jim Glassman, understands this.  He says that winning the war of ideas is not about fixing “foreigners perceptions of the United States.”  Rather,

Our priority is not to promote our brand but to help destroy theirs. Think of America’s values and political system as orange juice; think of the al-Qaeda system of violent extremism as lemonade. Our job for the short term is not to put all of our efforts into getting people to drink orange juice, but to get them not to drink lemonade. They can drink anything else they want: milk, ginger ale, tomato juice, Coke. We are confident that, ultimately, they will come around to orange juice or something close to it, but in the meantime, we want them to stay away from lemonade. The effort is to help show populations that the ideology and actions of the violent extremists are not in the best interests of those populations.

Lieberman, by comparison, asks us to keep doing the same old thing over and over again, expecting different results.

Third, and most worrisome, is Lieberman’s assertion that the U. S. “image in the world is a lot better than we think it is.”  We here at COMOPS Journal make it a point to follow developments in U.S. image, and we can’t figure out where the Senator is getting this idea.  Not only does last year’s Pew Research Center poll highlight growing international unease with major world powers, the United States tops the list of nations causing the most distress. A BBC poll of 23 countries earlier this year showed that 47% still believe that the United States has a negative influence on the world, similar to levels for Israel and Iran.

There is also a  recent New York Times report of an increasingly common belief held in the Middle East about the US Government’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks.  A just-released study shows that significant numbers believe that the U.S. was not just complicit but that it actually orchestrated the attacks on their own soil.  None of these facts indicates that the image situation is better than we think it is.

Finally, Senator Lieberman said that his time with Senator McCain has encouraged him to “believe in straight talk.”  We think straight talk is a good idea too, so here is our offering:

  • The good/evil morality play isn’t doing anything for our image, as 7 years of experience has shown.  It’s time to drop it and try something else.
  • Our “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” message isn’t working either.  Like Jim Glassman says, it’s not about us, it’s about them.  The sooner we recognize that, the better.
  • Happy talk and spin about how it’s really not all that bad might be good for a political campaign, but it’s a recipe for disaster in a public diplomacy campaign.  You can’t solve your problems until you recognize them.  It’s a problem when we let our own perceptions of safety and potency go unscrutinized.

One Response to “Sen. Lieberman’s Not-So-Straight Talk on Public Diplomacy”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. percyexpat says:

    You’re quite right to highlight the vast, gaping chasm between rhetoric and reality on the subject of public diplomacy (as with more or less the whole of ideology and foreign policy), unfortunately realism (note the small r) has little or no place in politics, especially in the run up to a presidential election. People want to believe that they are right, good, holy and that their ideals are destined for universality once the rest of the world wakes up and realises their mistakes. This is the cornerstone of elective optimism that no candidate for any office will ever break, unless they want to lose horribly. Such is the human condition…Even more unfortunate is that people on all sides believe this same thing. Just like how everyone believes that God is on the side of their sports team, everyone thinks their ideals are the right ones and if only other people would wake up and see these ‘truths’ then we could all live in peace.

    But then what would I know? I’m a pessimist.