Glassman: America Branding Alive and Well

by Steven R. Corman

Earlier today I paticipated in a bloggers’ roundtable with Assistant Undersecretary of State James Glassman.  My question for him was whether the U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication (NSPDSC) is still in force.

I asked this because Glassman has made comments in multiple appearances, like his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he seemed to de-emphasize the the number one goal of the NSPDSC, selling  Brand America:

But back to the war of ideas and to the importance of not being too U.S.-centric.  Think of it this way:  we’re Coke; they’re Pepsi. Our job is not to get people to drink Coke in this instance, but to get people not to drink Pepsi.  They can drink anything else they want.  They can drink milk, ginger ale, tomato juice.  We think that ultimately they will come around to Coke; that is to say, come around to principles of freedom and democracy.  But in the meantime, we want them to stay away from Pepsi — that is to say, violent extremism. And my apologies to Pepsi for this metaphor.

I took this to mean that were were going to stop selling the U.S. and focus on negative campaigning against the Bad Guys, and I thought it was a good idea.

I’ll paraphrase the Under Secretary’s response to my question now, and update this post when the actual transcript comes out (it’s due tomorrow).  He said it’s quite an undertaking to put together a document like the NSPDSC and its content is very broad, with 3 different strategic foci.  He sees the second focus, isolating violent extremists, as encompassing his recent emphasis. He said that they are working on another document to supplement the NSPDSC to talk about where things should go in the next administration.

He also said efforts to sell the U.S. brand were alive and well, and that they are working on a dramatic new program that he hoped to be able to unveil soon.  So although he has be emphasizing countering ideology, that doesn’t mean they’re not doing the other things. In fact most of their resources go to exchange programs like the Fulbright Program, which is oriented toward improving the U.S. image.

This strikes me as a mixed message, just when I thought the Under Secretary was getting firmly on-message.  I took it from his recent public statements that we would not be focusing on selling Brand America, but on suppressing sales of the competing brands.  Now there appears to be renewed emphasis on the former goal.

For me that raises serious questions of how we’re going to build a brand when we don’t have the credibility with target audiences to deliver an effective value proposition.

UPDATE

Two other participants in the roundtable have posted here and here.

And here is the excerpt of my question and Undersecretary Glassman’s response from the official transcript as promised above:

MR. ROBERTS: Okay. Move to Steve Corman.

QUESTION: Good morning, Mr. Under Secretary. Steve Corman from COMOPS Journal here. Thanks for talking to us this morning. My question has to do with the existing U.S. national strategy for public diplomacy and strategic communication –I’m kind of – that was put in place by your predecessor in 2007 – I’m kind of curious as to the extent to which that strategy is still fully enforced, because it seems like you have sort of deemphasized, say, the selling America part of it. So I was kind of wondering if that’s still [in force] and, you know, if it’s partially [in force], kind of what your specific goals are between now and January for doing your job.

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: You know, putting together a document like that in the federal bureaucracy is very difficult and time-consuming. And that document is in force. I think it’s a very broad document. It certainly – you know, its three specific strategic goals include, as goal number two, what we’re doing right now in the war of ideas. So I think it certainly encompasses what we’re doing. It’s been my intention to — and we’re already at work on it – to come up with another document. And not necessarily to supplant that one, but to kind of lay out, I think more clearly, exactly what our strategy is and what we hope the strategy going forward after this Administration is over will be.

And let me also just say as far as the question of – as America’s image is concerned, you know, I think America’s image is important. One of the problems I think we’ve gotten into is that the image – it’s almost as though the image is a goal in itself. I think improving America’s image is a means by which we’re able to achieve national security goals, foreign policy goals. And we haven’t de-emphasized the image, brand-building in the United States. That’s – we absolutely have not. And in fact, we’ve got one initiative that I think is pretty dramatic and I hope I can talk about that in – pretty soon.

I myself, just because of my own background and also, I think, because of the urgency of it, have decided that I’m going to be concentrating on ideological engagement, and what I call it is a shift in emphasis in concentration or intensity. But it doesn’t mean we’re not doing the other things. And you know, we still spend most of our money here at R on exchange programs. And I was just in London for the 60th anniversary of the UK-U.S. Fulbright Commission. I got to say, you know, I don’t think there’s anything that we do that’s more productive in public diplomacy than exchanges like Fulbright. The problem is they’re – they are very expensive and they’re long term. And so we need to find ways to amplify them, but they are tremendously important.

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