Center for Strategic Communication

This morning, The Heritage Foundation held an event titled “Challenging America: How Russia, China, and Other Countries Use Public Diplomacy to Compete with the U.S.” The event explored the expanding soft power and public diplomacy efforts of China and Russia in relation to the dwindling efforts seen in the United States since the end of the Cold War. Speakers included Dean Cheng, Ariel Cohen, and Helle Dale.

Cheng explored the great attention that has given to China’s recent efforts at significantly expanding its soft power base. Those efforts recently have included the Beijing Olympics, CCTV, the 2012 Shanghai Expo, and of course the massive number of Confucius Institutes which teach Chinese language throughout the world. China’s efforts, as Cheng notes, are a result of China’s belief that information has strategic importance. At the same time, China is also seriously concerned about its own cultural security, and is cautious about allowing foreign cultural influence beyond its borders. In contrast to the U.S., Chinese international broadcasting is also aimed directly at the Chinese public. Interestingly, Cheng also stressed the attention that China paid to American efforts to gather support for the 2003 Iraq war, including the military’s journalist embedding system.

The Heritage Panel

However, despite China’s recent soft-power attention, I contend that there are still many issues problematic for the Chinese to overcome. To read about some of the challenges the Chinese face in their efforts to attract the world, take a look at my previous post in May.

Cohen spoke regarding Russia’s efforts at strategic communication, highlighting their use of Russia Today, which appears to have found a big enough audience amongst English speakers worldwide to justify its existence. It holds particular following amongst those already critical of the United States and its allies. While RT is more propagandistic in nature, there are also other media organizations in Russia still doing respectable work. Cohen also made several references to Al Jazeera, pointing out the strength of its brand for Sunni Arabs, and noting the impressiveness of its English programming (while at the same time its anti-Israeli viewpoint), which is comprised mostly of former BBC journalists.

Dale focused her comments on the state of American public diplomacy, noting that it may take the increased spending by Russia and China to shake up lawmakers in Washington to take PD more seriously.  Since the end of the Cold War, she noted, U.S. public diplomacy has not been impressive and suffers from a lack of focus. Despite the promise of a new strategic communication plan for the United States, Dale also argued that President Obama has mainly used strategic communication as a platform for himself.

Dale also explored the State Department’s internet strategy—of which I have been a vocal critic. Though State has enthusiastically but belatedly embraced use of the internet for diplomatic purposes, the internet remains a vulnerable medium. As Dale explained, the internet is vulnerable to blocking and hacking, making it sometimes difficult to get the message through subversion efforts. I would stipulate, however, that both TV and radio have also been historically subject to blocking or jamming (though not hacking).

The event could have used a little more discussion of the effectiveness of the Chinese and Russian PD efforts. While there was general consensus by the panel that both Russia and China’s outreach has been generally well received by sympathetic audiences, there was little discussion of whether or not it is helping them achieve their foreign policy goals. One example, brought up by Cohen, is that during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the Georgians were significantly more effective than the Russians at rousing international opinion in a way that had immediate foreign policy benefits.

The panelists also engaged in a discussion about the role of soft and hard power, with Cheng noting that soft power is best conducted under the umbrella of hard power. I’m not so sure that’s entirely the case, as some countries have a relatively strong soft power base, like Sweden, without expending significant hard power resources. Cohen stipulated that there is sometimes a narrow transition between soft and hard power, explaining that soft power can be used to draw people to take violent action.

While both hard and soft power can only operate on their own to limited extents, the combination of the two, known as smart power, can often be used more advantageously. I believe this is what the panel was trying to explain. Helle Dale made the best argument for this when she explained that the military’s own reviews of its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have noted that it did not adequately (or necessarily correctly) employ soft power resources to consolidate its battlefield successes.

Yet in the end, I found the most interesting point made by the panel is that Russia and China have analyzed what the U.S. did in public diplomacy during the Cold War, and are making their own attempts to replicate its successes. While both countries are focusing on the traditional forms of media that the U.S. used so successfully, the U.S. is relying more on the internet.

Personally, I’m not so worried about these countries making efforts to promote their image as I neither find it surprising nor alarming. I’d be more shocked if they weren’t, and wondering what was going on behind closed doors. Certainly, the U.S. has had its disagreements with the Russians and Chinese, particularly on the floor of the U.N. Security Council, creating a perception that the U.S. needs to “compete” with these countries in public diplomacy. This may be true, but there are also under-explored opportunities to tap the listening potential of public diplomacy to better understand the perception of these countries’ citizenry. That understanding can be used to find areas of agreement and challenges where we can work together for a common purpose—and ultimately find ways to better resolve our differences.