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Thesis & Antithesis

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

13 September 2005

Public diplomacy limits

Last Friday, Karen Hughes was sworn in as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, underlining the Bush Administration’s renewed emphasis on “winning hearts and minds” abroad. But while the sentiment that pervades this appointment—that America needs to improve its image abroad—is welcome, its underlying tone is misguided: it is premised on the belief that the gap between America and its “enemies” rests on differing perceptions.

To begin with, the case for skepticism comes from all sorts of corners—it is doubtful whether America can remain so overwhelmingly powerful relative to other countries and maintain a likeable image abroad; it is also questionable whether anti-Americanism is as harmful to American security as policymakers presume it to be; and, it is not obvious that America can square off its national security interests with the need to be liked abroad—there is no easy formula to resolve this foreign policy tradeoff.

But the limits of America’s public diplomacy are to be found elsewhere: in America’s Manichean view of the world where America is inevitably good; from this flows a rhetoric that much of the world is uncomfortable with; from this belief also comes a presumption that foreign policy motives ought to be understood in conjunction with deeds.

In other words, Americans want their foreign policy critics to account for American motives as well as their acts; and since Americans are confident in their good intentions, the verdict will inevitably exonerate America. It is this thinking, for example, which leads many Americans to ask, when something so important and good is at stake (say democracy in the Arab world), shouldn’t the world give us, Americans, the benefit of the doubt?

This is an unbridgeable gap. It is not only that the world is hardly trustful of America’s motives (in many cases for good reason too, since idealism is only one strand of America’s foreign policy nexus); what is more important is that Americans are unable to comprehend the objections that many foreigners raise. While many foreigners might endorse America’s broad strategic goals, they can remain distrustful of America’s ability to bring them about (especially when force is involved)—it is a question of ability, not motives.

As the State Department intensifies its pubic diplomacy campaign, it should realize that explaining America’s intentions to the world is not enough; in fact, it is often the ambition of America’s motives which troubles much of the world.



Anonymous fCh said...

First off, I am skeptical Mrs. Hughes would have anything to do/say about public diplomacy. If I recall correctly, we used to have somebody from Madison Avenue in charge with promoting a better image of the US abroad. Maybe the (lack of) success of the professional spin-masters prompted President Bush to appoint a small-town Texan to this job.

Secondly, why don't we cut through the chase and identify the reasons for such a low image about the US abroad? It started with Clinton and only grew to unprecedented levels with Bush. On one hand, it's about the US being the (lone) superpower, and thus attracting the anger of the many. On the other, it's about a misplaced (both time and place) war. The rest will be hostory.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

So let me get this straight. Instead of a constant message of outreach and open ears to the world from the President himself, he staffs that job to an undersecretary of state.

Yeah, I know the President is busy, but that in itself sends a bad PR message. If he wanted to make the rest of the world believe he often has their interests as a global civil society in mind, you'd think he'd refer to the rest of the world and US effects on it a lot more in his public musings from the podium.

Refer this back to my ideas on a Kennedyesque style of foreign policy that I had been fomenting while backpacking in Europe.

1:12 AM  

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