Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Public Diplomacy on the Edge

The Cookie Pusher has an interesting piece on Public Diplomacy today. I think he is on the money on this one. I personally have seen us direct all of our efforts to those "people who love us" and it does nothing but make them suspect in the eyes of the populace. It accomplished little in terms of our foreign policy goals to reach out only to those that, rightly or wrongly, the average person sees as "in our pocket." The fertile fields for us getting out our message - getting out our message is the job of every Foreign Service Officer, not just those who are Public Diplomacy coned - are exactly the folks Cookie Pusher is talking about, those who are willing to listen but only barely.

"Outreach: Public Diplomacy on the edge

...In a given country, you can usually find a reasonably-large group of people who love us, agree with us, or at least have gotten the message we’re trying to send. They might be Western-educated, or have other kinds of experience and connection to the outside world. These people are not and should not be the primary targets of our outreach effort.

On the other end are people who are unalterably opposed to the United States. They dislike us to such an extent that even our best-reasoned arguments and explanations are seen as lies and subterfuge, no matter how reasonable they might seem to a neutral observer. These people often place the explanation for most events in the realm of conspiracy theory. To them, America’s message dies like grass seed on pavement. While I believe we should continue to “transmit,” don’t expect that this group of people is going to “receive.”

Our biggest potential payoff is conveying our message to people in the middle. We’re looking for people just barely willing to talk to us. Just barely willing to believe us. Just barely accepting our reasoning as plausible. They’re not our friends. They’re not fellow-travellers. They’ve often got an agenda which differs significantly from our own. But, they’re the best route to conveying what we have to say to “the masses.” A good word from them about something we’re doing (whether in the press or among themselves)carries far more weight than the same message from either our own mouthes or those of our “supporters.”

So how do we persuade them?

First off, we can’t expect only PD officers to do this job. Political, Economic, and even consular folks have a lot to offer this type of outreach. After all, my friend at the visa window will converse in a single day with more people than I’ll talk to in a week, or perhaps a month (though considerably less substantively).

We need to convey an image of ourselves as an inclusive group. We need to point out that, for every country on Earth, there is a group in the United States. This requires, both domestically and internationally, the broadest possible approach. We therefore won’t and cannot agree with any one group all of the time, but hopefully, each group can find aspects of U.S. policy with which they agree. I give as an excellent example Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Somalia, three countries in which U.S. force was applied for the sake of a Muslim population, without the possible involvement of the oil issue. Some may take issue with the inclusion of Somalia, but it’s hard to argue that the United States is making a concerted effort to injure Muslims as a group. But this is exactly the position of our hard-boiled detractors. For that reason, making the case to those willing to hear us out is all the more relevant.

POL and ECON officers contribute to this effort by reaching out to grass roots organizations: groups with little money, but a clear mission and a real base of support. In one country I served in, we reached out for the first time to associations in the largest city made up of people who came from the same rural villages. These weren’t political parties, and they had little to offer us except an audience and a willingness to listen.

On a more personal level, we can do better to reach out to the lower tiers of administration, journalism and business. We always invite key editors to our round-tables, but there is much we could learn from the underpaid local beat reporter, and he or she certainly knows the lay of the land far better than either we or his own boss are likely to. What I’m advocating here is smarter tactics.

Finally, it falls to us to constantly remember that if we’re trying to “win hearts and minds,” they can’t be 1.) hopelessly unwinnable or 2.) already won. There has to be a chance of success, but not the certainty thereof."

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