Setting a new course for U.S. Public Diplomacy?

There appears to be a shift the posture American public diplomacy underway.  Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (and Public Affairs) Jim Glassman, writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, stakes out a stance for public diplomacy more like the aggressive information activities of the early Cold War than the passive beauty contest of the last couple of decades.  

In this op-ed, Jim describes his goal of leaving a “robust legacy” for the next administration.  In laying out what is likely the first of many position statements in the coming weeks, he demonstrates a confidence not seen in the position since (and for a long while before) 9/11:

Unlike the containment policy of the Cold War, today’s diversion policy may not primarily be the responsibility of government.  My own job, as the interagency leader for the war of ideas, is to mobilize every possible American asset – public and private, human and technological – in the effort.

He continues to set a new and very active course for public diplomacy.  It is clear the “fast” tools of public diplomacy, information activities, are his low-hanging fruit to be picked and fixed in his six months in office (although four may be a more realistic number due to the normal end of term turnover), but the “slow” engagements through exchanges are not ignored. 

Invoking language more commonly seen from the Defense Department, in fact Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is named in his essay while the Secretary of State does not, he states the need to “confront the ideology of violent extremism directly.” 

The most credible voices here are those of Muslims themselves – especially Islamists – who have publicly disavowed al Qaeda’s methods and theology. Lately such apostates include Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, also known as Dr. Fadl, who laid the foundation for the movement’s bloody ideology and has now repudiated it, and Noman Benotman, a Libyan close to Osama bin Laden who rebuked al Qaeda bluntly last year.

Our public diplomacy efforts should encourage Muslims, individuals and groups, to spread the denunciations of violence by these men and others far and wide. But non-Muslim Americans themselves should not shrink from confidently opposing poisonous ideas either.

This is followed by, as he calls it, the “diversion” that inculcates against extremism.

The task is not to persuade potential recruits to become like Americans or Europeans, but to divert them from becoming terrorists.

We do that by helping to build networks (virtual and physical) and countermovements – not just political but cultural, social, athletic and more: mothers against violence, video gamers, soccer enthusiasts, young entrepreneurs, Islamic democrats. For example, there is an emerging global network of families of Islamic victims of terrorist attacks. While winning hearts and minds would be an admirable feat, the war of ideas needs to adopt the more immediate and realistic goal of diverting impressionable segments of the population from being recruited into violent extremism.

There is a token, and out of place and seemingly forced, mention of Iran. 

More important is the end, which returns to the purpose of information activities to elicit support and build networks of allies. 

What we seek is a world in which the use of violence to achieve political, religious or social objectives is no longer considered acceptable, efforts to radicalize and recruit new members are no longer successful, and the perpetrators of violent extremism are condemned and isolated.

Military success is necessary, but it is not sufficient – for the simple reason that we face as an enemy not a single nation, or even a coalition, but a stateless global movement. Without a vigorous war of ideas, as we kill such adversaries others will take their place.

The words are one thing, but in what Defense calls the “say-do” gap, what we do must match what we say.  I’m sure Defense is fully onboard with Jim’s position.  Hopefully the White House, Congress, and State jump on as well and the Under Secretary gets a seat at the take-offs and not just the landings.