Is America Equipped to Win a World-Wide Propaganda War?

"Is America now equipped to win a world-wide propaganda war" was the framing question for the interview debate on BBC’s HARDtalk last week between Stephen Sackur and Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Jim Glassman. The 23 minute discussion – online video is available – is unlike anything you’ll see in the United States, which is unfortunate. Imagine if this and future Administrations were subjected this level of intelligent debate that includes prep and no shouting? (Also, what if our presidents were subjected to the Prime Minister’s Questions?)

Briefly, the opening question – "do you see yourself as America’s Chief of Propaganda" – gave the Under Secretary the chance to redefine his role and the mission of public diplomacy as distinct from past Under Secretary’s. This led to a discussion based on comments by Price Floyd (see this article from Price that is similar to but not the one published in the British press Sackur was referring to). Price, formerly the director of media affairs at the State Department (and now director of external relations at CNAS), said quite accurately that good marketing can’t sell bad policies. The Under Secretary agreed that bad marketing doesn’t work but disagreed that "this" is a failed policy, which went to the essence of the responses in the debate. This represented a common underlying theme of the discussion as the interviewer frequently asked about the past and the present impact of past policies while the Under Secretary often responded with how America’s policies have evolved.

A few quotes from the Under Secretary:

  • His job is to “put in place a an apparatus, a structure that will last beyond this administration.”
  • “We live in a world where preaching to people doesn’t work very well.”
  • “We’re in the persuasion business…better as a conveyor / facilitator to get people to talk about these issues…” [clearly to expose the holes in adversaries’ ideology]
  • He is “head of the Interagency on the war of ideas.”
  • In some countries “public diplomacy can do more than official diplomacy”
  • When asked about Egypt, who receives $2b in US aid, the Under Secretary said that as head of the BBG, that his experiences with the Egyptian government were “not completely satisfactory” when trying (unsuccessfully) negotiating FM broadcasting of Radio Sawa.
  • That this is a War on Islam is “flat out wrong" … this is "single biggest misconception”
  • “Any responsible foreign policy must look at issues of stability”
  • public diplomacy must expand beyond the traditional tools [paraphrase]

The militarization of public diplomacy through both the conduct of our foreign policy and the prominence of military public affairs was obviously central in the debate.

If you are interested in public diplomacy and strategic communication, this is a must see interview. What are your thoughts on the interview? 

The big question: why hasn’t DipNote or linked to the Under Secretary’s interview? Here is a man with the best USG communication resources that continue to go underutilized.