To say that the inauguration of President Barack Obama is an opportunity to change the trajectory of America’s global influence and leadership is an understatement. We are, in fact, at a pivotal course change potentially more impactful than any in our history. While it is widely acknowledged that our future course will be shaped by our new President’s words and his actions, the means to ensure and protect the impact of both remain unclear.
In his inaugural address, the President acknowledged the power of public opinion in the conduct and success of our global affairs as he recalled that the defense against communism relied on more than the hard power of the military. “Power alone,” the President said, “cannot protect us nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” The “sturdy alliances” that created and enhanced our security and prosperity were forged by successes in the struggle for minds and wills against a subversive enemy whose primary weapons were not bullets and bombs but ideas and false promises of the future. The United States responded to this “war of ideology” with what was then simply public affairs. There were the “fast” communications of radio broadcasts and movie and newspaper and magazine distribution and “slow” engagement that included cultural presentations and educational exchanges, all of which supported a smart foreign policy that foreign publics could understand, accept, and support.
But over time, the struggle for minds and wills was discounted and even ignored as we supported anybody who was the enemy of our enemy. There was a shift away from a foreign policy that could stand on its own. Foreign aid became a political weapon not a tool to engage people through capacity building and the development of prosperous societies but supporting governments as the struggle shifted from the people to state-against-state. The view from Washington was that our information activities no longer needed to assist foreign policy by promoting it and protecting it from the misinformation and distortions of our adversaries, but to change the subject or to sugar-coat unpopular activities.
The vainglorious policies of the early Bush Administration reflected the utter failure to understand battleground dominated by our adversaries, primarily but not exclusively Al-Qaeda. Our inability to re-adapt to the struggle for minds and wills left open the field to more adversaries blinded us to the importance of understanding solutions as fundamental as trash collection in counterinsurgency.
The derogative view of public opinion in international politics was reflected in the 2004 presidential election the mere suggestion that public opinion should be considered in the formulation of our foreign policy was decried as surrendering sovereignty. America’s “public diplomacy” was, until at least 2008, focused on changing the subject and hoping people would ignore today and focus on the future, both of which were unsurprising failures.
Today, we have an opportunity to reestablish public diplomacy as the tool of national security it must be. The promised sea-change in our foreign policy and the return of the United States to a position of global leadership will not come from deeds alone. What we say and what we do must be synchronized lest the gap between the two becomes exploited by our increasingly adroit adversaries even if what we do is right.
While our national security is dependent on shared goals and convictions with people around the world, we cannot rely on merely who we are and what we say we stand for. This is more than the intelligent use of power. It is about understanding the world around us. We must exercise on a global scale that fundamental principle of democratic leadership: understanding and marshaling public opinion. It is naïve to think that passive access to information about our actions will be the necessary catalyst for action. Likewise, we cannot rely on hard power to create a peaceful environment. Just as we cannot, nor could we ever, “kill our way to victory,” we cannot talk our way to peace.
Public diplomacy is not about changing public opinion unilaterally, but the proactive engagement of global audiences in support of a foreign policy that will stand alone and influence public opinion positively. Public diplomacy must be redefined not as a tool of simply promoting ideas and values but as a critical element of America’s national security based on the direct and indirect engagement of foreign publics, states, and nonstate actors.
It has been over seven years since Richard Holbrooke asked how “can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society” and yet Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates continues to ask essentially the same question. The shortcoming was, as Holbrooke said later in his 2001 editorial, the “apparent initial failure of our message and the inadequacy of our messengers.” The inadequacy of our messengers remains today as our global outreach remains underfunded, poorly structured and underutilized.
We can and should, as the President extolled in his inauguration speech, “do our business in the light of day.” The United States is uniquely positioned in the global struggle for minds and wills to let our foreign policies stand on their own as they will be, or rather should, just and right.
The President and Secretary of State must reform the State Department to be relevant in today’s global “now media” environment. Even “traditional diplomacy” has a strong public awareness and enlistment component. Working with the rest of Government and Congress to empower and equip its Public Diplomacy bureau, the revamped Global Engagement Bureau must coordinate interagency activities and inform everyone from policymakers in Washington to American media and the public to the people of the village of the President’s father in Kenya to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
Bold leadership that understands, and can work with, the interagency and inter-tribal processes is necessary. Just as important is working with Congress for funding and tasking. The State Department must become a hub of innovation that implements, trains, and coordinates with the rest of the government. This path requires revamping the incentive structure, breaking from zero-tolerance of informational errors, introducing the military concept of “commander’s intent,” and educating, empowering, encouraging, and equipping all of the State Department of the “now” and ubiquitous global information environment.
If not State then who? It must be the State Department lest it become irrelevant tomorrow as it nearly is today. I wrote a book chapter in 2007 that opened with the sentence “American public diplomacy wears combat boots.” It was a statement of unfortunate fact. If we are to reverse this and have the State Department lead, a situation that the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and nearly everybody in the military who works in information operations and Psychological Operations wants, then the State Department must not look at public diplomacy as public relations but as a core mission of the Department.
The power to engage global audiences is a national security imperative and must not be a mere tool of public relations. To ignore the critical components in the global struggle of minds and wills is to put our national security at risk. The “justness of our cause” must be aggressively and proactively positioned with the peoples around the world or we surrender the narrative of our actions and intentions to others.