Karen Hughes, the latest of several directors of U.S. Public Diplomacy following the September 11 attacks, resigned last week. Hughes was the latest in a series of several who have tried to create a positive image of the United States abroad in the last six years. That task has turned out to be nearly insurmountable in the face of plummeting global opinion.
Hughes Faced an Uphill Battle as U.S. Opinion Plummeted
The trajectory of global opinion over the first years of this century is, by now, well recited. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States enjoyed a surge of sympathy from around the world and, with it, the opportunity to create a true global alliance against international terrorism. Such good will was short-lived, though.
President Bush's divisive insistence that there were only those who were "for us" or "against us," the gathering of innocent aliens as "enemy combatants" and their detention without proper due process at Guantanamo Bay facilities; the poorly justified and then badly executed war in Iraq; the Abu Ghraib scandal and the resurgence of the Taliban in Central Asia, all piled atop historical grievances about Israel and Palestine, have served to fuel anger and distrust of the United States.
Definition of Public DiplomacyPublic diplomacy is conventionally defined in terms of the relationship between governments and the people of foreign countries (rather than between government and government, as in traditional diplomacy). It usually encompasses cultural and educational exchange programs, as well as other efforts to explain the positions and policies of a government to people abroad. In the last several years, the U.S. has experimented with "Hi" magazine, which was aimed at Muslim youth, and founded "Al Hurriya," (Freedom), an Arabic language television station.
Public Diplomacy and the War on Terror
Public diplomacy is supposed to play a large, even primary role, in combating global terrorism. In the view of the American administration, conveying American values to others overseas will help win their "hearts and minds." In the "with us or against us" logic constructed by the Bush Administration to frame this war, public diplomacy's role is to make sure that anyone who is undecided be persuaded to be "with us," rather than against us. Public diplomacy's role is to persuade.
Public diplomacy played a meaningful part in "winning hearts and minds" after Worl War II, when American sponsored programs brought literature and jazz and other iconic American forms of art to post-war Europe.
Evaluating Hughes' Role
Hughes Had a Positive Impact
Hughes' resignation as the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy has left observers grappling with how to evaluate her achievements, especially since American popularity abroad remains as low as ever.
Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright, reporting for the Washington Post, note Hughes' ability to expand public diplomacy initiatives:
But Hughes used her close connection with Bush and a strong partnership with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to push through substantial institutional changes at the State Department, win large increases in the budget for public diplomacy, increase cultural exchanges and expand partnerships with American corporations aimed at bolstering the U.S. image overseas, U.S. officials and outside experts said. Hughes also established regional media hubs to deal with the Arab media, and a 24-hour rapid-reaction team that monitored news accounts overseas and recommended messages to counter damaging stories.
Hughes was Condescending and UnAmerican
Rami Khouri, writing for the Lebanon Daily Star, was less generous in his assessment, arguing that her minimally influential role was also un American, as Hughes "rejected the honesty, humility and realism that define the values of most Americans."
Khouri says of Hughes, as well, that:
She never understood that her brand of moralizing and arrogant cultural cheerleading - "Go, Muslims, go! Reach for the sky! You can be modern and democratic, if you really try!" - was part of the problem, not part of the solution. She failed to grasp that she was handicapped from the start by trying to make us love a country whose pro-Israeli, pro-Arab autocrats foreign policy - and now the Iraq fiasco - has devastated our lands and cultures for nearly half a century.
We should … remind Americans that this is a moment for them to reconsider this whole silly episode, stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on vacuous public diplomacy programs, and stop insulting several billion people around the world who do not need any prompting to enjoy American values, education, business, technology, sports, and other offerings …
Hughes Could Not Overcome Policy Failures of U.S.
According to John Brown, writing in The Guardian, even the best public diplomacy cannot overcome policies that the rest of the world does not like:
Hughes's third failure - and that of the administration she serves - is perhaps her worst. It is that American public diplomacy - at its best, an effort by the US to show respect to the opinions of mankind and engage in a global dialogue - has become perceived worldwide as the basest form of propaganda. The educational exchange programmes and cultural presentations Hughes supported are all to the good, but with her public diplomacy justifying policies that much of the world finds appalling, she diminished whatever value public diplomacy can have in advancing US national interests and international understanding.