Truth or propaganda?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2003, 12:00am

I just wrapped up a 10-day speaking tour for the US State Department. I was participating in the department's public diplomacy programme, which sends folks to speak to universities, think-tanks and public forums. This trip took me to Vladivostok and Sakhalin in eastern Russia, and to Hanoi, where I delivered two or three lectures a day to various audiences; I spoke to more than 500 people during the trip.

Public diplomacy is one of the lesser known options in the foreign policy tool kit. That is unfortunate, because it can play a key role in foreign policy by helping shape public opinion in foreign countries. Public diplomacy is defined as 'the cultural, educational and informational programmes, citizen exchanges or broadcasts used to promote the national interest of the United States through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences'. Crudely put, it is, as one of the students in Russia bluntly said, 'propaganda'.

According to the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, in the short term, the programme seeks to influence opinion in ways that support US interests and policies. In doing so, it usually focuses on issues. Over the long term, however, it focuses on values by promoting dialogue, the sharing of ideas and the promotion of institutional and personal relationships.

Real public diplomacy is a two-way process. A country does not just send out its message. Listening is also required, since that is the best way to gauge opinion in the host country. The questions and answers that follow a speech are always the most interesting part of the programme, as they zero in on the audience's real concerns. Some of the sessions can get hot, but even my most hostile questioners have been friendly, afterward.

The US has not appreciated its public diplomacy programme. In fact, it was almost gutted a few years ago, courtesy of Senator Jesse Helms. In 1998, the State Department absorbed the US Information Agency (USIA), the principal agency for public diplomacy. It has been a rocky marriage, with USIA fitting poorly into the State Department.

The US spends only about US$1 billion on public diplomacy - 4 per cent of the country's international affairs budget. This contrasts with about US$25 billion spent on traditional diplomacy and more than US$30 billion on intelligence and counter-intelligence. From 1993 to 2001, funding for educational and cultural exchange programmes fell more than 33 per cent and from 1995 to 2001 the number of participants in exchange programmes dropped from about 45,000 to 29,000.

The Council on Foreign Relations Independent Taskforce on Public Diplomacy noted: 'The US spends US$5 million annually on foreign public opinion polling. This does not cover the research costs of an average US Senate campaign and it is a fraction of the US$6 billion spent by the private sector to gauge overseas opinion.'

The cost of this indifference became appallingly clear on September 11, 2001. The Pew Survey of Global Opinion that was published shortly after the terrorist attacks showed widespread resentment against the US the world over, underscoring the yawning gap between America's image of itself and that held by almost everybody else. Understanding those perceptions and shaping them have become a priority for US foreign policy.

I drew two lessons from my recent trip. First, there is considerable scepticism about the motives driving US foreign policy. This is not new, but it seems to be intensifying. At some point in every Q&A session, someone asked if the Iraq war was really about oil. 'Who's next?' was a regular question. The audiences were well-informed - although they had been fed a steady diet of slanted news and opinion. For example, the Russian students figured that economics dictated US decision-making, but few of them knew that Russia had its own economic interests to protect in Iraq.

The second lesson was more striking. A number of people in each of the audiences worried about US foreign policy - not because the US was domineering, hegemonic or evil, but because recent behaviour undercut US authority. They saw the US as a force for good but they felt that recent US actions eroded its credibility and its capacity to lead.

It is important to recognise the reservoir of goodwill towards the US - and even more important that we understand how we are damaging it. That is one of the most frustrating elements of public diplomacy: It provides a useful mirror to the US image abroad, but it cannot fix the policies that mar that image.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank