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CHAPTER III - American Authenticity in a Risk-Averse Environment

The problem for public diplomacy is that it has become easier for outside observers to note the difference between what a government says and what it does. When others perceive that the United States only reacts when something happens to its own citizens abroad they become cynical about American intentions.

Authenticity, as one foreign participant noted, is critical. There is no way to modify the State Department’s public diplomacy apparatus to communicate more effectively until honesty is introduced into assessing how our policy is viewed from abroad. Accordingly, the State Department needs to introduce a feedback loop into its policy so the United States can see how others see it. There is no debate about how difficult it is to do this in hostile environments. The rise of a risk-averse environment for American diplomats abroad has constrained the ability of the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) to be America’s eyes and ears in the community and to use contacts to help win “hearts and minds.” No one wants to endanger American lives; however, it is one thing to take needless risks and quite another to allow the fear of any risk to inhibit action.

Fear of disaster by senior management can cripple Foreign Service officers in the pursuit of their mission. The concern has been exacerbated by Congress, which has developed an obsession with no-risk environments, investigating tragic incidents such as the deeply unfortunate death of Ambassador Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Now even cultural affairs officers giving speeches in friendly, non-hostile environments have to be escorted in armored SUVs designed to shock and awe the local citizenry. But this is not designed to inspire a sense of shared values and mission. It creates a physical wall between the United States and its audience that undermines immediately the authenticity of the American message. Conferees agreed that there needs to be a renewed emphasis on getting beyond the fortified walls of American embassies to cultivate contacts to enrich our knowledge of what is happening, understand how American policy is being perceived and stimulate more support for U.S. policies. Participants offered several suggestions for how to overcome these barriers to communication.

First, several former officials at the conference urged that Foreign Service officers be given training in risk assessment so they can make their own judgments. Right now, the high risk assessment has led to using contractors instead of Foreign Service officers to engage with foreign audiences.i Poor training, inadequate hiring criteria and high security barriers can all be reasons not to accomplish a goal-oriented public diplomacy program at the local level.ii

Second, the United States was urged to support local networks and third-party validators to create traction on the information terrain so its message will be heard.

States are at an information disadvantage from the point of view of credibility. The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications posted an Arabic language video on YouTube in July 2014 to counter ISIL’s message. That video was seen more than 42,000 times, but ISIL’s video of the beheading of journalist John Foley was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. One way to alter this equation is by developing alternative social networks and creating third-party validators, identifying individuals and organizations who have the credibility to reach targeted audiences. In the past this was one of the objectives of the Public Affairs Officer in America’s embassies: meeting and greeting individual citizens, business groups, cultural organizations, the media, etc.

One approach to foster new networks is to use the diaspora in the United States to communicate back to their countries of origin. Several television programs originating from the Iranian-American community in Los Angeles broadcast daily to Iran. The diaspora becomes a living link to local groups otherwise difficult for American diplomats to reach.iii

Another approach is to use technology creatively. For example, the United States admitted 500 students as Mandela Washington Scholars, but the 49,500 applicants not accepted are being given access to the Young African Leaders Initiative online forum and access to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which focus on entrepreneurship and leadership. The sometimes “subversive” nature of American education can be seen from the Chinese government protests regarding the SAT exams. They complain that Chinese students who take these tests in order to enter American colleges have questions about the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights instead of Mao’s Little Red Book.

One suggestion was to consult American experts in advertising, marketing and public relations to gain their insights on how to merchandise the American story, though this has sometimes backfired in the past.iv Still another approach is to use new technologies and data analytics to ensure a real-time understanding of how messages are being received by target audiences.v This means deploying into the field people skilled at using new media techniques and in analyzing results in real-time interacting with American embassies and local audiences and working under the direction of public diplomacy

Mission of Public Diplomacy. The consensus that America’s enemies and competitors were being more effective at conveying their message and convincing others to follow them through the more efficient use of new technologies and platforms led the conferees to articulate a new mission for public diplomacy:

The mission of public diplomacy is to further the interests and understanding of the United States by building networks of shared interests and shared values. It seeks not only to explain United States policies and practices but also to build relationships through interaction and engagement with the government and other parts of foreign societies.
The mission of public diplomacy is to support the larger foreign policy mission and message. That message needs to come from the President. But there will always be tension between American ideals and American foreign policy. Sometimes the gap will appear cavernous. In some places, the disconnect between American policy and American values delegitimizes any effort by American policymakers to win support for its actions. This is particularly true in the Middle East where America directly supports non-democratic regimes.

The group discussed various ways of articulating a narrative of America that people could aspire to as well as be inspired by. The concept of a “shining city on a hill” still draws thousands of visa applicants to American embassies and causes many more to risk their lives in crossing American borders illegally. But it has lost some of its shimmer among the hundreds of millions for whom a visa is not even a dream. In response to this, efforts by the White House and the Department of State to speak to America’s strength by focusing on young leaders and entrepreneurship overseas were encouraging if not necessarily sufficient.

The American Narrative. Answering the question what does America stand for? – becomes a critical issue when trying to articulate an alternative message in a world where many people view the United States in negative terms. Having a consistent message that resonates is a vital component of public diplomacy. The group believed that the message needs to speak to America’s openness, vitality and creativity as a nation. This message has been strengthened with new programs such as the Young African Leaders Initiative network (YALI), the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) and the Global Entrepreneurship Summits, which all began under the Obama Administration.

In competing against the rise of non-democratic states and brutal, repressive non-state actors, the United States should use Chinese philosopher Lao Tze’s philosophy of countering the hard with the soft. It should focus on how America remains, in the terms of one participant, the “incubator of people’s dreams.” New technologies can reinforce the values traditionally important to the American narrative: entrepreneurship, innovation, opportunity, freedom, openness, empowerment, democracy, economic development, dignity and choice.

Defining what America stands for also means entering into a dialogue with other peoples about their concerns. One opportunity would be to lead a discussion on global concerns such as world poverty, climate change, disease and nuclear proliferation. The United States could change the focus of the global debate, but it would mean paying attention to what others think the solutions should be to these global issues.vii

So, the group agreed, the United States needs to know what people want in order to develop its policy. Knowing what motivates other people is critical to understanding the impact of American policy even if it does not translate into what it does, as its national interest imperatives may differ. As one former senior State Department official stated, “We are not using networks for information coming in….We are not listening to people….The information ‘silos’ at State need to be broken.”

Multi-front engagement is critical to beginning this dialogue. There needs to be a commitment to leadership, reallocation of budgets, and more structural and cultural change to be in a position to consider the impact of American policies on foreign publics and a deployment of people into the field to message and monitor local reactions.viii For that reason, the reforms proposed by the conferees ranged from ideas to technologies to organization to personnel.

i The Department of Defense spent hundreds of millions of dollars hiring private contractors to gain the support of the Iraqi people with dubious results.
ii Embassy isolation seems to have accelerated with the formation of the Accountability Review Board process beginning in 1986 [Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986] and the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, which established more restrictive security practices.
iii However, they must be used carefully as the diaspora can represent fringe elements that lack credibility back “home.”
iv Modern marketing methods have to be used carefully, as they can backfire. An example, according to an interview with one former senior State official, was the “Muslims in America” campaign that centered on short video biographies of practicing Muslims who had also achieved the American Dream of success. This advertising campaign was based on expensive, privately contracted research given the task of finding common ground between youth throughout the Muslim world and Americans. The reaction when sent out for review in the field by one diplomat was, “It was great. I’d like to be a Muslim in America too. But I’m not!” The point being that policymakers have to be careful about creating a message that makes them feel good to be Americans but may not have the same reaction by foreign nationals.
v “[I]t’s impossible to evaluate Washington’s effectiveness without understanding what the results are in the field. Public diplomacy should foremost be a coordinated and cooperative effort between the field and Washington headquarters.” See Patricia H. Kushlis, “Data-Driven Public Diplomacy: an Evaluation of an Evaluation of an Evaluation,” Whirled View (blog), October 3, 2014. Available online:
vi The closest analogy would be the way modern presidential campaigns have used new media techniques to interact with voters. There have been numerous studies of the impact of this approach since the 2008 election. For a start, see David Carr, “How Obama Tapped into Social Networks Power,” New York Times, November 9, 2008. Available online:
vii As a Public Diplomacy Council 2008 report recommended, “To regain credibility overseas, the U.S. must engage in genuine dialogue rather than one-directional communication.” See Public Diplomacy Council, Basic Principles on Improving U.S. Public Diplomacy, 2008. Available online:
viii See United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, Data Driven Public Diplomacy: Progress Towards Measuring the Impact of Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting Activities, 2014. Available online:
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