While President Bush has sent Congress a budget that keeps the growth of discretionary programs below the rate of inflation, he has proposed increasing outlays on public diplomacy by about one-fifth. That's a smart move, and it shows that something important is changing in the second term.
As Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said last month, "Public diplomacy will be a top priority for me and for the professionals I lead." It's about time.
Public diplomacy, or PD, is the promotion of the national interest by informing, engaging and influencing people around the world. In the past, with institutions like Radio Free Europe and the U.S. Information Agency, we had no equal, and PD played a key role in winning the Cold War. No wonder. The United States, after all, is home to Hollywood and Madison Avenue, to state-of-the-art marketing research and political campaigns. We know how to communicate.
Of course, policy counts most, and many foreigners simply disagree with our policies - in Iraq, on the environment, on trade. But we have a better chance of winning them over if we explain ourselves well - a task that is practically impossible right now. The problem isn't the State Department. It's bigger. Public diplomacy lacks strategic direction, clear goals, a method of assessing whether programs are working, and money.
But there's no doubt that Rice understands this and is out to fix it, and the President's current trip to Europe reflects her new emphasis. The road to Brussels was paved, by Rice herself and others, with smooth and effective use of public (as well as official) diplomacy. Even the antagonistic New York Times headlined Sunday, "Opinion Is Softening on Divided Continent."
Some call public diplomacy, or PD, "soft power," but that's nonsense. In addition to long-term projects like exchange programs for students and foreign officials, PD can be tough and aggressive and immediate. Imagine, for example, a kind of rapid-response truth squad, which would immediately counter the hundreds of lies and distortions about the U.S. that appear each day in the world press.
In 2003, I served on the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, a commission established by Congress and headed by a respected ambassador, Edward Djerejian, who served presidents of both parties. What we found was shocking. Among other things, the U.S. has fewer than a half-dozen Arabic speakers who can debate policy on TV in the Middle East.
Public diplomacy played a big role in winning the Cold War, but, after the Berlin Wall came down, the magnificent P.D. apparatus was dismantled, bit by bit, by left and right. During the 1980s and 1990s, staffing dropped by one-third and funding, adjusted for inflation, by one-fourth.
"A process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy over the last decade," said the Djerejian report, "has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interests and our safety."
Most of this disarmament occurred during the Clinton Administration. But in the first term of George W. Bush, public diplomacy did not receive the attention it deserved. I can forgive the president and his advisors; they were hustling to restore the military readiness that had also been neglected under Clinton. Still, the top PD post in the State Department went unfilled for nearly two years.
Now, Bush and Rice have signaled that they are serious about restoring PD to its rightful place in the nation's armamentarium. In her prepared statement at confirmation hearings last month, Rice said, "We need to do much more to confront hateful propaganda, dispel dangerous myths, and get out the truth. We will increase our exchanges with the rest of the world. And Americans should make a serious effort to understand other cultures and learn foreign languages.... If our public diplomacy efforts are to succeed, we cannot close ourselves off from the world."
Even with the proposed increases, public diplomacy remains, as the Djerejian report said, "absurdly and dangerously underfunded...in this time of peril." But money isn't the whole problem, or even the main one. PD needs, first and foremost, to be taken seriously in the White House as a way to win the war against terrorism and the battle for global democracy and prosperity. The signs, in the first month of the new administration, are hopeful.