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Oral Testimony of

R.S. Zaharna
 School of Communication, American University

Before the U.S. House Subcommittee on
National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations
The Hon. Christopher Shays, Chair

“9/11 Commission Recommendations on Public Diplomacy”

August 23, 2004

    Mr. Chairman, I take special pleasure in being before your committee. Your continued pursuit to improve American public diplomacy is leading the way to strengthening American security.

    Sir, you asked us to step back and view the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations within the larger picture. This oral statement provides a snapshot. The written statement for the record describes that picture in more detail.

1.    Reviews of American public diplomacy over the past three years – including the recent 9/11 Commission Report – pin America’s communication problem on a lack of strategy.  They say America needs a strategy so it can focus its message, coordinate its efforts, and measure its effectiveness. Sir, when communication lacks a strategy, the results tend to be random. You win some, lose some. American public diplomacy has had a fairly pronounced losing streak. The 9/11 Commission’s description – “America’s perennially troubled public diplomacy” – is particularly telling. Producing such  “perennial” results is difficult without a strategy.  

2.    Stepping back, that strategy is clear. Since the terrorist attacks, America has aggressively pursued an information battle strategy borrowed from the Cold War. The National Security Strategy put the “war of ideas,” second to the military war. The “battle for hearts and minds” has been the charge; reverberating from the political chambers of Washington to the front pages of hometown papers. The 9/11 Commission echoed that strategy: “Just as we did in the Cold War, we need to defend our ideas abroad vigorously.” 
3.    Fighting an information battle was ideally suited for the Cold War era. Then, two identifiable government powers dominated the political and communication landscape. The bi-polar context defined the messages. “Us versus them” was persuasive. Governments could control information. Foreign and domestic audiences were separated by an ocean that technology struggled to cross. Public diplomacy was a product, made in America and distributed overseas. Achieving information dominance was key to silencing the opponent. In an information battle, the one with the most information wins.  

4.    Fighting an information battle has become the equivalent of conventional warfare. The strategy lacks the agility and effectiveness to effectively navigated today’s dynamic political and communication terrain. The bi-polar political context has proliferated into a multi-polar one. Culture has replaced nationalism as the prevailing dynamic, filtering and distorting America’s messages. Regional conflicts, once masked by the superpower rivalry, have surfaced with a vengeance. For the publics absorbed in the conflicts, American policy has become the message of American public diplomacy. America’s domestic and foreign publics has become one 24/7 global audience. Today, communication is about exchanging information. In a world of information overload, disseminating information is “spam.” Networking is strategic. 
5.     American public diplomacy needs to switch strategic focus:  Forget battles, think bridges.  To win hearts and minds, American public diplomacy needs to bridge the perception gap between Americans and foreign publics. Disseminating information cannot do this. Building bridges can. Aggressively pursued this strategy can cross the many political and cultural hurdles and capitalize on advanced technology.

    The strategy of building bridges is not new. The Fulbright program and the Peace Corp represent America’s long tradition of building bridges. What is new is its strategic power.

    Building bridges – networking – underlies the growing influence of non-state actors. A woman in Maine began with an idea that led to the Campaign to Ban Landmines, the recipient of the Nobel Peace award. She built a network. A man in a cave in Afghanistan had another idea. As the 9/11 Commission so thoroughly detailed, Al-Qaeda, is also a network.

    In yesterday’s information battle, the one with the most information won. Today, the one with the strongest, most extensive network wins.

    Achieving this strategic goal requires new tactics to identify potential links, create relationships and expand a network. My written statement provided examples of such tactics. There are undoubtedly many more. Communication research is also emerging to measure the quality of relationships. The quality of America’s political relationships impacts America’s image. Using these new research tools will help measure American public diplomacy effectiveness more accurately and meaningfully.

    In its recommendations, the 9/11 Commission began with a call for “institutionalizing imagination.”  For American public diplomacy to be as effective in the war in terrorism as it was during the Cold War, America needs to imaginatively explore a new strategic focus. To the win hearts and minds of others, America itself needs a new more imaginative and strategic mindset:  forget battles, think bridges.

    Sir, before I close, I must recognize the communication professional who took the reigns of American public diplomacy during extraordinary circumstances and led with extraordinary vision and energy. Thank you, Undersecretary Beers.

    Rep. Shays, I thank you for your continued pursuit to improve American public diplomacy. Your trip last week is the epitome of building bridges, a strategic direction that holds the promise for making America safer. 

    Thank you, Mr. Chairman.