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American Public Diplomacy:  Listening to the "Arab Street"

House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs,
and International Relations,

October 8, 2002

Dr. R. S. Zaharna
School of Communication
American University

 Thank you Congressman Shays and distinguished members of the Subcommittee.  It is a pleasure to be here today, especially Congressman Shays because of my studies in communication at Fairfield University, Connecticut.
 Mr. Chairman, I have submitted my testimony for the record. What I would like to do here is to focus on communication and briefly highlight five challenges that American public diplomacy faces in the Arab world. I have phrased them in terms of mind sets or ways of thinking. I conclude with the important role that Congress – as representatives of the American people – plays in American public diplomacy and communicating with the Arab world.
1.  THINK Relationships

Most Americans tend to think of communication in terms of sending a message – it’s the old sender, message, receiver model. Similarly, discussion of American public diplomacy has focused on America’s message and image. Americans talk about sharpening the message -- coordinating it, reshaping it, selling it, packaging, etc.

In the Arab world, communication is primarily about building relationships -- cultivating, solidifying, defining relationships. American executives often complain that they must spend endless hours – some days –  having coffee before they can start doing business. This is not because Arabs like coffee, but because relationships are the cornerstone of most activities in the Arab world.

America can strengthen its communication with the Arab world by thinking how it can build relationships, instead of relay messages.

2. THINK Eye Level

I mean this in two ways.

First, even though America is a superpower, we cannot diminish the power of others. As a superpower, when we speak in terms of threats, we immediately put others on the defensive. We may win compliance from a country’s leader, but alienate the country’s people.  If we look at others at eye level, we realize that they are just as proud of their culture and traditions, as we are of ours.

Second, if we want to talk to the people on the street – we must speak to their reality on the ground. The Arab world is not information deprived -- but -- policy sensitive. We are a superpower – they hear us. The whole world hears us.  And, when what we SAY – in American public diplomacy -- doesn't match what they SEE – in American foreign policy – then we have a credibility problem. In the Arab world, American policies speak louder than American words.  And, because American policies in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict translate directly into American weapons used against Palestinian civilians, it is more accurate to say – American weapons speak louder than American words.

3.  THINK  Two-Way

Most Americans tend to view "listening" as doing nothing. Communication means talking. Since September 11, America has been doing a lot of talking, with few results. The far more powerful component of the communication equation is not talking – but listening. I am reminded of the prayer of St. Francis, seek to understand if you wish to be understood. I know, Congressman Shays, that is exactly what you are trying to do here today and that is why I applaud your efforts. The better we understand others, the more likely they will understand us, in return.

4. THINK Crisis Public Diplomacy

When it comes to the Middle East, we are not dealing with traditional public diplomacy – but what I call – Crisis Public Diplomacy.  Traditional public diplomacy focuses on long-term strategies, usually in cultural or educational contexts for a friendly or neutral public.

Crisis public diplomacy, on the other hand, means communicating simultaneously with multiple publics – some favorable and others hostile – in a rapidly changing, highly visible, politicized environment.

In a crisis, the best way to rally American public support is to identify and demonize a foreign target. Unfortunately, the best way to alienate a foreign public, is to demonize and threaten one of their own. This is especially true in the Arab world, there is a saying about my brother, cousin, and I and strangers. Crisis public diplomacy calls for new strategies for communicating with both the Arab and American publics – simultaneously.

5. THINK Congress

Finally, when we think about American public diplomacy, we need to think about the American Congress.   Most discussions of American public diplomacy focus on the State Department or White House and ignore Congress. Yet America’s representatives here at home, are also hers abroad.

From the vantage point outside the U.S., and particularly in the Arab world, Congress has always been a major force in shaping America’s public diplomacy. The actions and decision of the American Congress have had a direct impact on the people of the Arab world. I urge you and your Committee to explore this uncharted terrain more –  so that Congress, itself, can fully realize its own role in American public diplomacy.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you, and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.