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DRAFT – 04/05/2003  Book chapter
Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy
Editor: Mediterranean Academy of Diplomacy (Malta)

Asymmetry of Cultural Styles &

The Unintended Consequences of Crisis Public Diplomacy

R.S. Zaharna
American University

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in America on 9/11, Americans were asking, “Why do they hate us?” The attacks underscored the importance of public diplomacy. As American Congressman Henry Hyde noted during one of the congressional hearings, “the perceptions of foreign publics have domestic consequences.” American President George Bush echoed the sense of urgency when he said: “we have to do a better job of telling our story.”

In short order there was a flurry of activity in getting America’s message out to the world. At the U.S. State Department, a veteran advertising executive was put in charge of America’s public diplomacy initiative. Both the Senate and House held hearings, passing the new “Freedom Promotion Act of 2002,” which injected $497 million annually into the budget of public diplomacy.  First the Pentagon, then the White House established special offices to help with America’s public diplomacy initiative.

With such a concerted effort at the highest levels of the American government to win the hearts and minds of foreign publics, officials expected an increased international understanding and support. Instead, the opposite happened. America’s intensified public diplomacy initiative resulted in decreased support for American policies.  Much has been made of the rift between the U.S. and its major European allies, yet American support declined in Asian, African and Latin American countries as well. In the Arab world where the U.S. conducted the most intensive public diplomacy, anti-American sentiment grew rapidly.

The immediate explanation for the declining support was the Bush administration’s war on terrorism and American led war in Iraq.  However, the primary purpose of public diplomacy is to garner support from foreign publics for political policies.  To be effective, public diplomacy must work not only in times of peace, but also in times of conflict. In fact, during times of conflict, garnering foreign support is even more imperative.

The critical question is:  How did America’s efforts to intensify its public diplomacy result in a decrease of foreign public support for America?

Answering this question is particularly relevant to diplomacy and intercultural communication.   Public diplomacy appears to entail more than translating official messages and giving them the widest dissemination possible to a foreign audience. While translation may overcome the language barrier, it may not overcome the cultural barrier. Just as culture shapes the communication of a people, it appears that culture shapes the public diplomacy of a nation.

Many of the American public diplomacy initiatives reflect a uniquely American cultural style of communication, public relations and advertising. Although the American style resonated positively with the American public, it negatively resonated with foreign publics. This difference in perception would not be a problem if audiences could be segmented. However, today’s global media and technology has made public diplomacy an open communication forum; one can no longer segment the domestic public from foreign publics.

Thus, in addition to crossing the language hurdle, it appears equally critical that effective public diplomacy bridge the different cultural styles so that a nation’s public diplomacy positively resonates with one’s domestic public as well as foreign publics. If a nation does not address the asymmetry of cultural styles, its public diplomacy efforts may inadvertently magnify differences between the domestic and foreign publics and amplify international tensions.

This appears to be what happen with American public diplomacy.  The more America intensified its efforts – relying exclusively on American style public diplomacy – the wider the gap became between the domestic and foreign publics. Instead of increased understanding and support, there was increased misunderstandings and tension. Instead of achieving greater international unity, divisions became more pronounced and America became increasingly isolated within the international community.  None of this was intended. This opposite result, based on asymmetry of cultural styles of public diplomacy, is the unintended consequence of crisis public diplomacy.

 I have divided this paper into three sections. The first section contrasts the American cultural communication style with other styles. The second section identifies the cultural features of an American style of public diplomacy that resonate positively with the American public, yet negatively with foreign publics. The concluding section explores how an asymmetry of cultural styles can produce the unintended consequences of crisis public diplomacy.

For text, contact zaharna@american.edu