Is Arm’s Length Public Diplomacy Effective?
I thank The Heritage Foundation for the opportunity to be here today. One of the joys of being in academia is being able to learn and expand one’s thinking through such forums.
I also thank The Heritage Foundation for addressing public diplomacy, especially during this critical time. Today, as we are seeing in Iraq, the perceptions held by foreign publics have not only domestic consequences, but foreign consequences for Americans as well.
And thank you, Helle Dale and Steve Johnson for your outstanding report, “Reinvigorating American Public Diplomacy.” I am a great fan of clarity and insightful information; your report had both.
In fact, I want to use your report to answer the question that Steve posed: Is arm’s length public diplomacy* – using radio, television, internet, advertising and other mass media – effective?
I want to begin with that question. First, let me give a no answer, then a yes answer. And then conclude by returning to your report, which I believe can answer not only this particular question, but also many more.
So, is arm's length public diplomacy effective?
When Steve asked the question, I was immediately reminded of Edward R. Murrow’s notion of effective public diplomacy – the ability to cross that critical “last three feet.” That critical “three feet” was, of course, the distance that separates two people, or symbolically, two peoples.
Using culture as a guide, let me first explain my no answer. In both the American and Arab cultures, communication is fundamental, yet each views communication fundamentally differently. This, in turn, influences which medium is the most preferred and most effective to way to communicate with others.
Most Americans tend to have an information-centered view of communication. Communication is seen primarily as information transfer. By extension, communication problems are seen as a lack of information – “we have to get the message out” or, not others not understanding the information – “we have to explain the message better, need more facts.”
With this focus on information transfer, the mass media is ideal for communicating with the American public. The mass media is efficient; one can convey the most information to the most people in the least time.
It is credible. Yes, there was America’s experience with yellow journalism, but that negative experience led to a stringent code of journalism ethics, fostering an imminently positive relationship between the American mass media and public. The “most trusted man in America” was a journalist.
It is familiar. In America, information campaigns and the mass media grew up together. And most Americans have grown up with the mass media, from the Saturday morning cartoons to the Sunday newsmaker interviews.
In contrast to American’s information-centered perspective of communication that makes the mass media ideal for communicating with the American public, people in the in the Arab world tend to have a relationship-centered view of communication. Communication is the glue that binds and connects people. Just as Americans tend to complain of “information overload,” many in the Arab world bemoan “relationship overload,” how to manage the overload of personal and social obligations that comes with too many relationships.
Communication problems, in turn, are phrased as relationship problems: one’s relations are strained or endanger of being broken. Every effort is made to heal, protect, or preserve the relationship. If Americans turn to advanced technology to enhance the flow of information, people in the Arab world turn to a mediator whose special skills can enhance relations.
Because communication equates with relationships, interpersonal communication is the ideal medium. It may not be the most efficient medium, but it is the most effective in building and sustaining relationships.
It is highly credible. Face-to-face communication allows for a total sensory experience: if the tongue lies, the eyes may betray the truth. Additionally, government-controlled media does not have a stellar history of trust and credibility with its public. Walter Cronkite’s counterpart in the Arab world is likely to be plural and personal, someone not only familiar, but often familial.
Finally, interpersonal communication is the most familiar channel. Most Arab children are more likely to grow up playing with their cousins than sitting alone watching television. Most do not have an intimate relationship with the media.
So, when it comes to arm’s length public diplomacy in the Arab world, my answer is no. These fundamental differences in how people in America and the Arab world view communication and corresponding medium only scratch the surface. Cultural differences are exacerbated, although less perceptible, when one looks at cultural differences in mass media content and delivery styles.*
Radio Sawa has been a qualified success and exception. But the success Radio Sawa enjoys may reflect the fact that American music is wildly popular. American policies are not. Relying on the mass media to present and explain American policies via the media may not have the persuasive power or credibility to cross that critical three feet in reaching the Arab public.
Having answered no, let me now contradict myself. What about Iran?
Many have noted the connection between the student demonstrations for freedom and corresponding call for democracy on satellite television and internet sites.
Iran is not an Arab country, but it does share many of the cultural features characteristics of the Muslim world. Specifically, communication is about relationships and interpersonal channels are the preferred channels.
I am not an Iranian specialist, so I hope you will forgive me if I trespass on the political nuances that reflect those more knowledgeable than I. However, from the perspective of culturally sensitivity and effective public communication, the Iranian case offers insight into to why mass media can be effective.
First, there is a precedent. In public communication, wherever there is a precedent there is familiarity, which fosters the likelihood of greater acceptance. Although not a fond reminder to many Americans, the Ayatollah Khomeini was an Iranian exile who fermented a revolution by using audio cassettes from his apartment in France. Today, Persians in Los Angeles are trying to do the same via the internet and satellite television.
Second, there is a mixing of impersonal technological media with interpersonal interactivity. In the case of the Ayatollah, his tapes (impersonal medium) were hand delivered and often discussed in secret meetings (personal context). When you look at what is going on today in Iran, there is the internet (impersonal medium) but it is the very personal dialogues of the chat rooms and blogs that convey the message.
Third, and perhaps most fascinating to me in terms of public communication, is how seamlessly the contextual fit is. For persuasive messages, the last thing you want is a bulge that draws attention to itself, begging to be examined and possibly activating audience defenses in the process.
In the Iranian case, the media and messages may be coming from the outside, but they are responding to a need from the inside. Iranians may be turning to the internet, but not solely for political messages. Half of the blogs relate to sex and romance. While the youth may be clamoring for greater freedoms, they are not alone. Political reformers exist within the leadership as well as those who voted them into power. Because of this top-bottom, inside-out, and mix of media, America has a wide breath to interject its own voice without drawing attention to itself. America’s communication is part of, not a part from, the ongoing public dialogue in Iran.*
In looking in the case of Iran: Yes, arm’s length public diplomacy is effective.
But, these contrasting cases in this one region alone highlight a more important question. What factors can help make arm’s length public diplomacy effective?
This is where I turn back to your report and why I liked it so much. The underlying message I got from the report was that public diplomacy is a tool. Whereas I have talked today about the mass media as a tool of public diplomacy, public diplomacy is a tool of foreign policy.
Knowing how to use public diplomacy as a tool, I believe is reflected in the report’s conclusions. One, there is a need for training. Training will help officials use the tools of public diplomacy more skillfully. Two, there is a need to address the structural organization. Addressing the bureaucratic barriers within the structure can help make public diplomacy more responsive, agile, and ideally, proactive. Three, there is a need for greater resources. Providing more resources can help put the importance of public diplomacy on par with the important communication goals America is trying to achieve.
I thank the Heritage Foundation for taking the lead and keeping American public diplomacy in the forefront. And, I pray that public diplomacy can be strengthen during this difficult time as young American GIs interact with the Iraqi people. For projected in the mirror images and actions of each are expressions of vulnerability and distrust.
Poor communication fuels feelings of distrust, misunderstandings and uncertainty – increasing the likelihood of hostility. It is a lose-lose situation for both peoples.
Effective communication, on the other hand, has the power to foster understanding, trust and security – increasing the likelihood of cooperation and mutual benefit. It is a win-win situation for all.
1) * Given that the expression “the foreign hand” used by the Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1979 revolution appears to still be in circulation, drawing attention to American communication a part from Iran communication efforts may not be advantageous.