America's lost voice

April 16, 2002|By Jill A. Schuker

WASHINGTON - There are moments like the present when the world seems to be spinning out of control. All the everyday tragedies we generally abide fade in the enormity of certain events.

The post-Cold War period was supposed to cool things down. It seems, however, a different kind of irrationality has taken hold; one that is harder to understand and harder to categorize. Therefore, it is also harder to find solutions.

How do we understand the Middle East today, especially after Sept. 11? Has suicide become a modern weapon of undeclared war, or is it terrorism pure and simple? Is it the natural extension of a view of the world, or encouraged by a misreading of religious dogma? Is it the tragic accumulation of misunderstandings, missteps and frustrations that seem to lead to suicide being the only perceived exit by those perpetrating it, however deadly to the self and others? Or is it a gruesome statement that any compromise is rejected?

And most crucially, where is the voice of the United States in all of this?

Not just in terms of policymaking and pronouncements, but in helping provide some perspective and clarity and helping make sense of what appears to be a frightening spiral downward.

How can this fragile area of the world seem so close to peace one moment and be in the midst of undeclared war in a matter of months? The loss of life, the senseless waste, the age-old hatreds, the persistence of myth and the actions of a determined handful who want to ruin any chance of peace ever in the Middle East have combined with deadly results. And while there is an acknowledged desperate need for wisdom and leadership and action, America seems to be floundering.

America cannot enjoy standby status. Knowing and understanding history and other cultures, reaching "hearts and minds" and recognizing how to encourage trust and good will is essential. How do we help the present and future generations to trust the world to improve? How do we change age-old perceptions?

These are important and essential challenges for American foreign policy that we must accept. America shares both an arrogance of power and a revulsion for it. And we have spent relatively little time or money on really understanding the publics - both the elites and the "street" - outside our own borders. This is dangerous, now and for the future. We've seen the consequences. The world is just too small, and we are just too powerful, to encourage and accept this indifference.

Public diplomacy is the shorthand for communicating effectively about U.S. policies and our deeply held values. Clearly, our effectiveness in this regard has been both troubled and limited. We have lost our voice at a time in our history that it is most needed - articulating shared values and providing some useful guidance and hope for the present and for the future.

Public diplomacy is simply underappreciated and underfunded, the first leading directly to the second. As opposed to being an integral part of policy and decision making, it has been treated as a proverbial stepchild. This has been both shortsighted and dangerous, as the events of the last eight months have most clearly demonstrated. Congress is seeking to address this gap, but it is an attitude as much as it is a structure that needs to be addressed.

Not everything can be done effectively in the midst of crisis. Time, planning and forethought can make all the difference to creating and implementing effective public policy. If the interconnections of the modern world haven't been brought home to all of us in successful endeavors such as trade and commerce, they certainly have been punctuated in the more devastating impacts of disease, war and terrorism.

It is a dangerous fantasy to ignore the multicultural world in which we live. America is not a brand. We need to rediscover our voice and understand that military muscle, while essential in any equation of strength, is just one element of true power.

The ability to project and encourage the embrace of America's best values is the real measure of effective public diplomacy. And it is 180 degrees from suicide bombing.

Jill A. Schuker is former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for national security affairs and senior director for public affairs at the National Security Council. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Terrorism Task Force Subgroup on Public Diplomacy.

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