Strengthen our nation's voice

March 28, 2005|By Jill A. Schuker

WASHINGTON - Karen Hughes, the influential senior adviser to President Bush who often is cited as his alter-ego, is poised to assume the position of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, vacant for much of the administration's first term and ignored the rest of the time.

This is a tremendous opportunity to integrate public diplomacy fully into policy-making rather than mere 11th-hour attempts at damage control.

Mrs. Hughes' new responsibility in strengthening America's voice abroad requires an ear attuned to anticipating cultural differences by listening as well as educating outside of the strictures of formal diplomatic channels and government-to-government contacts. It is fundamentally different from promoting the Bush message as press spokesman or adviser, with wider and deeper global responsibilities.

Even Vice President Dick Cheney recently said in an interview that "we have to get public diplomacy ... right. Up until now, that has been a weak part of our arsenal." But what does getting it right mean to this administration? What changes are substantively in store?

The recent history of public diplomacy has been troubled. With the end of the Cold War, some, such as the author Francis Fukuyama, suggested we were approaching the "end of history" and so the need for attuned international discourse was obsolete for the United States. The U.S. Information Agency, the institutional precursor to the public diplomacy structure, was dismantled in the 1990s.

Then came 9/11, and public diplomacy was in such a weakened state that we were left unprepared globally either for informed dialogue with the Islamic world or with a plan for effective public diplomacy with other cultures, groups and religions. We've been playing sporadic catch-up ever since.

Public diplomacy has been underfunded, largely leaderless and without effective vision under Mr. Bush. At a congressional hearing last year, Margaret D. Tutwiler, the last confirmed occupant of this position, when pushed to be bolder in pressing the public diplomacy case within the Bush administration, stated "that would be less than well-received, in all candor." She left the post after six months.

Now with the position vacant for eight months, the challenges are great, both short- and long-term. Mrs. Hughes' confirmation hearing later this spring should prompt tough questioning by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to clarify expectations and provide answers to the following imperatives:

Understand public diplomacy as essential to the national interest globally and integrate it early and consistently into the policy process.

Follow the money. The present shoestring budget must be enhanced to provide adequate dollars and resources. Money promised for the Bush democratization agenda has far from matched its rhetoric. Culture and language training at home - Arabic, Mandarin and Farsi, for example - must be part of diplomatic training and educational offerings.

Reverse fear-driven and counterproductive policies established after 9/11, including severe limitations on student and cultural exchanges and visa policy restrictions. We are mortgaging our future by losing generations of young people with no direct exposure to the United States.

Welcome the private sector into public diplomacy efforts, encouraging and training businesses and leaders at home and abroad because they often are our most visible front-line public "ambassadors."

The Internet also is a vital tool for global communication, even in the most closed societies, and the U.S. media play a crucial conveyer-belt role for truthful information, timely analysis and education. We also must be respectful and encouraging of indigenous media that influence their publics daily, and seek to broaden and influence content and understanding of our diverse and politically complex society.

But this only works with dollars and sense and White House leadership and commitment to credibility at home and abroad. If public diplomacy is to be treated partisanly, as an arrogant afterthought, without gravitas, then America's voice and influence will be doomed to failure, with catastrophic consequences and no one to blame but ourselves.

Jill A. Schuker, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for national security affairs, writes and lectures on public diplomacy.

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