America's public diplomacy begins with you

January 06, 2009|By Sherry L. Mueller

President-elect Barack Obama's intent to help "reboot" America's image in the world is most welcome. But as the U.S. retools its efforts to reach out beyond governments to foreign audiences, not all is what it seems.

In recent years, there has been an avalanche of academic studies, government reports and think tank analyses that offer various "fixes" for U.S. public diplomacy. Despite unprecedented attention, however, myths prevail:

Myth 1: The main goal of U.S. public diplomacy is to improve America's image in the world. That and countering anti-Americanism are certainly part of it. But the overarching goal is to build a web of human relationships that provides a context for traditional diplomacy - and outcomes commensurate with long-term U.S. interests.

Myth 2: Everyone needs to get on the same page. A communications strategy is important. But reciprocity is at the heart of truly successful public diplomacy. We must listen as much as we transmit messages.

Myth 3: Public diplomacy is the government's job. Undeniably, there are appropriate and indispensable roles for government. But unless we accept the fact that each American has a role to play in putting Uncle Sam's best foot forward, we underutilize our best resource. As The Ugly American (a provocative and instructive novel published 50 years ago) put it, "Average Americans, in their natural state ... are the best ambassadors a country can have." We must do more to encourage individuals to embrace their roles as citizen diplomats, to accept their part in helping to shape foreign relations one handshake at a time.

Public diplomacy architects need to recognize the credibility that private-sector partners bring to diplomacy efforts, such as the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program. Members of the National Council for International Visitors plan the professional appointments, cultural activities and home visits for leaders chosen by U.S. embassies to participate in short-term programs. These lawmakers, journalists and others influencing decisions that affect U.S. interests learn the most about who we are and what we value from their experiences here.

Myth 4: The audiences we reach out to are exclusively overseas. The Institute of International Education reported that during the 2007-2008 academic year, there were 624,000 international students enrolled in colleges and universities throughout the U.S., and an additional 106,000 international scholars here. As Moorhead Kennedy, one of the American diplomats held hostage in Iran in 1979-1980, wrote in his book The Ayatollah in the Cathedral, "We have in the foreign student community in this country something that could be a terrible time bomb or a tremendous source of international understanding - both in what they come to know about us and in what American students learn from them."

Myth 5: U.S. public diplomacy is "broken." In fact, many programs are extremely successful - but woefully underfunded. While public diplomacy depends on active engagement by citizens, not just government agencies, it is a necessary government expenditure. By increasing funding for these programs and supporting the public-private partnerships that have engaged so many Americans as volunteer citizen diplomats, we will reap tremendous benefits for generations to come.

Sherry L. Mueller is president of the nonprofit National Council for International Visitors. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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