Journal

Brookings Institution Report, Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century

I typically don’t post much on my work, but expect that to change as I get more involved in public diplomacy and social media.

Today I attended the launch for Brookings Institution‘s report Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century (full report, PDF). I’ve yet to read the report and others are probably better suited to critique it than me, so I will give a brief overview of the proposal and then focus on summarizing the panel discussion.

Report Proposals

Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st CenturyAs most of the recent reports have argued, the United States government needs a coordinated public diplomacy plan that includes all agencies who are participating in this type of engagement. This is clear for a variety of reasons and pretty much universally accepted.

What’s unique about the Brookings report is the proposal to create a new independent, non-profit, organization, similar to RAND or the British Council, which would work in service of U.S. public diplomacy efforts. Importantly, existing responsibility for public diplomacy in the U.S. government would remain unchanged. This is a key distinction, since other reports (such as this one from Heritage) have suggested consolidating all public diplomacy and strategic communication activities in a new agency (such as a reconstituted USIA).

Some of the goals of this new non-profit, which Brookings calls USA-World Trust, would be:

  • To support American public diplomacy by drawing from the best of the private sector (innovations, experience, resources and so on);
  • Have a longer term outlook, allowing it to be more entrepreneurial and providing an incubator for new ideas and projects;
  • React faster to developments in the private sector, but also would not need to react to the latest international crisis, allowing for more long-term planning and resource allocation;
  • Serve as a bridge between the U.S. government and the private sector, allowing individuals to rotate between different sectors gaining better and more diverse experience, and;
  • To provide a suitable partner for those organizations who are interested in engaging in U.S. public diplomacy but are sensitive to partnering with the U.S. government.

Panel Discussion

The participants included:

Martin S. Indyk
Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

Kristin M. Lord
Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, U.S. Relations with the Islamic World

Thomas A. Miller
Vice President, Business for Diplomatic Action

Carlos Pascual (Moderator)
Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy

Strobe Talbott
President, The Brookings Institution

Charles Vest
President, National Academy of Engineering

Main Themes

There were several main themes that frequently came up over the course of the conversation, the need: to listen, focus on networks, harness innovation, take better advantage of non-USG resources.

The need to listen

Talbott probably said it best when he noted the U.S. government has long been in transmit mode rather than receive. Since successful public diplomacy requires a carefully calibrated message that considers cultural sensitivities, it is necessary to first understand the context in which the message will be received, before actually crafting what will be said.

Miller continued this point by noting it is important to not only to understand what message is being said, but also how it is being heard, since they may be quite different. The only way to know what is being heard, is by listening to what the response is. He continued by noting businesses have developed quite sophisticated methods of listening, since they have to hear their customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Along these same lines, listening must be a systematized process which is then integrated into the larger plan.

Furthermore, this listening should also facilitate the conversation. While it is important to first listen, the people being engaged with also need to see that their input is shaping the conversation.

A focus on listening also leads to both of the next main themes, networks (which provide new avenues for listening and engagement) and innovations (new technologies allowing us to listen better but also distributing the conversation).

The need to focus on networks

Several of the panelists and members of the audience noted that networks are increasingly becoming the model to look at engagement and to engage in partnerships. Online social networks such as Facebook and Myspace are prominent examples, but many offline networks have considerable influence on national policy and global discussions as well. Additionally, many U.S. based networks can provide important partners in the public diplomacy arena.

Martin Apple, a member of the audience and president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, made a good point that common interest networks across national boundaries have a new and significant ability to influence international decision-making. Most specifically, he highlighted the influence of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to shape the policy debate on environmental rules. Charles Vest pointed out that, because of this leveling, where national governments may be little more powerful than a strong network, the U.S. can increasingly only lead through ideas or by collaboration.

At the same time though, several of the panelists noted the challenge for the USG to engage with these networks. Many of them are sensitive to their reputations for independence and impartiality, which could be harmed by publicly engaging with the USG. In other cases, the USG does not have the resources or flexibility to engage with, or even within, networks. For example, engaging on social networks requires a willingness to cede control over the conversation to a degree that the USG may be unwilling to accept. (These concerns are a part of the business case for the proposed USA-World Trust NGO.)

The need to harness innovation

It is critical for the USG to adapt itself to function in the new trans-national environment where power is diffused to a variety of actors. This requires more flexibility to harness innovations from a wide variety of sources, many of them in the private sector. To emphasis a willingness to utilize private sector innovation, Lord suggested the new USA-World Trust should wear “not invented here” as a badge of honor. In particular, Talbott highlighted the campaign’s use of technology to listen and then to react, in addition to the more traditional transmit activity.

Many of the panelists saw promise in the incoming presidential administration, largely due to the Obama campaign’s adept use of new media. This will be important since, as many noted, this is where engagement is increasingly moving, particularly for critical youth audiences.

The panelists also highlighted the difficulty of bringing outside innovation into the USG, due to a variety of reasons. The proposed USA-World Trust, and its direct conduits with the private sector and the USG, was offered as a way to increase information flows and to help facilitate innovation.

The need to take better advantage of non-USG resources

All of the panelists and several members of the audience highlighted the many, largely untapped, resources that exist in the United States for public diplomacy.

Miller highlighted the important expertise in US businesses, much of which is highly relevant to engaging in public diplomacy:

  • American multi-national companies have long had to create diverse, cross-cultural connections both within (between employees) and outside (between suppliers, customers, stakeholders) of their organizations.
  • For this reason, and others, they’ve had to develop listening and reaction methods and experience that could be a boon to public diplomacy efforts.
  • Management decisions are regularly made with an eye toward both local considerations and global repercussions.
  • Multi-national companies have learned how to bring people together with carrots rather than sticks.

Vest noted how universities are significantly influencing global perceptions of the United States and how they are also key centers of knowledge. He used the example of MIT, which, several years ago, released all of their coursework online for free. The university then encouraged outside users to employ these resources however they saw fit. In one case, a group in the Middle East created an underground university for minorities who were denied entry into segregated schools. Much of the international feedback MIT received was thanking the United States – not MIT – for giving them these resources.

Vest also echoed Miller’s points, noting that US businesses have long been globalized and are, therefore, an important an important projection for how the United States thinks and what it does.

Additional Points

There were several other interesting points the panelists made that don’t fit into the above categories:

  • The low level of funding for public diplomacy was noted several times. While absolute levels are certainly important, Lord, and others, noted that consistent funding is also critical. Swift shifts of funding or having to work under continuing resolutions mean public diplomacy professionals are unable to plan long-term, severely diminishing the likelihood for durable success.
  • Problems with American-funded international broadcasting were also raised:
    • Lord noted that these programs need to better adjust to different media environments, from the media-saturated, such as the Middle East, to the media-poor, such as Burma. She also suggested we need to better coordinate placing speakers on the most popular stations (such as Al Jazeera).
    • Talbot said such programs were trying admirable to find their niche [which sounded, to me, an only somewhat veiled criticism]. He noted the success of Radio Free Europe was largely due to finding a broad enough but largely untapped niche.
    • Christopher Ross, former Ambassador to Syria and Algeria, suggested a greater public diplomacy focus for some of the non-news programming on channels such as Al Hurra. He shared one anecdote in which Al Hurra aired a documentary on Hannibal’s invasion of Italy, using it as an example of a small, relatively weak power besting a larger, stronger power.
  • Talbot also, quite plainly, criticized the U.S. media as “really falling down on the job” by not providing the information necessary for American citizens to carry out their global function. He suggested we need a method to encourage this sort of broadcasting. [I’m not sure how this will be possible in an America governed by Smith-Mundt however.] Gary Mitchell, of the Mitchell Report and former U.S. Senator, continued this point, saying the U.S. population needs to get smarter and more engaged.

Brookings will release a transcript soon, so I will add a link to that when it is made available. I tried to fairly inclusive here, but there is still much I didn’t address so you can download my (very, very) raw notes (PDF).

Update: Brookings has released a transcript of the discussion (PDF).

Comments

  1. Thank-you for taking the time to post this summary of yesterday’s report presentation. For those of us who live beyond Washington it is very helpful to have the flavor of observers as well as the report and eventually the transcript. Your comment that “the proposed USA-World Trust, and its direct conduits with the private sector and the USG, was offered as a way to increase information flows and to help facilitate innovation” makes sense. But I’m troubled by your observation that one of the reasons for the report’s recommended “independent and impartial” institution is that “engaging on social networks requires a willingness to cede control over the conversation to a degree that the USG may be unwilling to accept.” You may well be right. If so, Public Diplomacy in the Obama administration will not have learned the lessons of his own campaign. It was not simply the use of new media but also the attention paid to grassroots (local) organizing that made the new politics work. The campaign had a message to be sure, but it also invited local organizers to innovate in accord with their cultural and political conditions. It also calmly suffered blowback — on the Senator’s FISA vote, for example — on its own website. It did not “control” the conversation. But, it certainly knew what it wanted to achieve in the conversation. It is sad to read that the panelists did not consider this kind of innovation within the government to be possible. If we ever need an innovative government, it is now. Thanks again for the post & the rough notes.

  2. Donna, thank you for your comment. First off, I should note that none of the opinions expressed above are mine (unless otherwise noted). As a staff member at the Department of State, I sincerely hope that this sort of innovation is possible within the U.S. government! I also agree with you that Obama really needs to bring the lessons he learned on the campaign trail into government, particularly in regards to more open forms of engagement.

    On the Brookings proposal, I’m not certain that a completely new entity is necessarily warranted. A more prominent position for public diplomacy is necessary, and I can see the point that an independent group could be leaner and more agile. At the same time, there is the risk that out-sourcing core government functions will even further starve public diplomacy programs or, at least, further carve up the responsibilities. With the current structure, strong leadership on this can help significantly, but institutionalizing the greater importance of public diplomacy may be the only way to ensure proper attention and resources for the long term. There is definitely a consensus that change is needed, but it seems there isn’t much agreement on what that change should look like.

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