Friday, September 21, 2012

Public Diplomacy: How the West can Win

I don’t think that it’s a secret that the “West,” especially the U.S., is viewed unfavorably pretty much the world over. Even citizens who live in countries allied with the U.S. (ahem, Europeans) really do not like the United States. A recent joint effort by the Carnegie Endowment and Pew Research Center (thanks, Zach) showed that most Americans are aware that the rest of the world doesn’t like us. The response of many of my fellow citizens is withdrawal from world events. The “we gave them democracy, we gave them aid, now this is how they treat us?!” incredulity has only grown since the Muslim world rose up against U.S. and other Western embassies in recent weeks. It seems easier to throw in the towel and let the people of the developing world figure out their own problems and see how they like it when the aid gravy train quits running.

Anti-American grafitti in Tehran. Photo by Bertil Videt.

Withdrawal or isolationism, however, is not the answer. There are so many reasons for this it is impossible to list them all, but foremost would be that our security would be severely compromised, our economy would be weaker than it already is, anti-American groups would not diminish but increase, and millions of people who benefit from U.S. aid would suffer for others’ mistakes. The U.S. does need a serious about-face in policy that would ameliorate our image abroad, diminish security threats, and raise the chance that valid, transparent democracies can take root throughout the world. If we continue on our current path, we are only going to exacerbate our problems and give people more reasons to blame us every time something goes wrong in the world and we either do too much, too little, or nothing at all.

The image crisis America faces is in large part due to the excess of “hard diplomacy” we employ. We have intervened militarily in so many places and the result is that the rest of the world views us as a bully that acts unilaterally without regard for international law or state sovereignty. Unfortunately, this is largely true regarding international law. But I don’t think that America’s people want our country to be seen that way. Much of what we do is positive: our intervention in Libya and aid to developing countries throughout the world are positive things, not the actions of a bully; our invasion of Iraq, not so much. It is easy for the world to point its finger at the U.S. whenever a problem arises because we have stuck our nose in so many issues, manipulated so many governments, propped up so many dictators, ignored human rights abuses and committed so many of our own, that we are an easy scapegoat.

We put ourselves in this position, but we can also get ourselves out. During the Cold War, we mastered “public diplomacy,” and I believe that it was that tactic, not our military capabilities, that defeated the Soviet Union. We tried the military intervention route in Vietnam and saw the results (hint: not good). However, our clandestine aid, promotion of our own democracy, and exportation of our still very popular pop culture led the citizens of the Soviet world to look around them and think, “Hey, this kind of blows.” Ok, maybe a bit more sophisticated and dramatic than that, but you get the gist. The result? The internal dynamics of the U.S.S.R weakened to the point that the entire system crumbled around the Kremlin.

Public diplomacy, much like public relations, involves investing in projects and businesses rather than missiles and dictators, and then making sure people know about it. Every single project should have a “sponsored by the people of the United States of America” sign stamped all over it, since our government isn’t very popular but our country’s people sure as hell can be. We did it in Japan as we helped them reconstruct after winning the shit out of WWII, and it was extremely successful despite the fact that we were militarily occupying them and the small issue of the atomic bombs we dropped. We did it in Europe with the Marshall plan, which, while controversial, ended up also being very successful at keeping countries away from the Commies. More aid directed at obvious goals that we already give some support such as education (schools, books, etc.) and medicine (clinics, training, supplies, vaccine drives, etc.) can help bolster economies and raise living standards for the average citizen of the developing world.

Sign that reads "Berlin Emergency Program: With Marshall Plan Help."

Infrastructure projects (which we also desperately need in the U.S.) such as road networks, railways, and ports, would go a long way to ensuring that goods can reach the market. To make those goods we need to encourage investment in companies in these countries and the people that run them. Scholarships for foreign students are a good starting point, but on the ground training and certification programs for professionals will reach so many more people and be a concrete symbol of U.S. goodwill abroad. Our defense budget is so bloated because we fear threats from countries that we’ve pissed off; if we cut that budget and used just a fraction of it on public diplomacy, those threats will dissipate in the long run and we will find that we don’t need to spend so much protecting ourselves anymore. We might even be, dare I say it, kind of well-liked. 

Instead of giving so much money to authoritarian leaders and corrupt officials to buy bombs, we should be investing in the people they currently rule over. A more educated, prosperous population is the key to creating a more open, transparent society and political realm in almost every developing country in the world. I know that this all sounds idealistic and naïve, but believe it or not it might also actually work. We can’t “give” people democracy; look at the results of our attempts in Iraq in Afghanistan. We can, however, give them the tools, the means, and the belief that a better life is possible by investing in their economies, investing in their children, and making it clear that we want them to have the best possible future, but that it will be them that determines it.

Taking the Middle East as an example given the current high tide of anti-American sentiment there, this strategy could be particularly successful. The riots are much more complex than a simple rising up against symbols of American power. They are a combination of religious outrage (the simplest form to vent as political outrage is usually stifled in the region) and maneuvering by extremist and anti-American groups. They are also expressions of economic and social frustrations that have not been diminished by regime changes. The region’s youth are largely unemployed, young men and women have to delay marriage (which, hello, means delaying any kind of sex; anyone in their 20s understands how much pent up energy those poor young people must have), and people, quite frankly, have nothing to lose. The Arab Awakening did not put in place perfect governments that could fix all the problems the people thought they could: the economies are still weak, corruption is still high, and the elite puppet masters are still holding the strings.

America, as morbid as it sounds, has the ability to give these people that “something to lose” that they are lacking. We have the ability to stop bolstering corrupt regimes, put our foot down and say “no progress, no military aid.” We have the ability to invest instead in economic and social projects and let everybody know it was us that did it. Public diplomacy is the most effective weapon in our arsenal, drones be damned. I hope that the country isn’t too chickenshit to start using it, or we might find ourselves with a lot more than protests on our already overburdened hands.

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