REVIEW: Article

American Public Diplomacy and Islam

The Learning Curve

The attacks of September 11 didn’t necessarily transform American public diplomacy, but they certainly accelerated the learning curve of everyone associated with these efforts.

Following September 11, as Charlotte Beers, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 27, 2003, we had to think more clearly than ever about the rationale for public diplomacy; innovate new programs to reach wider, younger, and more diverse audiences; and integrate new resources into effective programming. And we had to do it immediately.

This effort involved not only the State Department’s public diplomacy bureaus, but the entire foreign affairs community, as well as the Congress, which provided the funds that were critical in redirecting resources for programs to broad Muslim audiences with whom, in the recent past, we’ve had almost no direct discourse.

Power of Exchanges

As Under Secretary Beers stressed in her Senate testimony, among the lessons of September 11 is that our educational and cultural exchanges—be they of young leaders, academics, students, or others—are almost always positive, transformative experiences for the participants. This is a significant conclusion.  It is impossible to overestimate the long-term return on the investment in exchanges. Consider this: 50 percent of the leaders of the global coalition in the war against terrorism had been International Visitors. More than 200 current and former heads of state, 1,500 cabinet-level ministers, and many other distinguished leaders in government and the private sector from around the world have participated in our International Visitors Program.

New Generations, New Audiences

Yet there is a problem with exchanges. The number of them—about 35,000 a year worldwide—is nowhere near enough to reach the new and growing mass audiences with whom it is vital for us to communicate. These programs, which can serve as a catalyst for the transformation of perceptions and the recognition of commonality, are so important that we must find ways to replicate the experience for millions, not just thousands.

In other words, we have to go beyond the significant dialogue we have with government officials and opinion leaders and reach out to new, diverse, and younger audiences. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Indonesia, for example, we are talking about a population of more than 470 million people, a large number of whom have gravely distorted, but carefully cultivated, images of the United States (US)—images so negative, so weird, so hostile that, if unchecked, they can serve to reinforce the convictions of a new generation of terrorists.

The gap between who we are and how we wish to be seen, and how we are in fact seen, is frighteningly wide.

The next question is: does it matter? Our businesses, whose brands travel the world, know it matters because they are boycotted. Our great universities and faculties know it matters because schools in England, Germany, Australia and elsewhere are doing a very good job of offering alternatives. The gap matters most of all because our country has a profound belief in the power of sharing a way of life that enhances the individual, protects rights and faith, and optimizes potential. However, there is no way to even engage others in the world in such honorable pursuits if every action of the United States is viewed with distrust, cynicism, or hate.

Renewed Dialogue, New Partnerships

What, then, can we do about it?  We can attack the misperceptions, unmask the lies, and live up to our own high expectations by taking our messages to the millions. The US should activate every emissary it has, tap into new channels of communication, and deliver programs of recognized mutual benefit—all to create and sustain a dialogue about freedom, economic growth, and potential for these millions.

This task need not be as overwhelming as it sounds; but we must agree upon the long-term goal, ensure adequate funding and provide the benchmarks necessary to measure our progress.

Further, we must find ways to enlist the private sector in this effort, to engage our best and brightest business, academic, and cultural leaders—not as consultants, but participants with their own programs for teaching and engaging foreign audiences.

We need to take the best of America to other countries, to offer who we are and what we stand for, to share with them our contributions in English teaching, literature, science and technology.

With the closure of many of our overseas libraries, we’ve lost many of the natural touch points for doing this. What we do have, however, are the American Corners in Russia and Central Asia, and our longstanding Binational Centers in many Western Hemisphere nations.

We also have overseas English-teaching programs that can be revamped and made more serious and focused on universal values. We have fabulous new materials in literature, in poetry, in film; they are simply not getting out to many of these critical audiences.

We need to organize, fund, and support the many creative talents—the musicians, actors, writers—who will go willingly to teach, inspire, and tell the story of America through the examples of their own lives, careers, and work.

We must create better access to our most priceless endeavors—medicine, for instance, and the work of the National Institutes of Health, whose mission is to uncover new knowledge that will lead to better health for everyone. We have stunning stories of life-saving medicines developed and delivered by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)—but no one hears these stories.

We in public diplomacy are designing new and bold plans to open channels and dialogue where these stories can be told. With Children’s Television Workshop, for example, we are looking at production of a Sesame Street for teenagers. We also are exploring possibilities for an Arabic-language television channel, an Arabic-language magazine targeted for young people, and a global Partnerships for Learning initiative aimed initially at the Muslim world. We’re also looking at public diplomacy activities that will be undertaken in the framework of the Middle East Partnership Initiative announced by Secretary of State Colin Powell a few months ago.

Over the long term, in other words, we are lifting our public diplomacy and exchange efforts to engage and re-engage the world at a significantly higher and more sustained level.

Iraq and Afghanistan

In the short term, we remain focused on such urgent policy issues as the war on terrorism, the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and the past, present, and future of Iraq.

In recent months, we have raised our overall level of our activity significantly to present, explain, and advocate our policies—in multiple languages, formats, and fora—to audiences around the world. In a typical month, State Department officials in Washington and overseas are participating in literally hundreds of interviews, press conferences, lectures, discussions, and other public events.

In the case of Iraq, we have prepared a variety of materials in support of our position—all in addition to our daily output of policy statements and speeches—in real time and multiple languages.

To cite just two examples, the booklet Iraq: From Fear to Freedom examines in a comprehensive way the horror of Saddam Hussein’s regime but also addresses the US  desire to see a future Iraq that is democratic, unified, and at peace with its neighbors. In Iraq: A Population Silenced, we focus on human rights violations by Saddam Hussein and his associates. We include first-person and eyewitness accounts of the atrocities committed. 

A quote follows on the next page.

“Iraq under Saddam’s regime has become a land of hopelessness, sadness, and fear, a country where people are ethnically cleansed. Prisoners are tortured in more than 300 prisons in Iraq. Iraq under Saddam has become a hell and a museum of crimes.”

We also have focused on exchanges that will allow our visitors to become unofficial emissaries when they return home. For example, 49 Arab women came here in November to witness our election process and democracy in action.  They couldn’t believe the fervor of the debate and, then, the coming to a common resolve—the day after the election.

We also invited 13 women teachers from Afghanistan to enhance their skills and prepare them to train other teachers in their country. We are working now to send American teachers to Afghanistan. We also hosted women from Afghan government ministries for a four-week program in which they met with national and local leaders and received training in computer skills and leadership management.

While in Washington, the women also met with Cabinet officers and members of Congress. President Bush himself gave them assurances that the United States will not forget Afghanistan and urged them to tell him, in specific terms, how the US can best help rebuild their country.

Mass Media and Muslim Americans

Throughout the past year, we have been testing many new programs that can serve as prototypes for reaching critically important mass audiences.

One such initiative took the form of a series of mini-documentaries of Muslim Americans describing their freedom here, their ability to practice their faith, and their integration into the life of America. These stories were told through paid media programs on television and radio and in newspapers, and augmented by traveling speaker programs, a booklet on “Muslim Life in America,” and an innovative, interactive Web site,, designed to foster open-ended discussion and dialogue on shared values between Americans and people in Muslim-majority countries.

An estimated 288 million people were exposed to these messages through pan-Arab satellite television and newspapers, as well as through the national media of Indonesia, Pakistan, and Kuwait during the holy month of Ramadan.

We took Indonesia as a case study, tested the levels of recall and message retention, and found them to be significantly higher than, for instance, those of a typical soft-drink campaign run at higher spending levels for more months.

This kind of exceptional result means that the messages not only were relevant, but were also very interesting. In random taped interviews, people on the street made it clear that these messages literally opened minds and challenged the carefully taught fiction that the Muslim population of America is harshly treated, illustrating instead that religious tolerance is fundamental in the US.

The follow-up—the continuing dialogue—is even more important. Indonesia’s largest television channel taped a one-hour Town Hall meeting between Americans and Indonesians—people-to-people—which aired on March 17, 2003, reaching more than 130 million people.

Shared Futures

One interesting lesson of the Shared Values Initiative is our discovery of the disconnect between leadership elites and ordinary people. The elites are often not aware of the depth of misperception and myth that exist in their countries.

Another more obvious lesson is the importance of television as the dominant medium in today’s information environment. Building on this lesson in Egypt, for example, we invited an Egyptian television group to film the story of several USAID projects, highlighting the cleaner water, the improved education, and the micro-loans that resulted. The television coverage, readily available to a mass audience, confirmed the commitment of the American people to improving the quality of life around the globe.  But we need to disseminate these stories much more artfully to much broader audiences.

Building upon the Shared Values initiative, and aimed initially at the Muslim Near East, we are initiating a new program called Shared Futures, which will bring sustained attention to economic and political and educational reform through media campaigns, television and media co-ops, and other creative programming—in partnership with local institutions wherever possible.

The lessons of public diplomacy have come fast and hard this year. We learned the importance of good collaboration as a magnifier. We learned that our public diplomacy officers need and want training in modern marketing and outreach to reach large audiences.  And we now know that, by forming a strong partnership with USAID and non-governmental organizations, we are better able to tell the real story of the generosity of the American people.

Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that, for some time into the future, we will be dealing with the natural tension between our need for security and our desire to be open and inviting. This is nicely summarized by our new communication plan on visas, “Secure Borders - Open Doors.”

These words are a good summary for where we are with the world. Our policies must be heard, and they deserve powerful advocates. At the same time, it is crucial that they be delivered in a proper context, through continuing dialogue and engagement, so that we can advance not only our national interests, but the universal values that we share with the world.

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Special Coordinator for Public Diplomacy