REVIEW: Article

America’s New Diplomacy: Winning the Race for Hearts and Minds

In a country where cancer is still discussed in whispers, it was a remarkable sight—hundreds of resolute Hungarian breast cancer survivors walking across Budapest’s historic Chain Bridge, illuminated in pink, the international color of breast cancer.

As the American Ambassador to Hungary at the time, I had the privilege of working with Hungarian-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and multinational corporate sponsors to organize last year’s “Bridge of Health”—that nation’s first fundraiser for women’s health.* As one woman told us afterwards, “We were not sure such a huge event could be done in Hungary. Maybe we were not brave enough. So we thank you.”

With Washington engaged in a global campaign to win hearts and minds, particularly in the Muslim world, such gratitude underscores one of America’s greatest foreign policy tools for promoting America’s image and interests around the world—healthcare.

Today, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is rebuilding public health systems in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush has proposed an historic 50 percent increase in foreign aid and a $15 billion initiative to fight AIDS overseas. Secretary of State Colin Powell has elevated health care as an element of US foreign policy.

At the same time, USAID is pulling out of countries across Eastern Europe, and the European Union is doing little to assist fledging NGOs that provide the building blocks of democracy. Who will fill the void?

It’s time for a new model of diplomacy, one that communicates American values and serves US interests by harnessing the combined strength of the US government, industry, non-profits and the idealism of the American people. I have seen this model in action, and it works.

First, engage the man (and woman) on the street. Whereas traditional diplomacy concentrates on influencing foreign leaders, the new diplomacy reaches out to average citizens using nontraditional gateways of influence. Effective diplomacy need not cost billions of dollars or require another government agency.

For example, an essential component of any healthy society is awareness, education, prevention and healthy lifestyles. Our walk across Chain Bridge ignited a national dialogue in Hungary about women’s health. By sponsoring Walks for Health through Budapest with government officials, business leaders and local celebrities, we helped empower Hungarians with the life-saving knowledge that they can take charge of their own health.

Second, grow the grassroots of democracy. Traditional diplomacy forges alliances and coalitions among nations. The new diplomacy forges civil societies within nations. In countries like Hungary, the American spirit of volunteerism is still largely a foreign concept. Only now—more than a decade after the lifting of the Iron Curtain—is something akin to an independent civil society and non-profit sector taking hold.

Americans experienced in the NGO community and coalition building can help by promoting a new culture of civic activism in developing countries. I shared with Hungarians my experience as a founder of one of America’s largest breast cancer organizations. A new partnership between Hungarian and American physicians is one of dozens of USAID initiatives to promote community-based approaches to health. With active citizens comes more public faith in the ability of a democratic system to deliver a better future.

Finally, foster a spirit of corporate citizenship. Traditional diplomacy emphasizes government assistance. The new diplomacy recognizes that 80 percent of US humanitarian aid now comes from the generosity of the American people and the private sector.

Our effort to illuminate the Chain Bridge would have been impossible without the financial support of General Electric, one of the many ways GE is reaching out to Europe after the European Commission blocked its bid to takeover Honeywell in 2001. Yet after decades of communist domination, countries like Hungary have yet to develop their own sense of corporate philanthropy.

In Hungary, I explained how non-profits and the business community can partner to achieve common ends. Likewise, American business leaders can advise their foreign counterparts on how to embrace corporate philanthropy.

As Ambassador, I had the privilege of working in the office once used by Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty who took refuge in the US Embassy in Budapest for 15 years after Moscow crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising. “Democracy,” Cardinal Mindszenty once said, “implies that every citizen and every social class is equally entitled to participate in the shaping of the common fate of all of us.”

The West won the Cold War with both its “hard” military power and the “soft” power of its ideals and values. Imagine how many hearts and minds the US could win today by making the promise of democracy—including the common human need for healthcare—a foreign policy priority.

Reaching out to ordinary citizens around the world and communicating America’s values is no longer just a job for the US government. It’s a job for all Americans, including the private sector.

* Editor’s Note: The walk across the Chain Link Bridge, illuminated in pink, was so successful that it was repeated in October 2003 under the auspices of Ambassador George Herbert Walker.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to Hungary, 2001-2003