REVIEW: Article

Public and Private Roles in Public Diplomacy

As illustrated by the international row over caricatures of Mohammad, the dangerous implications of tensions between the Muslim world and the West point to the need for increased urgency in improving mutual understanding. The juxtaposition of those fanning the flames of anti-American and anti-Western hatred with those brandishing the treasured right of freedom of speech at all costs has led some to quickly assert that we are facing a “clash of civilizations.” But mere invocation of Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis fails to explain the underlying complexities of our increasingly interconnected world.

Public diplomacy, an effort “to promote the national interest of the United States (US) through understanding, informing and influencing foreign audiences,” is a primary tool to enhance effective communication. It is too important to be left solely to the government. As this 1997 definition from the Planning Group for Integration of the United States Information Agency (USIA) into the Department of State implies, the flow of information and ideas is essential for public diplomacy to succeed. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration increased its public diplomacy efforts, leading to the launch of the Arabic-language satellite news and entertainment network, Al-Hurra (“The Free One”), and the news and entertainment FM station, Radio Sawa (“Together”), run by the congressionally-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees all US government international non-military broadcasts, including oversight of the Voice of America (VOA).

US public diplomacy efforts in the Arab world have, however, been met with some adversity and indifference. Karen Hughes, a longtime advisor to President George W. Bush, was sworn in as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs last summer and tasked with improving the United States’ relations with other countries, with a particular focus on Arab and other Muslim states. Hughes’ assignment is regarded as one of the most crucial—and difficult—in Washington. Her predecessors Charlotte Beers and Margaret Tutwiler were unable to stop the erosion in support for the US and its policies in the Arab world. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the publication of pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the outrageous Newsweek story of the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo prison have contributed to the downturn of the American image in the region, including in countries with a long history of support for the US.

While the administration’s increased focus on public diplomacy is certainly a welcome change, it cannot exhaust American efforts to make a positive difference. We also must encourage citizen-led efforts to help foster better communication. In the long haul that is the war of ideas; the US private and nonprofit sectors can and should play a multiplier role to complement and enhance public diplomacy efforts of the government. In the Arab world, independent initiatives are able to secure credibility and a following among indigenous audiences faster than government efforts, especially as the ownership trend in the media of choice, free-to-air pan-Arab satellite TV networks, has been steadily shifting away from governmental control. Today’s relatively free environment is ripe for people-to-people diplomacy to be effective.

Among worthy efforts, I count Keith Reinhard’s Business for Diplomatic Action (BDA), which works to enlist the US business community in order to improve America’s image abroad. In addition, the Foundation for International Understanding (FIU), currently in the final planning phase, aims to address the “rise in anti-American sentiment around the world” by funding media projects for domestic and overseas distribution “that promote mutual understanding.” Ambassador David Abshire, President of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, is the steady hand guiding the FIU’s development. This idea was derived from a Council on Foreign Relations task force on public diplomacy chaired by Peter G. Peterson.

Initiatives at home are also essential in the face of increasing Islamophobia in the US and elsewhere. In addition, explosive headlines on the Arab world and US action in the region serve to reinforce mutual prejudices and further Arab and Muslim grievances. The nonprofit organization, America Abroad Media (AAM), produces videoconferences and radio and television programs seeking to educate and inform the American people about international affairs as well as facilitate cross-cultural discussion on international issues and the American role in the world. It is the dialogue between, and not the clash of, civilizations that will help address areas of contention.

Another nonprofit, private sector effort, Layalina Productions, Inc. is dedicated to bridging the gap of understanding between Americans and Arabs while addressing the negative stereotypes about the United States prevalent in the Arab world. Layalina produces informative and entertaining television programming that aims to foster cultural, educational and professional dialogues. These Arabic- and English-language programs will largely air in prime time on Arab-owned free-to-air popular satellite networks, thus reaching tens, if not hundreds, of millions of viewers in their vernacular.

‘Ala al-Tariq fi Amrika (On the Road in America), Layalina’s semi-reality travelogue series, is a good example of such an initiative. In the pilot episode, Layalina brought university students from Lebanon and Egypt to the United States on their first visit, during which they traveled in New York and around the Midwest by car. Currently in broadcast negotiations with a major Arab broadcaster, this series, which will most likely air in time for this year’s Ramadan, follows the students’ adventures and records their interactions with Americans to provide Arab viewers with the opportunity to experience America beyond the Hollywood dream machine.

Promoting free speech and the open exchange of ideas comes through example. Layalina invests in these endeavors with such programming initiatives as Araeh (Opinions), a half-hour weekly political discussion show that shares a similar format with American Sunday political talk shows, and focuses on current issues affecting the Middle East and the state of US-Arab relations. Through this series, Americans and Arabs alike will be able to explore the many issues facing the state of US-Arab relations. In Al-Sa’at (The Hour), two American and two Arab reporters will file joint reports from throughout the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere on stories related to business, technology, culture, music and sports. Don Hewitt, Executive Producer Emeritus of CBS’s 60 Minutes and a member of Layalina’s Board of Counselors, has pledged his assistance to the production team.

Sister Cities, Layalina’s documentary series, focuses on existing inter-city partnerships, demonstrating the cultural similarities between geographically distant cities and shedding light on existing attempts by civic organizations to promote cross-cultural understanding. Each episode explores the traditions and history of an American and an Arab city. Special attention is paid to women’s issues and community reform.

Initiatives such as BDA, FIU, AAM, and Layalina are essential in reaching out to the Arab Middle East, a crucial region for US interests, and can broaden and deepen the reach of American efforts beyond government programs. The demographics of Arab countries, where impressionable youth often accounts for over 50 percent of the population, also point to the urgency of presenting more credible and effective programming to the region.

There are some who believe that the rift between the Arab and Muslim world on the one hand and the United States and the West on the other cannot be mended. However, there is also room for optimism. In a recent Gallup Poll undertaken in several Muslim countries (including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt), many Muslims expressed admiration for the West for both its technological advances and respect for liberty. When asked whether they would include a provision defending freedom of speech concerning political, social and economic issues if they were allowed to draft a constitution, over 90 percent of respondents in every country responded affirmatively. 

These are common values that the American people cherish as well. It is only sensible and necessary that initiatives run by citizens in both the West and the Arab world work to increase understanding and tolerance between both. With genuine effort and success we can go beyond the talk of a “clash of civilizations” and hopefully work toward a more peaceful era in Arab-US relations.

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Founder and Chairman, Layalina Productions, Inc.;
Counselor and Trustee, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS);
United States Ambassador-at-Large, 1984-1985