America's public diplomacy needs a boost

Efforts to foster democratic ideals, such as exchange programs, are key.

Both Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have floated a trial balloon, suggesting that an unspecified number of US troops could remain long term in Iraq, on the pattern of South Korea, where US troops have remained for more than a half century after the conclusion of the Korean war.

Whether that would win consent from the Iraqis or political approval from the American people is uncertain.

What does seem clear is that unless some short-term miracle occurs, Iraq is not soon to be the hoped-for example of freedom, peace, and stability that would inspire other Islamic lands throughout the Middle East to throw off their shackles and embrace democracy.

Yet President Bush and, I suspect, a majority of the American people, believe that the freedoms Americans enjoy should be the right of all men and women. So how should free nations lend encouragement and support to peoples not yet free?

Whether a Democratic or Repub-lican administration wins the right next year to govern the United States, there will probably be little appetite for attempting to impose democracy by military force. Therefore, the answer lies in nonmilitary public diplomacy, the craft of explaining and fostering democratic values and ideals.

Polls show that US policies, particularly in the Middle East, have triggered rising anti-Americanism. A recent BBC survey of 25 countries found only 29 percent of those polled believing that the US is a mainly positive influence in the world. Two years prior to that, the figure was 40 percent. Clearly, the US has lost ground in world public opinion.

But non-Americans differentiate between US policy and the American people and way of life. Pollster James Zogby, on the basis of five years of polling Arab publics, told a House foreign-affairs subcommittee last month that "[i]n almost every case, Arabs liked our values, our people, culture, and products. They did not like our policies." David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told the legislators that Arabs who had experienced personal contact with the American people had a better impression of Americans by a margin that was "modest but significant."

Clearly, exchange programs that bring non-Americans to the US are a significant factor in forming their image of the American people. The visitors come, they travel, they read American newspapers, they listen to Americans themselves debating their government's policies, and they see democracy – in all its strengths and weaknesses – in action. Generally they leave with a more positive view than they came with, although not necessarily agreeing with US government policies of the day.

Much of the time, these exchange programs are sponsored by the US State Department, although world affairs groups and other private-sector organizations and volunteers offer major services and contributions to the project. President Bush is requesting $486 million for exchange programs in fiscal year 2008, but the Washington-based nonprofit Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), of which I am a member, is recommending an increase to $500 million. These figures, of course, shrink into insignificance against the vast sums spent on military operations in Iraq.

The PDC says the government should have a multiyear plan to double the number of people participating in these exchange programs. It reminds that potential leaders selected for participation who have gone on to head their governments have included Britain's Tony Blair (1986), Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai (1987) and the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy (1985).

Besides leadership exchanges, the State Department has hosted a variety of programs, including one to bring high school students from Islamic lands to the US to live with American families and attend American schools for an academic year. In the current academic year, 675 students from 25 countries and the West Bank and Gaza took part. Meanwhile, the renowned Fulbright program has awarded 279,500 scholarships since 1946. Fulbright alumni include Nobel Prize winners, governors, senators, prime ministers, and heads of state.

Besides exchanges, the US public diplomacy effort involves a variety of other techniques, including radio and TV broadcasting, the Internet, foreign-based information officers, and speeches and question-and-answer sessions with senior officials. Its funding and operations have been much reduced since the United States Information Agency (USIA), which ran these programs, was phased out after the cold war. The remnants of that agency were integrated with the State Department.

The challenges besetting the US today require that the USIA, or a replica of it, be formed to bring focus and strategic planning to America's public diplomacy.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was associate director of USIA and director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration.

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