Public Diplomacy

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In Slate, Fred Kaplan blasted Karen Hughes’ “outreach” efforts in the Middle East, and yearned for the good old days of effective public diplomacy during the Cold War:

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency ran a vast, independent public-diplomacy program in embassies all over the world—libraries, speakers’ bureaus, concert tours by famous jazz musicians, and broadcasts of news and music on the Voice of America. Together, they conveyed an appealing image of a free, even boisterous, America in the face of an implacable, totalitarian Communist foe.

I’m not sure this is the best analogy. The main difference here is that during the Cold War, those on the other side of the Iron Curtain were largely closed off from Western culture, and the U.S. Information Agency merely had the task of bringing that culture to a largely receptive, albeit shuttered, audience. Radio broadcasts wafting into Eastern Europe acted, as Russian novelist Vassily Aksyonov put it, as “America’s secret weapon number one.”

Today, by contrast, the Islamic world can already, and very easily, receive its dose of Western culture—they can see it on TV, or on the internet, or read about it in magazines—and the problem is that many simply don’t like what they see. To some extent Islamic anger towards the West comes as a result of opposition to the libertine, over-sexed Western programming they see on the air, rather than as a result of not seeing enough of it. As Egyptian journalist Abdel Wahab E. Elmessiri, recently quoted in the Wilson Quarterly, put it, “To know which direction we are heading, one should simply watch MTV.” He didn’t mean it in a good way. Ultimately, it’s hard to think that the United States’ current efforts at public and cultural diplomacy can make much headway here. Hughes’ most important task, one would think, might well be to actually listen to—and not lecture—people in the Middle East and figure out what their grievances against the West actually are, rather than try to rehash the Cold War “hearts and minds” campaign.


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