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Velvet fist in the iron glove

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

In reacting to the horrific bomb in Karachi yesterday President Bush spoke about the Pakistani casualties and addressed the muslim world as well as his own citizens: “They claim they are religious people, and then they blow up Muslims”, he said of the perpetrators. Back in 1998, when the American Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, even President Clinton focused much more heavily on the Americans injured even though many Kenyans had been killed. While President Bush was criticised for showing a similar insularity in his talk of crusades days after September 11th, yesterday’s remarks show how the administration has realised that America needs to change the way it speaks to the rest of the world.
Bush’s remarks reflected a major overhaul of the way America is seeking to get its message across. The administration has realised that it can’t only talk to client regimes through diplomats if it wants to get public opinion onside. Realising the depth of hostility to the US in much of the world, the American administration’s first instinct was to look to Madison Avenue. When Colin Powell appointed Charlotte Beers as assistant secretary of state, he said: “I wanted one of the world’s greatest advertising experts, because what are we doing? We’re selling. We’re selling a product”. As Chief Executive of the advertising giant, J Walter Thompson, Beers hit the headlines by eating the dog food she was promoting to prove how tasty it could be. Her role now is to mastermind “a hundred years war” to convert the Arab and Muslim worlds to American values.

But Beers will not be doing the browbeating that many will associate with the American “hard sell”. She says that the key is to start with her audience’s priorities (or “walk in their shoes” as she puts it). She wants America to engage them emotionally – not bombard them with “megaphone diplomacy”. The American propaganda in Afghanistan last September ranged from “leaflet bombs” showing women beaten by the Taliban with the message: “is this the future you want for your children and your women?” to single channel wind-up radios that only tune into the Voice of America.

Beers favours a different approach. One of her early initiatives was rebranding the Voice of America’s Arabic service as ‘Radio Sawa’ (‘Radio Together’). Gone are the hours of US government monitored talk which attracted a small audience of older decision-makers. In its place is a fast-paced music channel aimed at the young who subliminally ingest news bulletins in between blasts of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Beers also plans to launch a 24-hour Arabic satellite news channel which will take on the mighty Al-Jazeera.

Her other projects include airing short videos which profile the lives of Muslim Americans – teachers, basketball players, firemen. The intended message is that the United States is an open society, tolerant and accepting of all religions. What is more, they are backed by serious money – $900 million for promotional materials, cultural and educational exchanges and launching radio and television channels in the Middle East.

But America must realize that it starts from a very low base. A senior official in the White House conceded to me that it will take a lot to overcome Middle Eastern cynicism: “We’ve made no attempts to communicate with ordinary Arabs unless we are bombing them or imposing sanctions on them – I wouldn’t like us if I were them”.

And the deeper problem is that a communications strategy can’t work if it cuts against the grain of American foreign policy. It will be impossible to win hearts and minds unless the people being targeted get a sense that America really cares about them as individuals – not just because Americans are scared that they might become terrorists. This administration, in particular, has demonstrated that it values coercive power above all else. This means that public diplomacy can only be seen as the projection of power. Sophisticated attempts at building relationships with foreign publics will be undercut by unilateralist policies that always put American interests first. Radio Sawa will not be able to defeat the censorship of other governments because its own editorial content will still reflect the views of the American Government. For all Charlotte Beers’ good intentions, American public diplomacy could become mired by these contradictions – a velvet fist in an iron glove.

Europe, on the other hand, does not have the same problems as America. This could open up an important space for Britain to lead the European Union in providing an alternative to public diplomacy. Because Europeans do not rely on the hard power which America takes for granted, Europeans have had to draw on other sources of influence. When Tony Blair appears on the world stage, he draws as much on his moral authority and success in Northern Ireland as on his formal economic or military power. Europeans are also well-versed in how public opinion in other states affects our own politics – whether it is Danes or Irish who enjoy saying No in referendums, British Euro-scepticism, or French paranoia about British beef. Ask Romano Prodi.

The European history of multilateralism also brings a different – and less messianic – tone to dealings with the rest of the world. It is highly unlikely that any European leader – Berlusconi perhaps excepted – would talk about an axis of evil. Europe’s public diplomacy institutions are not seen as conveyor belts for propaganda: the Goethe Institut and the British Council talk about ‘mutuality’ and ‘building relationships’ rather than selling British or German values. The BBC’s international broadcasting channel is called the “World Service”, not the “Voice of Britain”.

So can Europe play the same role in the battle for public opinion as America does in the air and on the field?

On the surface, it looks promising. Even at a purely economic level, if you add up the budgets of all the European countries they dwarf American expenditure (Britain alone spends half as much as America, while France and Germany spend even more). But as in so many areas Europe punches below its weight because it spreads its resources too thinly – and often even competes against itself. Robert Templer, of the International Crisis Group, cites Afghanistan as “a conspicuous failure of public diplomacy”. Western nations have concentrated on branding their aid and assistance in a competitive fashion. Templer claims this has robbed the fledgling central Afghan administration of profile, legitimacy and, ultimately, stability. The French, for example, have proudly reopened the Lycee in Kabul and played on old links to Ahmed Shah Massoud in an attempt to promote their influence in the area. They also undermined the unifying symbolism of the return of the old King, Zahir Shah, by very publicly receiving the Defence minister who had snubbed the King by being in Paris at the time of his return.

European, or western, cooperation has been hampered by different national interests. In developed countries – and even some regional powers like Nigeria or South Africa – it will always be necessary to compete for trade, investment and political influence. But Britain, or any other European country for that matter, cannot really claim to have a national interest of its own – distinct from western or European interests – in more than perhaps fifty countries – a quarter of the UN’s membership. In most of the world, competition will be counterproductive, wasting resources while undermining the West’s objectives in those countries. Each country should focus national promotion on the few key countries where they have a real bilateral interest. The starting point for a new approach, which Tony Blair should propose at the Danish EU summit this autumn, is for the European Union to develop a plan for co-operatively funded public diplomacy in countries where it has no differentiated interests, but a pressing communal need.

If European countries are serious about developing a common foreign policy they should play to their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Instead of crippling ourselves with envy of American hard power, we should commit serious resources to developing an arsenal of soft power. While the contradictions in American public diplomacy remain, it will become even more important that Europe find the credibility to build real relationships with citizens around the world.

· Mark Leonard is Director of The Foreign Policy Centre. His report Public Diplomacy (£14.95), written with Catherine Stead and Conrad Smewing, will be published on Tuesday 18 June. To order a copy, email:

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