Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The War of Ideas - Ooops!

James K. Glassman, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs gave a briefing yesterday (10/28) on “U.S. Public Diplomacy and the War of Ideas.” I just saw the video of that briefing – here’s a shoutout to our PD guys out there. Next time, would you please synchronize the video with the audio? Even my son, a young YouTube aficionado thought it funny that Mr. Glassman’s mouth movement does not match the audio.

I saw the title of this briefing and thought somebody will surely do a gotcha dance here. And sure enough during the Q&A ….

QUESTION: Don’t you think it’s, you know, more of an exchange of – an exchange of ideas? Because I really feel as if, the more that you talk – I understand the war on terrorism, but ideas shouldn’t be about a war. Isn’t it, you’re supposed to be listening to the other side and they’re supposed to be listening to you and it’s supposed to be a free flow of ideas?

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: (Excerpt of response) No, no, let me just address the last point first. I agree with you the war of ideas is not the best phrase here, and I have – and previously, I have entertained substitutes and I continue to. We sometimes use the term “global ideological engagement.”

QUESTION: […] And that is, in this war of ideas, as you’re out there on the frontlines of it, do you not find that what bothers people – foreigners – about the United States is not the idea of the U.S. or the idea of democracy, but it’s your specific policy? Every single time that there’s been a study or a report commissioned about how the U.S. can improve its image abroad, that always comes out to be the number one thing that people have – take issue with. And that is that it’s not the message or how you deliver it, it’s the actual policy that the rest of the government – that the government is actually going and – is carrying out. Do you not find that until you address the policy differences and unhappiness with the policy that this war is unwinnable?

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: (Excerpt of response) I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I am – I have read deeply into the literature on this subject, and let me tell you what my conclusions are (italics mine). […] And I think there are three reasons. One – and it’s not just I think, this is the research that I’ve seen. Number one, people understand that we’re kind of the big guy on the block and that ultimately we, like every other country, you know, like Portugal, like Finland, like Indonesia, will follow our own national interests. I mean, that’s – they understand that. But what they don’t like is their perception that we don’t listen to them and don’t respect their views before we formulate what are our own policies. And whether that’s a valid criticism or not, it’s out there and we need to address it, and we have been addressing it. The second problem is, I think, that we haven’t done a great job of explaining some of our policies and principles. And for example, I think that the single most pernicious misperception that’s out there, an extremely dangerous misperception, is that the United States and the West, for that matter, are out to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity. And when you look at the surveys in Muslim countries, you see 80, 90 percent of the people agreeing with that statement. Now, that’s a statement that we need to do a better job of refuting. Finally, there are policies, and absolutely there are people around the world who disagree with our policies. And in the end, we are not going to take a global vote about particular policies. But there’s no doubt that there are consequences when people oppose your policies. And one of those consequences is you are reduced, let’s say, in their respect and in their trust.

QUESTION: […] both candidates running for president have pledged that as soon as they get into office, one of the first acts they’ll do is shut down Guantanamo Bay prison and remove those detainees to U.S. prisons. And that’s – and they both argue that they want to do that in order to improve the image of the United States. Are you saying that such an act such as – Guantanamo has become a symbol of anti-Americanism around the world – are you saying that that’s irrelevant, that that’s not really going to impact the image of the United States as much as these, you know, things you’re doing such as amplifying –

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Shutting down Guantanamo?


UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: Will that impact the image of the United States?

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, in some cases –

UNDER SECRETARY GLASSMAN: (Excerpt of response) In my personal view, no, it will not. I don’t think it’s going to affect the image of the United States.

View Video Read Briefing Text

I don’t mean to be snarky here, but I think two questions need to be asked. One, isn’t this the same old paradigm that dictated the public diplomacy strategy of Charlotte Beers, then Karen Hughes? And two, besides reading “deeply into the literature on this subject” has anyone bothered to ask our career diplomats - who have their ears on the ground in 268 missions worldwide, by the way - what they think about this war of ideas, er, global ideological engagement?

I'm not a Madison PR executive so this one is on me, free - ditch the word "war," it brings too many bad memories to the target audience and please find something else besides GIE to hang your hat on. The term "global ideological engagement" sound both painful and infectious. I'd ditch that to, if I were boss. But. I'm. Not.

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