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Public Diplomacy Dilemma

07/19/02 12:00AM By Olin Robison
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The most difficult international challenge facing the United States is not military. It is instead in the realm of public diplomacy. It is the question of how to meet the challenge of being sympathetically understood. Or, if not sympathetically, at least clearly and rationally. How to address these complex and often non-rational issues is and is going to remain a frustrating challenge. These matters are neither Democratic nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative, neither left nor right.

During the several decades of the Cold War there was a bipartisan consensus in Washington that we were in a long-term, multi-faceted competition with the Soviet Union. Nothing could be taken for granted. The Congress repeatedly voted money to support what was then called telling America s story abroad. These programs were wonderfully broad ranging. They included broadcasting: The Voice of America, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. There were academic, artistic, cultural and scientific exchanges of which the Fulbright Scholarships were perhaps the most famous. These programs over the years made possible the international exchange of literally tens of thousands of people. They were America s centers and American libraries abroad approximately 50 of them from Iceland to Lebanon. There were six in Pakistan alone.

Today all these centers and libraries are closed; the radios are diminished and the various exchanges barely exist. These activities long-enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington. Even that arch conservative Ronald Reagan expanded spending on many of these programs. Public Diplomacy meant all those things that are done to enhance the environment in which traditional diplomacy takes place. It is by nature imprecise, hard to measure, impossible to quantify, but by common consent in Washington back then, overridingly important.

After the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, that bipartisan consensus vanished. We went into a decade of a diminimus foreign policy, a long stretch during which less was considered to be better.

Well, that turned out to be wrong. Big time wrong. Today there is in Washington a reawakening to the idea that public diplomacy is a good idea after all. Unhappily, however, it is far harder to create new and effective instruments of public diplomacy than it was to dismantle the ones we had.

Earlier this year, we were treated to the ill-considered idea that the Pentagon had established a new Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) whose job was to influence foreign media with a flow of information, some accurate, some deliberately misleading, in an effort to enhance America's policies abroad. It was a dumb idea and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has since ordered it closed.

Do stay tuned. I would like to say that recreating strong and effective public diplomacy capability for the United States is a work in progress, but I am not sure that it is. The truth is that is has hardly begun. The president has called for a $48 billion increase in the Defense Budget. If it passes, it will bring U.S. defense spending to the point where it exceeds the combined defense spending of all of the other countries in the world. Really, I didn't make that up. Why not index public diplomacy spending as a percentage of the defense budget? One percent would represent a dramatic leap forward.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.
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