Reweaving Charlotte’s Web
Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, gave her first report card last week of our government's efforts to influence, inform, and engage people in other countries since 9/11. Charlotte's web of activities spins from the sublime State Department booklet, "Muslim Life in America" to those mixed review Muslim American adverts during Ramadan, to the proposed ridiculous partnership with the Smithsonian--a virtual reality American room where overseas looky-loos can experience a walk down an imaginary American street at the local library, shopping mall or touring bus. Message: Don't Come to US, We'll Come to You! She kicked off her news conference with a clip of her popular boss Colin Powell addressing an MTV audience of 375 million young people, where he defended questions like this from Rita in the UK: "I'm wondering, when I talk to my friends about the U.S., we think about how do you feel by representing a country commonly perceived as the Satan of contemporary politics?" His answer, not to worry, was that far from the great Satan we're the world's great protector.
Missing from her glowing narrative was any sense that the U.S. government much cares about what has led global attitudes to shift from viewing the United States less as the great protector and more as the great instigator. If there is any protecting going on, it's seen more as protecting our own interests to others. Beers acknowledged the elephant in the living room of growing hostility and distrust for the United States but singled out predominantly extremist factions in the Middle East for anti-Americanism origins. "It serves their purpose, you understand, to paint us as decadent and faithless; a place and a people who are inimical to the tenets of Islam. These distortions happen every day in their press, in their magazines and from their pulpits." The fact is, there are more than a few elephants lumbering around the living room, including how our government conducts its affairs in the world, in particular the Middle East. No one in government, including Beers, seems willing to address that elephant so citizens are doing it for themselves, as was made clear when her speech was interrupted by a group of women chanting, "You're selling war, and we're not buying." Dissenting from official Washington in general and a war with Iraq in particular is not something just foreign publics are inclined to do these days. The U.S. government needs to acknowledge this and not dismiss criticism of its policies as the sole domain of militant extremists overseas or yet another "ism" that needs overturning.
So what do we do with SUV policies and a VW beetle public diplomacy program? The answer is not to let U.S. public diplomacy wither on the vine as we did after the Cold War. We are not the same naive nation that we were when I worked at the U.S. Information Agency and State Department in the early 90s. Conventional wisdom then was that we had won that war, which we wrongly assumed meant a global fast track to embracing not just our jeans, hamburgers, and movies but everything about us, including our policies. That wasn't true then as it isn't true now.
We need an amplification of mutual understanding between the American people and our counterparts overseas. This includes funding more student and youth exchanges, speaking as one completely biased as an alumna of the Fulbright program. We also need more creative arts and writer exchanges, not just the elite product by Beers, Writers in America, where 15 prominent writers will tour "on behalf of the United States and the American way of life."
Charlotte's web emphasizes mostly comfortable distance mass communications, including advertising spots, international radio broadcasting networks and virtual reality tours of American streets. These communications need to be presented as dialogue initiators or else they'll come across as one-way propaganda vehicles. Edward R. Murrow said this about his job as USIA Director some forty years ago: "The really crucial link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact -- one person talking to another." That message, personal contact, may be one we'll need to advocate for ourselves to the advertising legend turned government persuader-in-chief Charlotte Beers.
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