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Karen Hughes and Her "Diplomacy of Deeds"

John Brown

"Propaganda of the deed," a phrase attributed to the Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane (1818-1857), has long been associated with the tactics of terrorism. The Bush administration's image czarina and no. 1 overseas spin-stress, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes, has now provided humankind with an updated version of Pisacane's term: "diplomacy of deeds."

To be sure, Ms. Hughes, whose job includes (according to the State Department homepage) providing "the moral basis for U.S. leadership in the world" is not advocating that public diplomacy employ the methods of terrorism. But her focus on deeds suggests that she is not, at heart, interested in the U.S. establishing a dialogue with the world, perhaps the most important function of America's public diplomacy, which is meant to complement and enrich its traditional diplomacy. Rather, she wants to impress audiences abroad (and flatter US voters) by showing how kind and generous we Americans are in our conservatively compassionate actions to help those not as blessed as ourselves. Meanwhile, she conveniently forgets that public acts of charity are not always appreciated and that the major foreign-policy deeds of the administration she serves has appalled the world for years.

Hughes is not the first person to use the term diplomacy of deeds. A Google search reveals, for example, that Time magazine (March 2, 1959) reported on President Eisenhower's "diplomacy by deeds." But Hughes's close association of the diplomacy of deeds with public diplomacy can be considered a historical first. Indeed, if history remembers her at all, it may be for her emphasis on, if not infatuation with, these words, which became part of her official vocabulary late last year. In public statements, she stresses that the diplomacy of deeds is one of her most important functions. On December 20, 2006, in a The Washington Times article, she wrote that

At this time of year, when people are called on to care for the hungry, sick and abandoned, Americans should know we are giving the gift of hope to thousands of people whose names we will never know. And I will continue to advocate we do even more, because the diplomacy of deeds serves our own national interests and the people of every nation.

She notes in the same article that

when the people of the world see Americans in action, they respond. After the Navy hospital ship USS Mercy revisited areas of Southeast Asia ravaged by the tsunami last year, polls showed the favorable opinion of the U.S. rose to 87 percent in Bangladesh. When earthquakes devastated Pakistan, American military helicopters rushed emergency relief to thousands of people. The Chinook helicopter quickly became one of the most popular toys in Pakistan and favorable opinion of Americans doubled in polls.

More details on Hughes's personal contributions to her deeds crusade can be found in an article by Tara Copp in the Austin American-Statesman (February 18, 2007):

Hughes has taken a three-pronged approach: media outreach, exchange and education programs, and what she calls the "diplomacy of deeds" -- public service campaigns. …

She's gone to the Philippines to distribute sewing machines to small businesses and to work with young girls on computers.

She's launching summer camps for Morocco's inner city youth, to get them out of slums and into the "beauty of their own country."

"I believe it is vital to our national security," Hughes said. "We are never going to win the war against terror in the long run as long as little boys and little girls around the world grow up hating or being taught to hate America."

Hurricane Karen, as she was known among Republican circles, has a tendency to get carried away with her own saccharine rhetoric. But, in all fairness to her, it certainly can't be denied that, in many situations, good actions speak louder than words. It's also very American, some would say, to "do something" rather than babble on and on. And certainly US charitable works, like the charitable works of other nations (we are, after all, not the only country that aids other nations), are often gratefully received by those whose lives are improved by them. It is hard to disagree with Kristin Lord, associate dean of The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, that public diplomacy should "deliver deeds, not just words: Tangible acts most effectively convey the values Americans stand for" (The National Interest, January 19, 2007).

But Hughes's diplomacy of deeds has severe limitations. First, it cannot automatically be assumed that ostentatious public displays of good deeds (and Hughes certainly makes sure that her actions are covered by the media) are always appreciated by the people for whom they are intended (how many of us love Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez because he declared, in 2005, that "We place at the disposition of the people of the United States in the event of shortages … drinking water, food, … fuel?"). A specialist in public diplomacy, R. S. Zaharna of American University, writes in Foreign Policy in Focus (June 2003) that the United States government tried

to show how the war on terror was not a war on Islam by emphasizing U.S. efforts to help Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Emphasizing one's good deeds is a coveted practice in U.S. public relations. Washington officials were naturally confused and offended by apparent Muslim ingratitude. However, for most Muslims, calling attention to one's charity or good deeds is frowned upon. The Quran admonishes, "cancel not your charity by reminders of your generosity or injury."

The same thought can also be found in the Bible, a book Hughes must be quite familiar with, given that she is an elder in the Presbyterian Church, a role highlighted in her biography on the State Department homepage. "Charity," scripture tells us, "vaunteth not itself."

Second, Hughes's overseas public service deeds, in the global scope of things, are of small significance, for they are those of an administration that (in the eyes of the world) has committed some of the most horrid deeds of this new century, ranging from an unjustified war of aggression on an impoverished third world country to the establishment of an detainee camp at Guantanamo where prisoners are not granted basic human rights. The true result of the diplomacy of deeds of the Bush administration has not been happy Pakistani kids playing with Chinook helicopters, but the havoc, death and destruction that our forty-third President, already judged by historians as among the worst chief executives ever, has wreaked upon the world, at great cost to American blood and treasure.

Finally, Hughes's fascination with flaunting her good deeds reflects what has been a major fault of the Bush administration from its very beginning: that it does not really believe in two-way communications with the rest of the world. To be sure, Hughes pays lip service to educational exchanges, which have existed for decades, long before her boss told her to fix America's disastrous image abroad. But what is turning out to be her unique contribution to public diplomacy -- the diplomacy of deeds -- strongly suggests that she'd rather make a PR splash with her "goodness" than engage in real, substantive conversations with overseas interlocutors (which could be publicly embarrassing for she may hear what others really think about the policies of her president).

A Bush confidante for years, Hughes is yet another reminder that the current administration is essentially parochial in nature, with little interest in international dialogue. It is driven by an almost fanatical desire to impose its will everywhere, using anything at its disposal, be it sewing machines or smart bombs. Karen's term for this mania? The diplomacy of deeds.

John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, compiles the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, available free by requesting it at

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