It's legacy time for the Bush administration, given how many of its key players are moving on. The latest to abandon ship is undersecretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy Karen Hughes, who plans to leave Washington in mid-December to return to Austin, Texas. There, she announced, one of her major projects will be "to improve my Spanish".
History is not compassionate, even to Texas conservatives. If it remembers Karen Hughes at all, it will be for her failures, not her achievements. True, she assumed her position only in July 2005, giving her little time to restore America's damaged overseas reputation, one of her main goals. She also inherited a bureaucratic mess at Foggy Bottom that can be traced to the consolidation of the United States Information Agency (which had handled public diplomacy during the cold war) into the state department in 1999. Moreover, the programmes of public diplomacy - "engaging, informing and influencing key international audiences," according to the state department homepage - have traditionally been underfunded and played second fiddle to the overseas activities of the military and intelligence agencies.
In part because she was not able to overcome these obstacles, Hughes failed in an assignment for which she had little experience, since her expertise is not foreign affairs, but domestic political campaigns. Despite her confidante status with the president and access to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, she never really succeeded in her job. Her first failure was not sufficiently making the administration realise that foreign public opinion must be taken into serious consideration in decisions pertaining to America's role in the world. Public diplomacy, to paraphrase Edward R Murrow, head of USIA during the Kennedy administration, has to be there at the take-off, not at the crash landing. With Hughes, however, it remained essentially a footnote to actions the administration took without substantive thought to the reactions of the rest of mankind. The US did what it wanted, no matter how "they" overseas reacted to "us" in the homeland. Our aggressiveness in the Middle East - and most recently toward Iran - is but one indication of this arrogant attitude.
Second, Hughes failed to develop a public diplomacy strategy. It was only in June of this year that the Hughes bureau at the state department made public a 34-page policy paper, US National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, which first showed up, unannounced and almost surreptitiously, on the internet. It turned out to be a laundry list of programmes rather than a guide to the major directions of public diplomacy, the subject of dozens of reports after 9/11. Among its nuggets was the following: "if the ambassador is meeting with 4th graders to give out books, the photo should include students holding the books, youth reading, pointing to a picture in the book, etc."
This haphazardly composed document, void of intellectual coherence but full of factoids and power-point proclamations about what public diplomacy under Hughes was doing, reflected a defining aspect of her tenure: that she and her staff were "busy", "on the move", that they were engaging in "new initiatives" (many of which had long existed) supposedly transforming US public diplomacy to make it more effective. But exactly what idea or purpose was behind this perpetual motion was by no means clear.
Hughes's third failure - and that of the administration she serves - is perhaps her worst. It is that American public diplomacy - at its best, an effort by the US to show respect to the opinions of mankind and engage in a global dialogue - has become perceived worldwide as the basest form of propaganda. The educational exchange programmes and cultural presentations Hughes supported are all to the good, but with her public diplomacy justifying policies that much of the world finds appalling, she diminished whatever value public diplomacy can have in advancing US national interests and international understanding.
John Brown, who was in the US Foreign Service for over 20 years, is now a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy. He compiles the tri-weekly Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review, available free of charge by requesting it at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Guardian