President Obama will face enormous challenges in the area of public diplomacy.1 Though the success of President Obama’s foreign policy will depend on the cooperation of foreign nations, global public opinion is not on America’s side. A wide swath of the global public not only dislikes American policies, but also distrusts American intentions. According to 2008 polls by the BBC and the University of Maryland’s Program for International Policy Attitudes, citizens in closely allied countries believe that American influence in the world is mainly negative (62% in Canada, 72% in Germany, 58% in Australia, and 53% in Great Britain). Citizens of a NATO ally (64% of Turks) view the United States as the greatest threat to their country in the future. Only 9% of Egyptians, 12% of Pakistanis, 19% of Moroccans, and 23% of Indonesians believe the primary goal of the U.S. war on terror is to protect the United States from terrorist attacks and not to militarily dominate the Middle East or weaken and divide the Islamic religion and its people.
Fortunately, as President Obama seeks to rebuild America’s relations with the world, he will find vast and still under-tapped resources at his disposal. Americans and other supporters worldwide are ready and eager to help. A key challenge is how to tap this energy and expertise to advance both American and global interests.
A recent Brookings Institution report, entitled Voices of America: U.S. Public Diplomacy for the 21st Century, presents a vision for how to accomplish this goal. Drawing on the advice of a distinguished and bipartisan board of advisers, extensive research and analysis, and discussions with over 300 individuals in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, it presents a vision for U.S. public diplomacy and concrete recommendations for reform. As part of a comprehensive strategy to strengthen and re-imagine U.S. public diplomacy, Voices of America recommends a new non-profit organization to stimulate and harness the vast potential of the American people and foreign partners, engage partners perceived as trusted messengers among target audiences, fill critical gaps that current government agencies are not well suited to fill, and strengthen our government by providing targeted and useful research, analysis, technologies, and strategies drawn from a wide range of experts in a wide range of fields.
Despite the extraordinary power of the U.S. government, its public diplomacy activities are, and increasingly will be, only a fraction of the many images and bits of information citizens around the world receive every day. Moreover, they are only one part of the many ways America – through its culture, products, services, philanthropy, people, and media – reaches foreign publics. That does not reduce public diplomacy’s importance; perhaps it increases it. But we need to maintain our perspective.
To be most influential, American public diplomacy should tap into and mobilize these private actors as much as possible – as advocated by countless recent reports. This should happen within current official structures. In addition, the United States should find new ways to engage private actors and employ technology, media, and private sector expertise.