By Patricia H. Kushlis
In “Never been afraid to talk about anything,” Middle East specialist and George Washington University professor Marc Lynch of Abu Aardvark, describes something interesting he discovered while researching US public diplomacy for an unrelated project. Of the three remaining presidential candidates, he noted, Barrack Obama and John McCain have well developed plans for engaging the Muslim world whereas Hillary Clinton has said nothing.
Lynch seems to have it right regarding Clinton’s lack of discussion - or even public recognition - that public diplomacy might play a role, let alone a significant one – in the implementation of US foreign policy in a future administration under her leadership. It's not that she disavows public diplomacy, it just that it has apparently gone missing throughout her foreign policy statements. This void has surprised me too. If I've missed something, please let me know.
In January, I considered writing a post on how each of the then still standing presidential candidates planned to address the world – whether leading with the Stealth bomber and the left hook or employing various diplomatic tools including that of public diplomacy.
In my research then, I too discovered what Lynch observed in “Never been afraid to talk about anything.” At that time, I found McCain’s statement of support for some kind of an independent public diplomacy agency and his advocacy of a continuation of an over-militarized approach to the world. I also discovered Obama’s August 2007 Wilson Center speech in which he, as Lynch observes, proposes a comprehensive public diplomacy plan entitled “America’s Voice Initiative.”
I, like Marc, fail to understand why Clinton has also not filled in the public diplomacy blanks or crossed the soft power "t"s. She has, after all, a bevy of very experienced foreign policy advisors. Furthermore, there have been over 30 studies since 9/11 including those by the Executive branch, the Congress and various prestigious US think-tanks – left, right and center - that have highlighted the need to overhaul how the US communicates with the Muslim world.
Where Marc and I differ, however, is in his characterization of McCain’s ideas as well developed and his description of Obama’s America’s Voice Initiative as being modeled after the Peace Corps.
McCain’s independent public diplomacy agency
In my view, McCain foremost tossed out the idea of an independent public diplomacy agency this year – an idea that I strongly support – but omitted far too many details for my taste. I agree, however, with Marc that McCain’s vision of US foreign policy is far too over-militarized to garner my support. Not only is it extremely expensive but, as we are seeing most recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it often doesn’t work well – if at all.
Obama’s America’s Voice Initiative
With respect to Marc’s characterization of Obama’s America’s Voice Initiative as modeled on the Peace Corps, I would just like to point out that at least one important item contained in it, the establishment – or reestablishment - of America Houses, libraries and cultural centers and English teaching programs throughout the Muslim world is not Peace Corps related. The Peace Corps does other kinds of good works. So does USAID. But neither run nor ran our cultural centers or libraries.
The cultural centers, America Houses, libraries and bi-national centers and English language teaching programs were administered by the U.S. Information Agency through USIS Foreign Service Officers overseas. That is until USIA was torn apart in the 1990s and the Bush administration never saw fit to restore it.
Once upon a time, I worked in the office in USIA headquarters that oversaw these centers, libraries and English teaching programs. I also intimately knew several of them abroad as did my WV colleague Patricia Lee Sharpe.
Now is not the time or the place to explain or bemoan their demise, but in my view – having directed major ones in Athens, Greece and Manila, Philippines – I think reopening, upgrading, renewing and establishing elsewhere such institutions is imperative if America’s soft power voice is to be heard and not just throughout the Muslim world.
And I think that a new administration that emphasizes a civilian voice and civilian agencies – not military or covert ones – is a crucial part of the equation.
A renewal of America’s centers, libraries and English teaching programs will be staff intensive: they were not built overnight. Many of the people who knew how to make them run are no longer on active duty. Too many are no longer with us. Such a revival will also not come cheap in State Department or most civilian agency budget terms. Yet creating, developing or revamping these institutions will cost next to nothing in comparison with Pentagon spending. Cultural centers and libraries also need to be seen as long term investments – not simply here today - gone tomorrow.
In too many instances our once-upon-a-time centers have drifted into oblivion, been closed by an over-bearing State Department security apparatus in charge of imposing “fortress Embassies” in the wake of 9/11, or fallen into the hands of commercial interests. This benign and not so benign neglect began in the 1980s. It took off big-time after the US government decided a miniscule civilian footprint throughout much of the world during the years after the Cold War would be just fine.
Marc, thank you for raising this important foreign policy issue in Abu Aardvark, for pointing out the discrepancies among our remaining presidential candidates on the issue and also for asking for my views. All most appreciated.
Foremost, I would like to see whoever becomes our next president adopt – and flesh out – McCain’s proposal for an independent public diplomacy agency combined with the various proposals in Obama’s America’s Voices Initiative. Then maybe we can fix what ails American public diplomacy and at long last, begin to engage seriously with “the war of ideas” in the Muslim world.