While soft power programs sound good on paper, there is not much evidence that they provide a consequential return on investment.
Just consider the billions of dollars that the U.S. put into its soft power programs in Middle Eastern and South East Asian countries. These expensive programs have not produced meaningful shifts in public diplomacy towards the United States nor have they stemmed Al-Qaeda’s successful recruitment efforts.
I argue that American public diplomacy is limited by its overemphasis on citizen-to-citizen engagement through exchange programs and its unwillingness to develop a comprehensive mediated public diplomacy strategy.
Generally speaking, mediated public diplomacy refers to governmental attempts at influencing the manner in which its foreign policies are framed in the global media. Since most people learn about foreign affairs from the news media as opposed to first-hand experience, successful frame promotion is key to gaining favorable global public opinion.
The diffusion of broadcast satellite technology has set off an international competition between nations over the framing and agenda building of international global affairs coverage. Where 21st century state power was once measured by military and economic might alone, now mass communication has become a crucial added factor.
Qatar demonstrated the impact that international broadcasting can have on international relations through its Al-Jazeera network. Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya network), Russia (Russia TV) and China (China International Broadcasting Network) soon followed. Both the Chinese and the Russians regularly place full page advertorials in some of the leading world publications. Other nations have set up a sophisticated network of government spokespeople and public relations specialists who promote their policy perspectives around the world. Even the Hezbollah terror organization set up its Al-Manar satellite network and uses it to gain support for its operations.
The influence of global media over public opinion is unquestionable. Yet, the United States does not currently utilize international broadcasting as an integral part of a strategic global public diplomacy strategy. America’s global broadcasting arm, the Broadcast Board of Governors (BBG) is dedicated to the promotion of global press freedom while safeguarding the editorial independence of its broadcast entities. Many of its reporters are local journalists and many of its programs are focused on lifestyle and popular culture.
America’s rivals actively use their broadcasting channels to frame and interpret American culture, political values and policy according to their own political interests. At the same time, the United States hopes to promote its soft power through educational and cultural exchange programs, and the global dominance of its pop culture. Lacking a comprehensive mediated public diplomacy strategy, the United State is allowing its global reputation to be defined by others.
Critics of the mediated public diplomacy approach argue that it is a mere synonym for government propaganda. Such criticisms have led to the disburdenment of the United State Information Agency (USIA) during the second term of Clinton’s presidency. Selecting the normative over the realistic approach to the current reality of a global media competition between nations, the architects of American public diplomacy have placed the United State in a clear disadvantage.
Many in the State Department will argue that its “21st Century Statecraft” social media strategy could help the United States define its soft power by creating a two way mutually beneficial government to citizen communication channel. There is little evidence to indicate that social media has trumped broadcast media channels as key sources of information. Cases in point are the revolutions of the Arab Spring where Al Jazeera helped interpret and define the state of events at times when governments completely blocked all social media access.
I believe that order to successfully compete in the current media landscape, the United States should revamp its international broadcasting strategy around a systematic, research based, mediated public diplomacy approach. Much like in a political campaign, the U.S. should conduct formative research to identify its key stakeholders. It should then develop an appropriate campaign message strategy. It should train and promote communication experts to articulate this message strategy within and outside of its global broadcasting networks. America’s communication strategy should be led by an undersecretary of public diplomacy who will act as the campaign manager and oversee a communication and research team who will execute and evaluate the global communication effort.
I believe that education and cultural exchanges can play an important role in America’s global citizen engagement. But given the budgetary constraints and the current realities of international communication landscape it is now time to make the case for the mediated public diplomacy approach.
Guy J. Golan, PhD is an associate professor of public diplomacy at the S.I. Newhouse School of Syracuse University. He can be found on Twitter @guygolan.