There are multitudes of explanations but the stark reality is that America's image continues to suffer especially in predominantly Muslim countries.* A Pew Global Attitudes Survey released in May 2011 shows Indonesia as the only predominantly Muslim nation surveyed where a majority view the U.S. favorably.
What these foreign publics think matters more than ever. Yet America is scrambling for ways to more effectively inform, engage and influence them – a practice known as Public Diplomacy. Even a phenomenon as inspiring as the Arab Spring reminds us that populations that have been fed generations of anti-American propaganda, often by their own governments, may soon be driving their nation's foreign policy choices.
Having traveled the five continents extensively in the past five years, I have learned that one of our most critical deficits is the dearth of accurate information about the U.S. and its ideals. Our access to local media is limited in many countries yet we have not effectively leveraged technology for mass outreach.
According to one report, an individual blogger can today reach more people globally than could the BBC or the Voice of America 30 years ago.** Technology is revolutionizing the way people communicate, empowering individuals and helping to spark actual political revolutions in ways never even imaged a decade ago. New technology provides tremendous low cost opportunities to engage with the rest of the world directly, circumventing anti-American media, opinion leaders and governments.
This is where the Center for Global Engagement (CGE) comes in. Supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in September 2010, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars convened a bipartisan public diplomacy working group of over 80 experts and practitioners from across the nation, business sectors and political ideologies. These individuals contributed time and expertise to develop a business plan, a first step in operationalizing an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization to strategically communicate with foreign audiences.
CGE will leverage the power of the private sector -- where the bulk of American ingenuity, creativity, technological innovation and resources rest -- to strengthen communications with foreign publics, in support of U.S. national interests. Its independence from government will allow it to:
- Do things government by its nature has difficulty doing, such as retaining the long view, adapting quickly to changing circumstances, investing in high risk enterprises and partnering with civil society organizations both domestic and international that may be hesitant to work directly with government.
- Pool funds from multiple sources and have more flexibility with respect to procurement and business conduct than public sector organizations.
- Quickly leverage new opportunities to engage foreign publics because of its organizational and programmatic flexibility, political autonomy, entrepreneurial and innovative staff, and a streamlined decision-making process.
- Avoid the limitations on U.S. diplomats who can only represent official U.S. government positions.
- Develop or support initiatives that otherwise might not survive a change in presidential administrations or even a change in policymakers within an administration.
The United States needs to “create an institution outside of government that could help tap into expertise in the private and non-profit sectors to improve U.S. strategic communication from an outside-in approach,” said the Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on Smart Power in 2007, co-chaired by Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye.***
More than a dozen other subsequent studies, drafted by experts and practitioners of all political and ideological stripes, have made similar arguments.
CGE’s priority will be to leverage new technologies as well as traditional media and entertainment mediums to drive and support large-scale and peer-to-peer (P2P) interactions. By enlisting the immense talent, idealism, and energy of Americans, it will aim to promote understanding and trust, counter misperceptions and stereotypes, and foster collaborations to address urgent global problems.
CGE will not duplicate or hinder government or nongovernmental initiatives.
CGE’s activities will revolve around four primary objectives:
- Promoting Innovative Ways and the Application of New Technology to Build Ties Between Americans and the Rest of the World
- Promoting Moderate Voices to Counter Violent Extremism and Ideologies
- Promoting Sustainable Independent Media Entities in the Developing World
- Promoting Public-Private Partnerships and the Free Exchange of Ideas and Information Between Public and Private Sectors.
For every challenge that is posed by the broad global trends in public opinion, technology, and demographics noted earlier, there is an opportunity for positive global engagement. Indeed, an underlying proposition of CGE is precisely to respond to these challenges and take advantage of the opportunities to enhance existing strategic communication efforts.
CGE has identified four priority countries in which to demonstrate successful proof of concept in the first three years -- Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, and Russia. Each has a sizable youth population, questions about American leadership in the world and has sizable majorities that believe the U.S. does not consider their interests in making policy.****
Select Country Characteristics
|Approve of U.S. leadership (2011 Gallup)||19%||18%||23%||26%|
|Favorable View of Americans (2010 Pew)||39%||18%||64%||16%|
|Agree U.S. Considers Their Interests (2010 Pew)||15%||19%||30%||9%|
|Press Freedom (2010 Freedom House)||Partly Free||Not Free||Not Free||Partly Free|
|Agree Most People are Better Off in a Free Market (2010 Pew)||51%||57%||60%||64%|
|Internet Penetration (Internet World Stats)||21.2%||10.4%||42.8%||45%|
|% Muslim Population (2009 Pew)||94.6%||96.3%||11.7%||98%|
|% Youth Population (UN World Youth Report)||32.7%||35.4%||15.2%||26.6%|
|% of Population who own a Cell Phone (2010 Pew)||65%||38%||77%||82%|
|% of Internet Population who use Social Networking Sites (2010 Pew)||75%||44%||68%||76%|
The Center for Global Engagement has been incorporated with the generous support of Gibson, Dunn Crutcher and will commence operations in fourth quarter of 2012. As founding board members Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, former State Department Director of Policy Planning and Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs have said, "CGE will turn a new page in U.S. global engagement and finally operationalize a new tool in America’s strategic communication armory that can link the resources, ingenuity, innovativeness, and technology of the public and private sectors to strengthen America’s global engagement."
Goli Ameri is the Interim CEO at the Center for Global Engagement. She is the former Assistant Secretary of State for Educational & Cultural Affairs and the Under Secretary for Humanitarian Diplomacy at the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies.
UN Photo by Joao Araujo Pinto.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.