Adrift in a sea of information

In this earlier post, I talked about how incapable the LDP and the Abe Cabinet are at coping with a messy, complicated media environment.

I might as well have been discussing the US government’s public diplomacy efforts.

This problem has vexed me for some time. Joseph Nye’s soft power concept is a useful way of thinking about power in the contemporary international system, but the problem with it is that it’s hard to pin down, and thus nearly impossible for governments to wield.

As such, I find that the US government’s current public diplomacy initiatives are useless at best, counterproductive at worst. And thus I do not find this chart showing a decline in the number of trips abroad by Karen Hughes, under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs (hat tip: FP Passport) the least bit alarming. In fact, I think Hughes’s position is irrelevant, and so her traveling abroad less can only help.

The days are gone when the US could beam radio news to a closed country and raise goodwill toward America among citizens who were told only the worst about the US. The global media environment is simply too sophisticated. How is the US supposed to get its message across when a civilian with a cell phone camera can take a video of American troops doing something wrong, hand it over to a media outlet, and create an uproar? How can the US really expect to get a fair hearing in a media environment in which every individual has tools with which to distribute his perspectives around the globe? [Ed. — Irony alert!! Irony alert!!]

As such, as an American taxpayer, and as a student of American foreign policy, I wish the US government would seriously reconsider how it goes about explaining US foreign policy to the world. It will probably have to wait for a new administration, which should have a nice honeymoon period following the departure of President Bush.

But the problem is not inconsiderable. The first step should be decentralizing US public diplomacy. The real heavy lifting should be done by ambassadors and their embassies — which means ensuring that the embassies are staffed by those with intimate familiarity with the countries in which they are based (and knowledge of the language spoken).

Any US public diplomacy strategy must also acknowledge that there is no way whatsoever to achieve universal acclaim for US policy. To be the sole superpower is to be feared and hated; public diplomacy (and Hollywood diplomacy) can soften that to some extent, but the US will never be able to make everyone happy while remaining a superpower. Given that those with grievances against the US have a host of ways through which to air them, that is truer now than ever.

If the government cannot handle that, then the US should just hang up its spurs now.

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