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9 Things I Learned Crossing the Last Three Feet

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9 Things I Learned Crossing the Last Three Feet

James Thomas Snyder

When I started at NATO in 2005, the Allies’ largest operation was in Kosovo. An Italian was commanding International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan, then considered a quasi-peacekeeping mission. When I left Brussels six years later, NATO was fighting a hot war in Libya and an insurgency in Afghanistan, running counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, and potentially a cyberwar everywhere else. In between the Allies had executed a series of humanitarian missions, contained the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, endured terrorist attacks, stood up a training mission in Iraq, edged Kosovo toward controversial independence, and expanded NATO membership and partnerships across Eurasia and the Middle East.

In short, my colleagues and I had a lot of explaining to do in the Public Diplomacy Division.

It was even more complicated than all that. Talking to a public that spanned from Central Asia to Southern California, from the arctic High North to North Africa, I discovered pretty quickly that we didn’t always get to talk about what we wanted to, and what we say doesn’t always travel well depending on the region, country, age, and gender of the audience. That may seem obvious until you have to do it. And most observers and commentators on US public diplomacy, unfortunately, have simply never done it. That hands-off ignorance affects policy and message effectiveness.

To borrow a phrase from Edward R. Murrow, the former head of the US Information Agency, I crossed “the last three feet” almost every week while I was at NATO, speaking to about 12,000 people from more than three dozen countries in total. This is public diplomacy’s commanding heights. I came away with some principles that would benefit both practitioners and policy-makers of US public diplomacy. Here are nine points that are worth sharing:

1. Good public diplomacy isn’t usually about US foreign policy.

It’s about everything else at the same time. A good public diplomat will stay relentlessly focused and on message for the good of national policy. But by the time the foreign audience understands the “relentlessly focused” part, they’ve already switched Twitter feeds, changed channels, or simply turned off and tuned out. They’re interested in other things. Life intrudes. Reality prevails. A great public diplomat will figure out how US policy relates to those other things and then drive the line through them. This hypothetical public diplomat will be open, then, to anything and everything, intellectually nimble enough to parry every query and smart enough to know when to abandon the official line altogether and simply talk to people like he was a human being rather than a diplomat. Sometimes the latter’s enough.

2. Public opinion about the United States is complex, profound, dynamic, and constantly evolving.

And that’s just for one person from one country on one day in one year. News media reports on global public opinion polling – regular examples include Gallup, Pew and the German Marshall Fund – always comes in a snapshot and hardly ever surprises: Presidential approval ratings are always falling, Muslims always mistrust us, the world hates American culture, Iraq is/was/will be a mistake, and so on. But public opinion is never that simple, not even in one country on some given issue at any point in time. Only by digging deep into data, and tracking important issues over time, can we begin to get a complete idea of what people think about us and why. And that’s when the full rich tapestry of global public views can begin to be stitched together and we can develop a comprehensive understanding and strategies about people, rather than snap notions about what we think they think about us.

3. What people do and what people think don’t always jibe.

This is the most difficult thing to wrap your head around: what people think about American policy, people, and culture may be entirely unrelated to what they actually do. A recent poll asked foreign publics what would be their first choice for emigration. The United States was first, beating out the second choice, Great Britain, by a factor of four. If everybody was let in who wanted to come here, it would increase our population by 138 million, nearly half again our current 300 million. If every citizen who wanted to leave China was let in (19 million), we would deplete the population of the world’s second largest economy (1.34 billion) by nearly 1.5 percent.  This more than matches US visa issuances from the BRIC countries, which have climbed every year for the last decade. These are just two examples. Look at others – consumption of American cultural products like movies and books, economic trade with the United States – and you find a consistent trend: how the world behaves in relation to the United States often contradicts how they think about us.

4. We’re being swiftboated.

In politics, the rules are inverted from warfare: the best political knife-fighters attack strengths and avoid weaknesses. This is the knowledge that informs the effectiveness of “swiftboating” and it is why we think the world hates American culture when it is consumed in massive quantities; why we think the French hate McDonald’s when France is the second most-profitable market for McDo after the United States; why the world public thinks Americans rank lowest in foreign aid when we rank highest in the world for charitable giving; why young jihadis are convinced we are slaughtering Muslims when nearly every major Western military intervention during the past 25 years has been on behalf of Muslim populations. Our enemies know the truth and they have consistently and relentlessly assaulted it until the prevailing conventional wisdom has become a funhouse mirror image of the truth. US public diplomacy has failed to counter these grand lies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.

5. We can fight back with our “weaknesses”.

People think Americans don’t value art, music and culture, and we don’t give them any reason to. The Art in Embassies program, for example, literally places art in embassies where nobody can see it. Yet the United States has the deepest pockets and most advanced art preservation resources in the world. We could pour those pockets, resources and expertise into restoring and preserving the world’s cultural patrimony, the rest of which doesn’t have nearly the kind of protection and curation that the average American urban historical society can put behind its collection. This generosity would go far not just to help preserve the world’s cultural assets but to change how people think about philistine Americans. If we lead with this “weakness,” we can dramatically upend damaging stereotypes about who we are and what we value.

6. Don’t rely on personality.

After George W. Bush, many at home and abroad were relieved not only to elect Barack Obama, but to see his approval rating soar – stratospherically, worshipfully – around the world. The new President chose wisely one of the most respected, recognized and admired women on the planet – Hillary Clinton – as his chief diplomat. Through all this, we ignored three facts: George W. Bush wasn’t universally despised, Obama isn’t universally adored, and at some point there will no longer be Obama (or Clinton) on the world stage and there will remain only U.S. policy to defend and advocate. Bush was and still is widely admired in Africa, particularly for his strong commitment to combatting HIV/AIDS. Obama is less trusted in Central and Eastern Europe as well as and in the Near East.  Every President brings a different set of personal attributes and policy positions that will sell better or worse in different parts of the world. Their charisma and leadership may set them apart, but only so far. In other words, we have to invest continually in good policy, robust communications capacities and above all, creative and capable people, regardless of who is in charge. There are probably only 1,000 “coned” State Department public diplomacy officers, and not all of them are doing public diplomacy all of the time or for their entire careers. That needs to change.

7. When we go to war, soldiers become public diplomats.

That may seem self-evident, especially with up to a half million pairs of boots on the ground in two different theaters during the last ten years, excluding diplomats, contractors and allies. But it’s not plainly clear what this means until you look at the complex close encounters between invading, occupying, peacekeeping or counterinsurgent American and Allied forces and the local population. More to the point: the U.S. military doesn’t have an operational doctrine for military public diplomacy but several concurrent – and often contradictory – doctrines involving public affairs, information operations and psychological operations that can dramatically affect the strategic, tactical, and political environment of countries in which we fight. A lot of work needs to be done to think through and sync up these doctrines, under civilian leadership, so we’re better prepared for the next conflict.

8. The Internet’s lameness almost cancels out its awesomeness.

No doubt the Internet has brought about a revolution in communications as well as a communication of revolution. It has been hailed and harnessed widely as a social media tool for public diplomacy, too. But its immediate access, instant gratification and supernumerary analytics have masked a stupidly expensive, massively oversold and extraordinarily anemic Rube Goldberg device for global communications. Politically speaking, the Internet is largely a system of the democratic haves texting feverishly to themselves. The undemocratic have-nots are left to something else, and those numbers are staggering: fully 4.6 billion people on the planet lack access to the Internet. A concurrent or additional 1.3 billion lack a reliable source of electricity that enable power-hungry computers and mobile phones to access the Internet. Then there are countries like North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Belarus and China – another additional or concurrent 1.45 billion – that control, censor or “intra-net” their networks, turning them into mechanisms of political control rather than a means of communication, education and liberation. Instead of congratulating ourselves for the newest new thing, or the State Department’s number of followers or friends, we should be pouring resources into connecting, forcing open, and communicating with – in the best way possible – those countries and benighted populations.

9. Americans aren’t as dimly provincial as we seem to Jon Stewart.

And that’s not just in contrast to the rest of the world, who can believe ridiculous things, too, like who plotted the 9/11 attacks, the real reason we invaded Iraq, or why the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry. It’s because we’re a lot smarter and more worldly than we give ourselves credit for. The proof of that is hiding in plain sight: one in five Americans speaks a language other than English in the home. That’s the added benefit of our dramatic immigrant narrative: profound roots in foreign cultures, deep interest in the affairs of other countries, and the cultural bridge between the United States and the rest of the world. No other country has ever attempted this kind of cultural amalgam and certainly not on this scale.

Finally, I found disturbing how easily it was to forget the most important aspect of public diplomacy: people, as both audience and resource. In organizations like the State Department, the Pentagon or NATO, this is too often lost because quick, technical or “cheap” fixes are tempting, bureaucratic exigencies regularly prevail, and the garrisoned world of embassy life puts up physical barriers between our diplomats and the foreign public. But anything that distances, atomizes or alienates people – technology, bureaucracy, security – defeats the purpose of public diplomacy. Because when you think about it, there really is nothing else more important to public diplomacy than people. People are the whole point.

About the Author(s)

James Snyder served on the NATO International Staff from 2005 to 2011. This article is based on The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy, published by Palgrave Macmillan USA in October. He writes at jamesthomassnyder.com.