Public Diplomacy

After two decades of systematic neglect, America is again embracing the world

Opinion | Lauren Brassaw | June 2009

When U.S. President Obama told the world in his January that the United States of America "seeks a new way forward – based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he opened a door many had thought closed for good – allowing for humility, openness and shared purpose abroad.

It wasn’t all that long ago, when the world knew the U.S. as a moral force trusted and admired internationally and looked up to by most, a time when Americans could travel over seas with pride in what their country stood for, rather than shame for their government’s actions.

In many parts of the world, this public face of America and American values was drawn for others through projects of public diplomacy, through the programs and publications of the U.S. Information Service, the German Marshall Fund, the America Haus Libraries and countless other educational and cultural exchanges.

After the fall of communism, many in the U.S. government felt these efforts weren’t needed any more and under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the financial support was steadily reduced. The USIA and the Amerika Haus Libraries were closed, cultural exchanges cut back.  Under the George W. Bush administration, that door to the outside world was effectively closed.

In May, the door was re-opened. During the 111th Congress’ first session in May, the Senate called for new efforts to improve America’s standing abroad through a revival of public diplomacy.

This is hardly a surprise. There is ample evidence of America’s lost stature – including a recent BBC World Service poll revealing that more foreigners have a negative opinion of the U.S. than those holding a positive one.

The action, however, is momentous in its implications. Reaching out to the world through experts, authors, artists, educators, and students, by discussing of all aspects of society, and reaching for common values, the U.S. is once again committing to the fostering of long-term relations.

What this comes down to is, better foreign relations through public diplomacy. The Obama administration seems supportive, with the appointment of in April Judith McCale as Undersecretary of State for Public Communications; McCale is former president of Discovery Communications and a close ally of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suggesting a strong and close working relationship within the department, and the possibility of coordinating the jumble of PD-related media positions scattered around the White House and the agencies. If it is going to be effective, these offices will have to work together.

But while it will inevitably take a lot of work to rebuild lost prestige – this is unavoidable – some vestigial structures and long memories abroad should serve to help shape the restoration of programs and polish up the U.S. image.

We’ve taken the first step: the door is open and the foundation dusted off. Now we face the task of designing a new American public diplomacy to fit the era in which we live. What will this look like, and how the world will react is something we can only find out by trying.

Other articles from this issue