This is the second of a two-part series on intelligence leaks and public diplomacy. Read part one here.
According to Pew, in 2013—before the Snowden leaks—81 percent of Germans believed the United States respected the rights of its citizens. After the leaks that number fell to 58 percent in 2014 and 43 percent in 2015. Germany it just one example; it is clear that US intelligence community (IC) leaks impact the perception of the United States among foreign publics.
The problem: international cooperation
When countries have a negative view of the United States, they are less likely to cooperate on issues of shared interest. After the Snowden revelations, Germany ended an intelligence sharing agreement between the U.S., U.K., and Germany. While the canceled agreement was largely symbolic, it sent a clear message that Germany was less willing to cooperate with the U.S., even on issues of international security.
It also became that clear that Germany wanted a no-spy agreement with the United States, as German Chancellor Merkel made clear at a European Union summit. And while the way she sought to achieve that would have led to greater intelligence cooperation between Germany and U.S. through the Five Eyes agreement, her posture to her public perpetuated a lack of willingness to cooperate with the U.S.
Our globalized world is increasingly reliant on international cooperation. On issues like countering violent extremism, increasing economic prosperity, and promoting freedom and democracy, international cooperation is essential. In so far as it weakens international cooperation, intelligence leaks severely impact the United State’s ability to achieve these goals.
The solution: public diplomacy
The Snowden leaks are far from the only example; from Abu Ghraib to the mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, clandestine activities impact the willingness of foreign governments to cooperate with the United States. Classified information and covert actions will become public—it is inevitable. While it is impossible to eliminate adverse reactions, an effective public diplomacy strategy can mitigate a potentially negative response from foreign publics.
Public affairs strategies may be able to relieve short-term pressure, but for them to be effective, a public diplomacy approach must have laid the groundwork.
We don’t know when intelligence will leak, so American diplomats should adopt a long-term public diplomacy strategy that will be ready to implement when the inevitable happens. The strategy must include directed exchange programs and targeted speakers and programming, all while relying on credibility with, and an understanding of, the local population.
Recommendations: a long-term approach
Exchanges expose foreign nationals to the United States in a manner that make them advocates for U.S. policy abroad. Upon returning from exchanges, they become thought leaders and policymakers who have an outsize potential to impact their nation’s perception of the United States. Even without U.S. government cooperation these individuals will be more likely to sympathize with U.S. policy and are often positioned to influence public opinion.
Leaks about U.S. surveillance abroad, like what was revealed in the Snowden leaks about Germany, have obvious links to data and Internet privacy. The world is more connected than ever before and the IC is increasingly reliant on that kind of signals intelligence (SIGINT). The more we rely on SIGINT, the more leaks we will face, so U.S. policymakers should implement focused public diplomacy programs to mitigate the leak of those IC products.
Directed exchanges should skirt around without quite touching the leak issue. For instance, exchanges on data privacy and national security would prepare thought leaders in the country to understand the implications of leaks, the rationale behind the spying, and understand what steps can be taken to ensure privacy. Additionally, embassies could offer programming on protecting individual privacy on the Internet, host speakers to discuss privacy protection in the U.S., and bring speakers to explain what the U.S. has done to safeguard the privacy of Americans and foreign nationals.
These recommendations are contingent on credibility. Public diplomats must ensure the U.S. means what it says—closing the so-called say-do gap—to be effective messengers. The U.S. must strive to match its actions to its words by limiting data collection of foreign nationals where possible and understanding how important privacy is in foreign cultures. In Germany, the legacy of the Gestapo and the Stasi loom large, and thus invasions of data privacy are an extremely sensitive issue there. International audiences must understand that the promises the American government makes to them are credible; that means understanding their culture and building trust over time.
For instance, after the Snowden leaks about spying on Chancellor Merkel, the U.S. talking point was: “the United States is not monitoring, and will not monitor, the communications of the chancellor.” It is imperative that the public diplomats have fostered trust and built creditability so that message is believed.
Predictive not reactive: a public diplomacy crisis management strategy
Effective public diplomacy strategies for dealing with IC leaks should anticipate crises, foster credibility and have developed response tools—that requires a long-term approach. The U.S. should increase funding to its existing public diplomacy programs, including new directed exchanges and targeted speakers, and empower public diplomats to inform U.S. policy at the embassy level and in Washington.
By including public diplomats in discussions before a crisis occurs instead of just bringing them in for the cleanup, they would be well-positioned to improve the image of the United States abroad, increase willingness to cooperate on matters of shared interest, and counter narratives that oppose U.S. policy or actions.
This strategy—one that is predictive rather than reactive—would increase international cooperation on countering violent extremism, trade and economic issues, and the promotion of freedom and democracy around the world. All the while it would be preparing the United States to combat the impacts of intelligence disclosures from a position of mutual understanding and cooperation, ultimately improving foreign public’s willingness to work with the United States.
Reed Elman Waxham is a B.A./M.A. candidate in Media and Strategic Political Communication at the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @reed_elman for insight into the intersection of media and politics. This blog is the second in a two-part series on intelligence leaks and public diplomacy. Read part one from the series here.