The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly referred to as ISIL, ISIS or just IS, has certainly displayed not just surprising military prowess, but also significant communication skill as it has grown into a meaningful force in a vital region of the world. Buttressed by successes on the ground in Syria and Iraq, it has positioned itself in the Islamic world as a rival to al Qaeda and perhaps even its successor.
To the extent the Islamic State is engaged in an information war with al Qaeda, whose leadership threw ISIL out of the club for being too violent, it is definitely winning.
But a number of national security commentators have gone so far as to suggest the Islamic State is winning a propaganda war with the United States and the West. This is giving the Islamic State too much credit.
Exposure and influence are two different things.
The Islamic State is communicating effectively. It has shown remarkable sophistication in its media campaign. Its latest video, featuring British journalist John Cantlie in Shakespearian fashion asking his audience to “lend its ears” to hear the “other side” of the ISIL story is “diabolical” as one commentator suggested.
ISIL does seem to be growing in strength – at least for the moment. Its ranks include true believers in the formation of a Caliphate and others who see it as the lesser of evils compared to the governments of Iraq and Syria. It has shown an ability to attract a meaningful number of young men from Europe and the United States.
This is advertising. And as a relatively small but nonetheless a sadly compelling niche, the ISIL brand is advancing. Hopefully, as more and more people realize how unappealing the product really is, ISIL will steadily lose market share over time.
But in its outreach beyond the Muslim world, where the propaganda rubber hits the strategic road, the “information effect” of the media campaign is the opposite of what ISIL claims it wants.
In theory, the Islamic State message to the West is, “Leave us alone.” But the net effect of recent videos, particularly the gruesome murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, has been the formation of a coalition of countries dedicated to confronting and defeating the movement both militarily and politically.
Propaganda or strategic communication, its modern corollary, is supposed to create an information environment that enables a broader strategy to succeed. ISIL’s communications have actually crystallized international public opinion in opposition to its movement.
Sunni-led countries are prepared to take direct action in support of the Shia-led government in Baghdad, something that rarely occurred over the previous decade. Western countries that were previously reluctant to get re-involved in Iraq, including the United States, are now conducting air strikes against ISIL forces.
It is also possible the Islamic State is trying to draw America back into an active military conflict in the Middle East, trying to reinvigorate perceptions of a Western “war against Islam.” But here again, Washington, London and other capitals are committed to helping regional forces in Iraq and Syria against ISIL, ensuring this is appropriately framed as a struggle within Islam.
Strategic communications is not about the channel or the connection but the effect. If an information campaign actually makes it harder to win the war, it’s a strategic failure, not a success.
As the Cold War was ending, Professor Joe Nye at Harvard introduced the concept of soft power, the ability to attract and persuade through shared interests, culture, ideals, legitimacy and credibility. Nelson Mandela was the personification of soft power, a one-man pubic diplomacy force of nature.
Mandela relentlessly pursued peace and reconciliation, had a keen understanding of his personal power of example and was not afraid to use it. As former President Bill Clinton said of Mandela at a peace conference on Burundi in Arusha, Tanzania in August 2000, “He knows there is no guarantee of success, but if you don’t try, there is a guarantee of failure. And failure is not an acceptable option.”
It was there that I had my one up close and personal view of Nelson Mandela in action. After several months of painstaking negotiations among the various Hutu and Tutsi factions waging a civil war in Burundi, Mandela cajoled the leaders of 20 countries – presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other emissaries – to assemble in Tanzania and convince Burundi’s warring parties to sign a framework agreement that would establish a ceasefire, political dialogue and eventually an inclusive transitional government.
Months earlier, Mandela asked Clinton to be the “closer” at Arusha, taking advantage of his experience gained through the Dayton Accords in Bosnia, Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, and the Middle East Peace Process. Clinton willingly agreed, and once there, it was easy to see how and why Mandela was so effective.
Immediately upon arrival, Mandela briefed Clinton on the state of play. The conference was deliberately constructed to create a deadline – that day – to exert maximum pressure on the parties to compromise. Most factions were on board, but not all.
While the national security staff huddled to build a game plan to recommend to the president, Mandela grabbed Clinton, bolted out a side door and simply went to work. No script, just two great political players working around the scrum and judging based on experience and instinct how to advance the ball down the pitch.
At the end of the day, an agreement was reached, although tragically, the civil war would drag on for another few years. But the eventual resolution followed the framework that Mandela, with Clinton as his wing, put together in Arusha.
In his formal remarks to the conference, President Clinton called Mandela a “force for peace” but stressed that even Mandela could not impose a solution on the combatants in Burundi. They had to choose peace.
Then he reflected on the historic choice Mandela had made, relating a question he had posed years earlier. “When they let you out of jail the last time and you were walking to freedom, didn’t you have a moment when you were really, really angry at them again?
“You know what he said,” the president continued. “He said, yes, I did – a moment. Then, I realized I had been in prison for 27 years, and if I hated them after I got out, I would still be their prisoner, and I wanted to be free.”
The world is diminished by Mandela’s death, but we still have the power of his example.
I join my GWU and IPDGC colleague Tara Sonenshine in saluting Donald M. Bishop for a thoughtful speech on the state of U.S. public diplomacy and the challenges it faces. Let me add my two cents to the discussion.
I agree with the bottom line: public diplomacy is not a sufficiently vital dimension of diplomacy, foreign policy and national security. In an increasingly interconnected world of the Internet, global media, personal media and billions of smartphones, it should be, but isn’t. To be truly influential and effective, public diplomacy must be relevant as policy decisions are being made rather than after the fact.
Structure, story and strategy are contributing factors to the U.S. public diplomacy deficit, but what impacts international perceptions of the United States is less who says what, where and how than what we do. This has always been true, but what has changed from the height of the Cold War is the lens through which our actions are judged and the amount of information available to the average global citizen to continually evaluate American leadership.
The United States took on a truly heroic leadership role through what Donald Bishop terms the “long twilight struggle.” Without the United States, the world would have a different character and vastly different expectations about the future.
That said, the United States took a number of actions during the Cold War that were in retrospect unwise, unproductive and perhaps even unlawful. When this occurred, there was controversy, but most of the world granted America the benefit of the doubt because they could see an alternative that they consistently judged to be worse. The Berlin Wall was the universal symbol of this dynamic.
During the Cold War, while there was a compelling story to tell about American freedom, progress and prosperity (although given race riots, assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate, there was a gap between perception and reality back then), it was really about them, about the Soviet Union and its violations of emerging international norms.
But since the fall of the wall, the world has changed and this has affected how the United States is viewed now. Actions are no longer about them, but primarily about us. There are competing strategic narratives, but America’s dominates. From our perspective, the narrative may still be the same – we’re the guys in white hats riding to everyone’s rescue – but our analog world is now high definition. The picture is a lot more detailed and nuanced than it once was. Still attractive, but blemishes are more visible.
The United States is seen as falling short of expectations, simultaneously accused as President Obama said at the United Nations as doing too much and too little at the same time. Actions are judged according to the international norms that we promulgated, most of the world has embraced and we are viewed fairly or unfairly as ignoring.
This challenge is far less about public diplomacy than policy.
We preach that other countries have to solve their domestic problems, but recently took the world on a political thrill ride with the global economy stuck in the back seat. This political rancor routinely during the Cold War as well – think Joe McCarthy – but what has changed is the rest of the world now has a front row seat and watched it unfold in real time.
In this environment, there is no way to say, pay no attention to the 536 people wrestling behind the green curtain! No heart, courage or especially brains were apparent. No public diplomacy wizard could put a smiley face on the events of the past 30 days.
The say-do gap exists in the foreign policy realm as well.
We support the United Nations when it serves our interests and ignore it when it doesn’t. We promote the transparent rule of law, but then create a parallel and opaque legal universe at Guantanamo, a prison we promised to close but haven’t. We believe in democracy but then condone a military coup that removes a duly elected (if imperfect) president in Egypt. We criticize China for stealing our military secrets, but argue everyone does it when our hand is discovered in the cookie jar. We say we respect the sovereignty of other countries, but do as we please. We say drone strikes don’t harm civilians even though we know better, or choose not to know. But it doesn’t matter, since drone operations are secret.
All of these policy judgments are tough calls. They may serve our interests, even if they do not always reflect our values. We see these issues in terms of security and stability, while much of the world looks for dignity, justice, opportunity and consistency. They can be explained by politicians, diplomats and lawyers, but not easily advanced through public diplomacy. Absent the overarching frame and context that the Cold War provided, this divide is not easily bridged.
The already fascinating thrust and parry between the United States and Russia over Syria just got even more interesting with the latest Russian proposal calling on Damascus to give up its chemical weapons. This high stakes debate about war and peace unfolding in Washington, Moscow and other capitals around the world has important public diplomacy implications.
President Obama’s decision on August 31 to hit the pause button rather than launch button on military action against Syria reflected American concerns that there was insufficient political legitimacy to offset the lack of a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. There was a UN resolution two years ago when NATO intervened in Libya.
The pursuit of congressional and parliamentary backing was considered partial compensation, but there was an unexpected setback when the British House of Commons defeated a resolution to authorize force in Syria. The Obama administration continues to make its case for action, but getting a resolution authorizing the use of force through a deeply divided Congress is an uphill struggle, particularly in the House of Representatives.
The choice to seek popular and representative approval for military action is a political roll of the dice, but also an interesting civics lesson. The leaders of the world’s most enduring democracies are governing according to the wishes of their people, and subject to meaningful checks and balances by co-equal legislative branches. This assumes that President Obama would follow the lead of Prime Minister David Cameron and abide by the result of the congressional vote (assuming one takes place) that he said he didn’t need, but sought anyway. Meanwhile, a dictator uses all the weapons at his disposal, including chemical weapons, to hold on to power, backed by those who cynically use international law to undermine international norms. The process, slow and messy as it is, puts in sharp relief what is at stake in Syria.
The United States, Britain and France have presented compelling accounts that chemical weapons have been used in the increasingly brutal Syrian civil war. But there is not yet a “smoking gun” that definitively ties the latest chemical attacks that killed more than 1,400 people to the Syrian military or Assad himself. The results of a UN inspection to confirm the crossing of the red line regarding the use of chemical weapons are still pending, although its mandate does not include a judgment regarding who did it.
To many, this smacks of the Iraq debate ten years ago, a public diplomacy nightmare for the United States that will continue to handicap perceptions of American power and influence for years to come.
Mr. Obama has insisted that the unfolding tragedy in Syria represents a challenge for the international community, not just the United States. “I didn’t set a red line,” President Obama said about chemical weapons during remarks in Sweden recently. “The world set a red line.”
But while many countries are critical of the Assad regime, a lot less have openly called for a military strike. And fewer still seem prepared to directly participate. Many Americans are asking themselves, if the United States is considering defending widely accepted norms under the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria is not a signatory), where is the rest of the world? Russia and China have effectively sidelined the United Nations. Many within the Arab League are hedging their bets.
But on the heels of a G-20 summit that featured open competition between Putin and Obama over international expressions of support for their colliding strategies on Syria, Putin has played a hole card that potentially takes the initiative away from Obama and shifts the debate from military back to political action.
While on the surface it appears to wrong-foot the president, it puts the onus on Putin to actually deliver. If Syria balks, it actually strengthens Obama’s argument for military action.
Obama should hit the pause button again, request that Congress suspend its consideration of a war resolution, move the debate back to the UN and see if Russia and China are prepared to give the international community a more meaningful role in the Syrian conflict. A UN resolution should authorize an intrusive international inspection regime to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons, since destroying its existing stockpile will take many years.
War-weary publics have expressed their fears that Syria would become another Iraq, circa 2003. Accepting the Russian offer, and then codifying and verifying it, would place UN inspectors on the ground who would work to at least take chemical weapons out of the deadly equation of the Syrian civil war. This would turn Syria into another Iraq, but circa 1991.
There are public diplomacy risks and costs to this course as well, but far fewer than starting another perceived American war in the Middle East.
The recent Twitter row between the United States and Egypt triggered a number of issues – freedom of expression; the role of media in modern societies; the balance between diplomacy and public diplomacy; between interests and values, both ours and theirs; and the ability to communicate not just governments but populations using traditional channels and social media. It represents a great teachable moment, for students (and professors) of public diplomacy and practitioners as well.
To briefly recap, the Morsi government (along with conservative elements within Egyptian society) has been cracking down on more and more political speech. The U.S. expressed concern privately, and then publicly following the detention of political satirist Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s Jon Stewart. Everything got amped up when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, perhaps the most aggressive user of social media within the Department of State, tweeted a link to a segment about Youssef’s arrest by the real Jon Stewart.
The Egyptian government blasted back, on Twitter no less, criticizing the Embassy for its “negative political propaganda.” Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party piled on, calling the offending tweet “undiplomatic & unwise.”
The Embassy’s Twitter account was taken down, the link to the Jon Stewart removed and then brought back on line. The Egyptian government claims American Ambassador Anne Patterson apologized for the incident. The State Department has tried to say as little as possible about the whole flap, but apparently sees the posting of the Stewart clip as a mistake.
What should we make of all of this?
In Egypt’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, it is hardly surprising that political Islam and civil society are struggling to comfortably co-exist. The Morsi government claims it was not responsible for Youssef’s detention, although someone in authority was. Beyond government, under Egyptian law, anyone can sue over perceived offensive speech. Just this week, an Egyptian court dismissed a lawsuit by an Islamist lawyer that would have forced Youssef’s show off air. After his release, Youssef resumed his broadcast, seemingly unbowed.
Clearly, a necessary debate within Egypt and across the Arab world about democracy, the evolution of political Islam and the development of inclusive and tolerant civil societies is underway.
The United States has been drawn into this debate, significantly through Twitter and Facebook. For example, Embassy Cairo has engaged Egyptians of all stripes on these issues. They are all unhappy with the United States, but for different reasons, believing Washington has been too lenient on Morsi, too critical, or should have no opinion at all.
Spend some time on the Embassy Twitter feed, @USEmbassyCairo, and you see what digital public diplomacy can do. Its tweets are engaging, candid and direct. Some samples:
In the past, such conversations would occur in quiet settings involving mostly government officials and policy elites. Now exchanges are out in the open, with newly empowered citizens offering their views and hoping for a genuine dialogue.
If this is the future of public diplomacy, Embassy Cairo is a trendsetter. Its recent experience demonstrates both the potential and the risk regarding how it is employed. Social media have greatly expanded public diplomacy’s reach, where actions and reactions can quickly take on broader political and social significance.
Embassy Cairo knows this better than anyone. Last September, an attempt to mitigate Egyptian outcry (and aggressive demonstrations) over an obscure American video perceived as being disrespectful of Islam became an issue in the American presidential campaign.
What are the public diplomacy lessons in this latest case?
There was a “practice what we preach” aspect to The Daily Show link. Stewart pokes fun at both Democratic and Republican political figures. Stewart highlights Egyptian contributions to modern society. He commends Morsi for assurances that political speech will be protected. He reminds that critics love their country every bit as much as leaders.
That said, it was probably inappropriate for the Embassy to link to the segment on its Twitter feed. Stewart calls Morsi a “crazy guy.” It’s inevitable that many would view it as official agreement.
While edgy works, this went too far, an “in your face” action at a sensitive time when the new Egyptian government was likely to overreact to any perceived slight.
But once the tweet was out there, connecting to publicly available content, the Embassy compounded its first mistake by removing the link. The Ambassador’s private apology with a pledge to avoid a repeat in the future was all that was needed. The removal sent precisely the wrong message that objectionable speech can and should be curtailed, a point Egypt made repeatedly during last September’s film controversy.
The retreat also sends the wrong message to the State Department’s global communicators. Ambassadors and public diplomats should be fully engaged in the vigorous debate about the critical issues of the day, not on the sidelines where it’s safe. They should be pushing the envelope, even if it means going over the line once in a while.
While integrating transformational technology into U.S. public diplomacy programs, mistakes inevitably will be made. How organizations react says a lot about what lessons will be learned.
In Vietnam, the United States fought a counterinsurgent war on behalf of a government lacking popular legitimacy using primarily conventional tactics in support of a flawed strategic objective that turned out to be inconsequential to the broader Cold War struggle against Communism. The primary lesson learned, particularly within the Army, was “never again.”
However, a decade ago, a cadre of officers well schooled in irregular warfare and intrastate conflicts, eventually marshaled by General David Petraeus, scrambled to rearticulate the lost principles of counterinsurgency deliberately buried after Vietnam, incorporate them into a new Army doctrine and apply them (appropriately) in Iraq and (less so) in Afghanistan.
This experience is compellingly detailed in Fred Kaplan’s book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
Kaplan cautions whether the military is capturing the right lessons or adequately incorporating them into future planning. Coupled with the Obama administration’s understandable reluctance after unwinding two wars to engage in large-scale interventions any time soon, the risk is that the military will walk away from counterinsurgency doctrine when the war in Afghanistan ends next year, just as it did after Vietnam.
The first is the preeminence of political rather than military outcomes. As Kaplan relates, Petraeus adopted the dictum that counterinsurgency is 80 percent political and 20 percent military. That is likely to be true with any future intervention.
The United States entered Afghanistan and Iraq knowing what it wanted to eliminate – Osama bin Laden’s sanctuary and Saddam Hussein’s regime – but with only a vague conception of a desired strategic end state. In Iraq, the lack of a post-conflict strategy was not an oversight, but deliberate. In neither case was there a grasp of the political, social and cultural forces in those countries that would shape the eventual outcomes.
Regime change is not the end of the war, only the end of the first phase. The desired end state, a government with perceived legitimacy that earns the support of a large cross-section of the local population, is very difficult. This is not only clear from the mixed results achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Libya as well.
An effective plan for the conflict and what happens afterwards requires integrated civilian and military action, a second lesson. This rarely happened over the past 12 years. While there was an effective partnership in Iraq between Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the norm involved civilians and the military pulling in different directions. The worst case involved Paul Bremer’s ill-advised orders regarding the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and de-Ba’athification of the government, uncoordinated steps that fueled if not generated the insurgency.
Future interventions will involve a “whole of government” effort, involving not just soldiers and diplomats, but development experts in wide-ranging fields from agriculture, policing and justice to energy, commerce and communication. Unfortunately, the United States government is not structured to plan or naturally operate that way. As it is, Congress fully funds only one element of national power, the military. Given the military cuts associated with sequestration, Congress over time may be tempted to restore some of them with offsets from non-defense discretionary accounts. If so, this will only widen the gap between military and civilian capabilities.
The third lesson regards time. Wars of insurgency are by nature “slow and messy.” Kaplan questions whether the American people are unwilling to support such long, complicated and costly endeavors.
While this remains a richly debated field of study, the American people gave its leaders 12 years to succeed in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq. While some have already argued the military has been withdrawn too quickly, the fact is the United States squandered too much time developing workable strategies and putting appropriate levels of resource in place.
Going forward, any intervention will be a race against time. Better strategic planning is an imperative. Given the emerging global media environment, the perceived legitimacy of any action is on the clock with no time to waste.
Given how lethal force can be delivered through more technology and fewer troops, future Presidents will be tempted to solve the time problem by engaging in high-tech wars without mobilizing the American people or the government. But given the proliferation of smartphones with cameras linked to the Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter, future warfare will still be influenced by public opinion. Governments may choose to ignore the impact, as is happening now in Pakistan, but public pressure can be expected to increase, overseas if not at home.
The final lesson is simple, yet compelling. If we are not confident that military action can be decisive, the most prudent decision may be not to intervene militarily in the first place. This is certainly not easy with various constituencies calling on the United States to “do something.” But the reality is that, if future conflict is mostly political, military action may incur profound costs without actually solving the problem.
This appears to be the one lesson that has been put into practice. The result, right or wrong, is evident in Syria.
President Barack Obama, in his first inaugural address in 2009, said “the world has changed, and we must change with it.” The extent of a transformed domestic and international landscape was clear in his second inaugural address this week. Inaugurals are important opportunities for public diplomacy and his message will appeal to international audiences, but it was clearly tempered by four years of real-world experience. Obama talked at length about ongoing need to achieve equality and opportunity here at home, but gone was much of the soaring rhetoric targeted abroad that captivated international audiences four years ago.
Unlike previous second-terms where Presidents have been challenged politically at home and tried to pad their legacies abroad, Obama’s domestic is clearly going to animate his final four years in office. He outlined an ambitious agenda – a grand bargain on the budget that preserves social equality and promotes economic opportunity, enhanced gun regulation and immigration reform. These issues, along with energy and the environment, have important international dimensions as well.
If engagement was the international watchword four years ago, this time it was collaboration and the need to continue to strengthen the capacity of the international community to tackle major global challenges. He reemphasized a commitment to end a decade of war, rejecting the notion that U.S. security requires “perpetual war.” He renewed America’s support for democracy in a dramatically transformed international landscape.
Those pledges will be tested over the next four years in places like Syria, Mali, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.
Saying “no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” President Obama committed to continued emphasis on collective action through formal alliances, major international organizations, regional structures and informal groups of like-minded nations. The past four years revealed the strengths and limitations of such an approach, with decisive international action in Libya but severe constraints in Syria. Patient and determined action with regional partners appears to be paying off in Somalia. That is a potential model for action in and around Mali, but more resources will need to be committed, and quickly.
Obama said four years ago that his national security strategy involved the “prudent use” of American power. The weight of effort against extremist groups shifted from large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces to the aggressive use of technology, from unmanned drones to a computer worm. This strategy netted important accomplishments, such as the elimination of Osama bin Laden, but has generated international concerns regarding overly secretive actions that may be rewriting the laws of war and setting potentially far-reaching precedents. The administration is said to be codifying its approach within an American “playbook,” but it remains unclear to what degree this involves genuine partnerships with admittedly weak allies like Pakistan or Yemen.
Obama in his inaugural address encouraged resolving “differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” This approach will surely be tested in the coming months regarding the U.S. approach to Iran and whether sufficient time will be devoted to what will undoubtedly be a lengthy and difficult negotiation.
The United States will continue to support democracy “because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” But emerging democracies like Egypt will have a much different look and feel. The United States should help guide Egypt regarding vital elements of an enduring democracy – building effective institutions, protecting minorities, including all segments of society including women, tolerating and encouraging political dissent and peacefully transferring power following free and fair elections. But the United States will have to be patient, recognizing that the path forward will not be a straight line. The final construction should be consistent with long-term U.S. objectives, but will not have a stamp that says “made in America.”
There are a number of competing and overlapping terms to describe how governments communicate with or relate to their own citizens and those of other countries, including strategic communication, public diplomacy, public affairs, information operations and global engagement. Depending on who is saying what to whom and where, different authorities, funds, channels or even laws can apply.
For example, by law, the United States government cannot “propagandize” its own people, but is permitted to try to “persuade” others around the world to support U.S. interests and actions. It can “inform” anyone about U.S. policies, actions, history, culture and opportunities.
When the State or Defense Departments communicate with the American people, usually through the media, it is called public affairs. How the State Department interacts with global audience is termed public diplomacy. When the Department of Defense does something similar (but usually with a short-term objective) it has been known as strategic communication — until recently.
But late last month, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum announcing that the term strategic communication is out, and communication synchronization is in. Why the shift and what does it mean?
According to the memo, strategic communication, which has been a joint responsibility of DoD’s Public Affairs and Policy communities with lots of interested players on the margins, created bureaucratic and functional confusion regarding military planning and oversight. As Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little wrote, “most things previously termed ‘SC’ are in fact Public Affairs responsibilities.” This makes sense.
But are strategic communication and communication synchronization the same? Not necessarily.
Communication synchronization can be viewed as constructing a narrative and sustaining it across the bureaucracy. The United States is actually pretty good at this. Take one recent celebrated example. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed talking points about Benghazi developed by the intelligence community when she appeared on several Sunday shows five days after the attack. The criticism from some Senators has been that she should have been less, well, synchronized.
The word strategic communicates importance, something directly related to a vital interest or a core function. The evolution of the concept of strategic communication within the military a decade or so ago reflected the emergence of a 24/7 global media environment, the interconnected world of the Internet, traditional media, satellite television and now social media and citizen journalists. In this world, governments communicate with each other and with broader society. People communicate vertically and horizontally and have access to more and better quality information than ever before.
United States policies, pronouncements and actions receive relentless scrutiny. In order to gain international understanding and support, to the extent possible, what we say and what we do need to complement and not contradict each other. Strategic communication is about keeping our words and deeds in the same zip code, or offering a quick and coherent explanation when one or the other strays beyond the established narrative.
This can be very difficult, particularly when policies and priorities, or interests and values, collide.
More often than we’d like to admit, our actions look one way to us, but are perceived very differently half a world away. Think of the bin Laden raid in Pakistan. From Kalamazoo, taking bin Laden off the battlefield was a no-brainer. From Karachi, it was a violation of sovereignty and a national humiliation.
Recognizing that the raid, necessary as it was, would inflame Pakistani public opinion, the initial description of the operation by President Obama was carefully constructed to try and mitigate these vastly different perceptions between the two countries. That’s strategic communication.
It’s not clear that communication synchronization addresses situations where our actions, no matter how well we attempt to explain them, have potentially far-reaching public policy consequences. Despite assertions to the contrary, the United States had no trouble communicating in Iraq. But what we viewed as liberation, others viewed as occupation. What we described as a war on terror, others perceived as a war against Islam. Our narrative was clear and consistent, but carried high costs we are still paying in a critical part of the world.
Going forward, the United States must recognize how consistent words and actions translate into effective and sustainable policies, regardless of what you call it.
In March of last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (my former boss), in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, feared we were “losing an information war” to the Chinese, Russians and al Jazeera. She was certainly right that the United States faces greater competition from other nations, non-governmental entities and social actors who were aggressively challenging the U.S. narrative of global events and advancing alternative frames. Despite being the world’s only superpower – which means the United States has an interest in every corner of the world but also that every global citizen has an opinion on U.S. policy – our relative advantage had certainly diminished since the end of the Cold War. On balance, the rise of emerging powers like China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Iran and South Africa is positive, offering opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. But these countries will challenge U.S. leadership as well.
However, we are not losing this information war. Events of the past week reinforce why, as the United States clearly and compellingly defended universal standards of human rights in the case of Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had escaped house arrest and found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. China, an emerging power and strategic competitor, suffered a serious loss in global perception.
People have come to admire China as they see its extraordinary economic performance and learn more about China through its Confucius Centers and media like Xinhua. They marveled at the Beijing Olympics. But they have also been exposed to the other side of China, a rising but insecure power that is afraid of its own people and routinely and too often ruthlessly violates universal rights including freedom of expression, assembly and the press.
Chen Guangcheng wanted to do something revolutionary. As an activist, he wanted to remain in China, to be free of government intimidation; study what and where he wanted; and continue to challenge government policies in an open and civil society. The United States advocated on his behalf, not just through our diplomats in Beijing but also thanks to technology with his dramatic participation in a (staged and shrill but nonetheless effective) Congressional hearing. When that negotiated arrangement with the Chinese government collapsed, the United States rapidly opened the door for Chen to travel and study in the United States. The Chinese government reluctantly agreed if only to move the issue off the global stage.
In the Middle East, while surviving autocrats take comfort in the transactional “ask no questions” nature of Chinese foreign policy, as Professor Marc Lynch at GW’s Elliott School describes in his new book Arab Uprising, an increasingly expanded and empowered public sphere is acutely aware of regional developments and what major players are or are not doing. The United States will be challenged even as it has thrown its rhetoric and actions (Bahrain and Palestine notable exceptions) behind change, most recently regarding Syria. Going forward, U.S. policies will face increasingly strong head winds. It will be challenged to back its rhetoric with appropriate actions that reflect values, not just interests. Not everyone will be happy with the U.S. posture on a particular issue of importance, but it is now China and Russia (which has its own problems with protests) that are the status quo powers, providing political cover for the Assad regime.
There is more than one side of history. In world events, it sometimes takes time to determine which is side is “right.” The United States does not have the influence in the world it once did – that world no longer exists – but it is better positioned and competing more effectively than may be realized. Actions ultimately do speak louder than words. What the United States did last week in defending the universal rights of Chen Guangcheng spoke volumes.
Bahrain’s monarchy was determined, having cancelled last year’s Formula One Grand Prix due to violent unrest that necessitated an armed intervention by neighboring Saudi Arabia, that this year would be different. The race would go on! And so it did, with Sebastian Vettel the winner. The early race reporting highlighted that it was “incident-free.” Hardly.
The grand prix was overshadowed by clashes between protesters and security forces in the days leading up to race day. Protesters demanded political reforms that Bahrain’s ruling family have promised, but so far not delivered. They hoped to create enough mayhem to force the government to cancel the race. The opposition was not successful, but they probably got more attention with the race being held than they would have otherwise.
A year ago, in the wake of dramatic change in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain was the start of the counter-revolution. The government literally blew up Pearl Square to avoid the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, overwhelmed by the commanding photo of Tahrir Square he could not make disappear. Bahrain gradually receded from the headlines, supplanted by the NATO intervention in LIbya and more recently the tragic stalemate in Syria.
The protests put Bahrain back in the headlines. and not in the way the monarchy had in mind. The government promoted the Grand Prix as “UniF1ed – One Nation in Celebration.” The Al Khalifa family, Sunni rulers over a Shia majority kingdom in the shadow of more powerful and feuding neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, hoped the race would reverse its public diplomacy fortunes and once again depict the Kingdom as a progressive (in relative terms of course) financial, cultural and sports center. It tried to put to replace the images of political repression from a year ago. Instead, it only updated them.
And, in terms of U.S. public diplomacy, the Obama administration’s muted comments about respecting human rights and encouraging the Bahrain government to do more to implement the recommendations of an independent commission report issued late last year stand in stark contrast to its loud and repeated calls for political and social reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Given the crisis in Syria and complex dance with Iran over its nuclear program, the United States has been largely an interested spectator with Bahrain over the past year, watching from the grandstand as the government and protesters go round and round the track. Unfortunately, like the Grand Prix, a year later, they remain pretty much where they started.