America First really means America Alone. It is a narrative in conflict with the contemporary American identity, harkening back to the isolationists of the 1940s.
Before Trump, the predominate American narratives about its place in the world were hegemonic. We, without irony, referred to the president of the United States as the leader of the free world. It comes from the same narrative that explains why we call the MLB champions (featuring only North American teams) the World Series champions. We believe in American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, that America is strongest when we lead. Those ideas are in direct conflict with Trump’s “America First” doctrine.
And because of that, Trump’s narrative threatens the continuance of the liberal international order. Some observers have noted that, in Trump’s America First approach to public diplomacy, “the art of persuasion… is absent.” And others have argued that our continued prestige will rest on “American arts and intellectual life [and] American education,” not on Trump.
When a world power like the United States fades, it’s usually because of overreach (like the Soviet Union after the Cold War) or the emergence of stronger powers (like France after WWI). But Trump’s new America First narrative has pioneered a third way—forfeiture. This isn’t a novel realization, Fareed Zakaria has dubbed it “the rise of the rest” and Richard Hass has called it the “Great Abdication.”
What these previous analyses have missed is how American narratives explain this shift. Previously dominant narratives like internationalism, the Cold War consensus, or the War on Terror had brought order to an otherwise chaotic world. That doesn’t mean they were perfect. Bush’s War on Terror had inarguably negative consequences, but it at least fit with existing narratives about America’s role in the world.
America First is in conflict with our dominant narratives. Trump’s America First rhetoric—inarguably a self-serving and arrogant approach—regarding foreign policy has been cited by experts as a major reason for America’s decline in soft power. This is because America First is in conflict with three particular American narratives that supported America’s image around the world: globalism, multiculturalism, and freedom.
Perhaps most clearly, it’s in conflict with the American globalist narrative. That narrative—dominant in the halls of UN in New York and Facebook in the Silicon Valley—is an elite narrative. It says: “The world is better when it’s open and connected. The future is global, security is shared, and technology has no borders.” It’s perhaps an idealistic one but has become a consensus among the bicoastal elite and Bobos in Paradise of David Brooks’ imagination.
Multiculturalism, too, is in direct conflict with an America First narrative that dictates border walls and tariffs. That narrative—engrained in our Statue of Liberty and the identity politics of Democrats—is dominant. In fact, it reinforces other American narratives like individualism, as one can maintain one’s own culture and still be an American. It says: “America is a nation of immigrants. We are strong because of our diversity; our melting pot is only possible because of it. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” And that brings us to America First’s most detrimental conflict: freedom.
If America has one dominant narrative that transcends time and partisanship, it’s freedom. It’s the idea that led to the American Revolution, to the Civil War, and has driven us to become the world’s police force, fighting for freedom around the world. It drove us to globalism and multiculturalism and defines our being. It is why we call our president the leader of the free world. It’s a narrative—defended by our soldiers and dominant is our rhetoric—that defines the American identity. It says, like Lincoln did, that “those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
But America First says “only we deserve freedom.” That is not an American narrative; that is in direct conflict with one. America First is dangerous, but if our history is predictive, it won’t last for long because if you deny freedom, America will come for you.
Reed Elman Waxham studies media & strategic communication in the School of Media & Public Affairs at the George Washington University. Follow him @reed_elman. The views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TakeFive or the Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication.
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.
Whether it be the revelations about U.S. wiretapping allies in Europe or the fallout of Russian hacking during the 2016 American presidential election, states that employ foreign intelligence against other states can expect some of those efforts to become public. This article will review notable cases and offer suggestions on how the aggressor nation can use public diplomacy tools to minimize the blowback in the target nation. In essence, this essay will seek to answer the question: what should aggressor nation’s public diplomats do when intelligence activities go public in a target nation?
The Snowden leaks in Germany: Wait and see
On October 23, 2013, Der Spiegel reported, based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the United States had been listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls. The primary U.S. taking point, first used by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, that day was: “the United States is not monitoring, and will not monitor, the communications of the chancellor.” From that point—maybe because of knowledge garnered through counterintelligence or maybe out of luck—the U.S. held that line and adopted a wait and see approach. The Germans, for their part, took a strong line: “spying among friends—that is simply not done,” affirmed Chancellor Merkel.
The U.S. approach was vindicated in May 2015 when it was revealed that the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, had worked with the NSA to spy on friendly European companies and individuals. It was further rewarded when, in October 2015, Der Spiegel reported that the BND had been spying on “European and American government ministries and the Vatican.” Merkel’s words came back to haunt her as it turned out that spying on friends was, in fact, her policy, a revelation that put her in the hot seat and seemingly vindicated the United States.
This approach assumes a counter narrative will develop that combats the initial leak. In that sense, it can be a risky bet unless the aggressor nation has intelligence that indicates that is a likely outcome.
Russia, WikiLeaks, and the DNC: The implausible deniability approach
On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post was the first to report that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer network had been breached by Russian government hackers. The hackers accessed opposition research on Donald Trump and were able to read all email and chat traffic on DNC servers. That triggered the Russian approach to countering the hacking narrative, first used by Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman: “I completely rule out a possibility that the [Russian] government or the government bodies have been involved in this.” Crowdstrike, a respected cybersecurity firm, released a report the next day which emphatically contradicted this statement and concluded the hack was perpetrated by Russian government hackers.
Just over a month later WikiLeaks released the first in a series of hacked emails taken from the DNC. In October, DC Leaks—a website created by a Russian hacker—released more emails from the series, and WikiLeaks released the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Independent analysis and an Intelligence Community (IC) report have since concluded that the hacking and leaks were conducted by the Russian government in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election in favor of Donald Trump.
Putin’s government has continued to hold to their initial talking point that denies their involvement, but their implausible denial increasingly looks foolish in the face of mounting evidence. The denial, as a public diplomacy tool, has not helped their perception in the United States. In 2011, 42% of American had a negative view of Russia, a number that increased to 70% in 2017 according to Gallup.
A new approach: Counterintelligence as a public diplomacy tool
The American wait and see approach to the spy revelations in Germany was a stroke of luck; without specific knowledge that makes that strategy potentially effective it is a shot in the dark. The Russian denial approach is even worse, leaving the narrative completely out of the control of public diplomacy officials who lose credibility by being untruthful. While one size cannot fit all in intelligence work, a framework for an alternate approach is needed.
Public diplomacy officials should actively work with the IC to develop a tactical, deployable know, show and tell approach. This approach would work in a way similar to the American wait and see approach in Germany with several important distinctions. In the U.S., this new approach would require greater cooperation between the IC and the State Department.
The framework: The know, show and tell approach
Going forward: The risks and a new agency
The evident and inherent risks with this approach are the potential to reveal U.S. national security secrets, expose proprietary intelligence gathering techniques, and the potential to harm relationships with target nations. While these are serious concerns, the potential strategic value of the approach out ways the potential risk if implemented correctly. That delicate balance would require interagency cooperation that is not possible in today’s environment. The degree of IC, State Department (DOS), and Defense Department (DOD) cooperation required for the know, show and tell approach to be successful would be unprecedented.
To successfully implement the approach U.S. policy makers should consider creating an interagency task force or a soft power institution that could be responsible for such cooperation, potentially in the shape of the former U.S. Information Agency. That agency could work with the IC, DOS, DOD and foreign partners (where appropriate) to develop and execute know, show and tell campaigns that could be deployed rapidly after intelligence leaks. If done properly, this approach would have the potential to deter future leaks by state actors and become and effective tool in America’s public diplomacy toolkit.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.