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Public diplomacy’s next challenge

Date: April 1, 2008

Noting that the measure of success enjoyed by US counterterrorism efforts hasn't been due to anything done by its public diplomacy activities, IWP Adjunct Professor and counterterror expert Christopher Harmon discusses the public diplomacy strategy the US must pursue in order to make further inroads upon terrorists.  Professor Harmon's essay draws upon numerous examples from terrorists around the world and offers a strategic look at the defensive and offensive use of words and images to sway public opinion and surpass al Qaeda in the global war of ideas.  To download Prof. Harmon's essay, please click here:

Download file Harmon public diplomacy







By Christopher C. Harmon


Copyright © 2008 Connections

            Any American can be pleased by certain successes wrought during these seven hard years of global effort against terrorism.  One of the many bright spots is total success in homeland defense-not a single Al Qaeda attack on American soil since 9-11.  Another is the coalition's destruction of Taliban's grip on power, followed by help to indigenous Afghan leaders such as Hamid Karzai who now have the chance to determine their homeland's future. 

But in one respect, the United States has clearly failed: public diplomacy.  At the end of October 2007, when Karen Hughes announced she would step down as head of the U.S. efforts in public diplomacy, she had served longer, but not notably more successfully, than her two predecessors in that vital State Department role.  Charlotte Beers, and then Margaret Tutwiler, had resigned after struggling in the position, which leads not just the State Department's efforts but also those of other U.S. agencies and departments.   If the National Security Council was exercising good guidance in this arena, the general public could not tell it, nor could the Washington policy community feel it.   Skilled observers, such as scholars at the D.C.-based Institute of World Politics and its President John Lenczowski, found little to recommend in U.S. national efforts at public diplomacy; they became increasingly critical as the "locust years" of two presidential terms slipped past, and meetings with executive branch principals seemed to go nowhere. 

By 2005 and 2006, what had been a serious inter-governmental problem became an unattractive open secret: U.S. strategies were not reaching their audiences, even though the public diplomacy budget kept rising.  Hundreds of millions of new dollars were proving to be no substitute for imagination and skill and fighting spirit and understanding of foreign audiences.  As the Pew Research Center was releasing its newest figures on foreign views of the U.S., which showed mostly declines rather than gains in foreign support, the key policy professional announced her intent to leave as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

It makes for a painful moment for America and its friends.   More important is the question we now face: Have we learned anything?  And if so, what?  Have opponen