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Public diplomacy in a time of choler

COMMENTARY | October 20, 2006

Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, writes that we have lost international support not because foreigners hate our values but because they believe we are repudiating them and behaving contrary to them.

By Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Americans began our independence with an act of public diplomacy, an appeal for international support, based upon a "decent regard to the opinions of mankind."

And through the end of the 20th century, no country was then more widely admired or emulated than ours. The superior features of our society - our insistence on individual liberty under law; the equality of opportunity we had finally extended to all; the egalitarianism of our prosperity; our openness to ideas, change, and visitors; our generous attention to the development of other nations; our sacrifices to defend small states against larger predators both in the Cold War and, most recently, in the war to liberate Kuwait; our championship of international order and the institutions we had created to maintain it after World War II; the vigor of our democracy and our dedication to untrammeled debate - were recognized throughout the world. Critics of our past misadventures, as in Vietnam, had been silenced by the spectacle of our demonstrable success.

Our National Nervous Breakdown

That was, of course, before we suffered the trauma of 9/11 and underwent the equivalent of a national nervous breakdown. It was before we panicked and decided to construct a national-security state that would protect us from the risks posed by foreign visitors or evil-minded Americans armed with toenail clippers or liquid cosmetics. It was before we decided that policy debate is unpatriotic and realized that the only thing foreigners understand is the use of force. It was before we replaced the dispassionate judgments of our intelligence community with the faith-based analyses of our political leaders. It was before we embraced the spin-driven strategies that have stranded our armed forces in Afghanistan, marched them off to die in the terrorist ambush of Iraq, and multiplied and united our Muslim enemies rather than diminishing and dividing them. It was before we began to throw our values overboard in order to stay on course while evading attack.

It was before, in a mere five years, we transformed ourselves from 9/11's object of almost universal sympathy and support into the planet's most despised nation, with its most hateful policies.

You can verify this deplorable reality with polling data or you can experience it firsthand by traveling abroad. Neither is anything a thoughtful patriot can enjoy. In most Arab and Muslim lands (which include many in Africa and Asia) the percentage of those who now wish us ill is statistically indistinguishable from unanimity. In many formerly friendly countries in Europe and Latin America, those with a favorable opinion of us are in the low double digits. Polls show that China is almost everywhere more admired than the United States. We used to attract 9 percent of tourists internationally; now we're down to 6. The best and the brightest from around the world came to our universities; now, very often, they go elsewhere. We are steadily losing market share in the global economy.

Suffice it to say that the atmosphere is such that men like Hugo Chávez Frías and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad felt confident of a warm response to their unprecedentedly anti-American diatribes at the UN. And that's what they received. Clearly, we are now more than "misunderestimated," to employ a useful word coined by our president; we are badly misevaluated and misunderstood abroad.

A Variety of Reactions

Here, in our country, there seem to be three reactions to the collapse of our international reputation and the rise in global antipathy to the United States.

Caligula's motto for effective foreign policy was ODERINT DUM METUANT - "let them hate us, as long as they fear us." Some, many of whom seem to inhabit the bubble universe created by our media as an alternative to the real world, agree with Caligula and the cult of his followers in the Administration and on the Hill. They think it's just fine for foreigners to hate us as long as we've got the drop on them and are in a position to string 'em up. They're surprised that "shock and awe" has so far proven to be an inadequate substitute for strategy, but they're eager to try it again and again on the theory that, if force doesn't work the first time, the answer is to apply more force.

Others seem to be in denial. That's the only way I can explain the notion of "transformational diplomacy" coming up at this time. Look, I'm all for the missionary position. But, let's face it, it's hard to get it on with foreigners when you've lost your sex appeal. A democracy that stifles debate at home, that picks and chooses which laws it will ignore or respect, and whose opposition party whines but does not oppose, is - I'm sorry to say - not one with much standing to promote democracy abroad. A government that responds to unwelcome election results by supporting efforts to correct them with political assassinations and cluster bombs has even less credibility in this regard. (If democracies don't fight democracies, by the way, what are Gaza and Lebanon all about? But that's another discussion.)

The third reaction is to call for a return to public diplomacy, this time on steroids. This sounds like a good idea but there are at least a couple of difficulties with it.

The Challenges to Public Diplomacy

The first is that, if there is no private diplomacy, there can be no public diplomacy. And as we all know, Americans no longer do diplomacy ourselves. We are very concerned that, by talking to foreigners with whom we disagree, we might inadvertently suggest that we respect them and are prepared to work with them rather than preparing to bomb them into peaceful coexistence. Both at home and abroad, we respond to critics by stigmatizing and ostracizing them. To avoid sending a signal of reasonableness or willingness to engage in dialogue, we do threats, not diplomacy. That's something we outsource to whomever we can find to take on the morally reprehensible task of conducting it.

Usually, this means entrusting our interests to people we manifestly distrust. Thus, I note, we've outsourced Korea to Beijing even as we arm ourselves against the Chinese; we've outsourced Iran to the French and other fuddy-duddies in the officially cowardly and passé "Old Europe;" and we've outsourced the UN to that outspoken international scofflaw, John Bolton, who, despite representing us in Turtle Bay, remains unconfirmable - as well as indescribable in polite company. We can't find anyone dumb enough to take on the Sisyphean task of rolling the Israeli rock up the hill of peace or to step in for us in Iraq so we try to pretend, with respect to both, that the absence of a peace process equates to the absence of a problem. Everything is under control and going just fine.

This brings me to the second difficulty. As our founding fathers understood so well, for public diplomacy to persuade foreigners even to give us and our policies the benefit of the doubt, let alone to support us, we must put on at least the appearance of a decent respect for their opinion. Persuasiveness begins with a reputation for wisdom, probity and effectiveness, but succeeds by showing empathy and concern for the interests of others. Finally, it's easier to make the case for judgments that have some grounding in reality, and for policies that have a plausible prospect of mutually beneficial results, than for those that don't.

I will not dwell on how poorly our current approaches measure up to these standards. Americans are now famous internationally for our ignorance and indifference to the world beyond our borders. We are becoming infamous for our disregard for the fate of foreigners who perish at our hands or from our munitions. Some of our military officers sincerely mourn the civilian Arab deaths their operations and those with whom we have allied ourselves cause; there is no evidence that many other Americans are the least bit disturbed by them.

Not content just to let foreigners - Arabs and Muslims, in particular - hate us, we often seem to go out of our way to speak and act in such a way as to compel them to do so. Consider Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the practice of kidnapping and "rendition," our public defense of torture, or the spectacle of American officials fending off peace while urging the further maiming of Lebanon and its people. Catastrophically mistaken policies based on intelligence cooked to fit the policy recipe have combined with the debacle of Iraq reconstruction and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina to discredit American competence with foreign governments and publics alike. It's hard to find anybody out there who believes we know what we're doing or that we have a sound grasp of our own interests, let alone any understanding or concern for theirs. We have given the terrorists what they cannot have dared dream we would - policies and practices that recruit new terrorists but that leave no space for our friends and former admirers to make their case for us or for our values or policies.

Few Prospects for Change

This is not, I judge, a propitious atmosphere for public diplomacy. The atmosphere will not improve until the policies do. And what is the prospect of that?

Normally, of course, one would look to elections and the natural alternation of power in a two-party system to produce a change of course. Republicans should be held accountable for what they have done and failed to do, of course. But there is no evidence that bringing the Democrats to power would cure the post-9/11 loss of contact with reality and dysfunctional behavior that account for the fix we are in.

Judging by its record, the so-called opposition party has suffered from the same hallucinations that made us so sure that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that there was an urgent need to eliminate them; the same delusional beliefs that foreign occupation - because it was by Americans - would be seen as liberation, that regime removal in Afghanistan and Iraq would result in democratization, and that inside every Arab there is an American struggling to come out; the same disorganized thinking that equates elections to democracy, and the same ruthless impulse to reject and punish the results of democracy when - as in the case of the Palestinian elections this past January - Americans find these results uncongenial.

Neither party is in the least introspective. Both are happy to attribute all our problems to the irrationality of foreigners and to reject consideration of whether our attitudes, concepts, and policies might not have contributed to them. Both are xenophobic, Islamophobic, Arabophobic, and anti-immigrant. The two parties vie to see which can be more sycophantic toward whoever's in charge in Israel and to be most supportive of whatever Israel and its American lobby wish us to do. Neither has a responsible or credible solution to the mess we have created in Iraq, a plan for war termination in Afghanistan, an answer for how to deal with Korean issues, a vision for relations with China or other rising powers, or a promising approach to Iran or the challenge of post-Fidel Cuba, among other issues. (I'll spare you my observations on the default of both parties on addressing the challenges of our budget and balance of payments deficits, decaying pension systems, collapsing health insurance and delivery systems, overcompensation of corporate executives at the expense of both their shareholders and the public interest, and other relevant issues that bear on our national wellbeing.) Neither party displays any willingness to learn from the successes and errors of foreigners, and both are unjustifiably complacent about our international competitiveness.

Both Republicans and Democrats seem to consider that statecraft boils down to two options: appeasement; or sanctions followed by military assault. Both behave as though national security and grand strategy require no more than a military component and as though feeding the military-industrial complex is the only way to secure our nation. Both praise our armed forces, ignore their cavils about excessive reliance on the use of force, count on them to attempt forlorn tasks, lament their sacrifices, and blithely propose still more feckless tasks and ill-considered deployments for them. Together, our two parties are well along in destroying the finest military the world has ever seen.

Remembering Who We Are

I fear that, by mincing words as I have, I may have failed to make my high regard for our political parties and their leaders clear. So I will conclude with two brief observations.

The first is that the threat the United States now faces is vastly less grave but much more ill-defined than that we faced during the Cold War. That era, which most here lived through, was one in which decisions by our president and his Soviet counterpart could result in the death, within hours, of over a hundred million Americans and a comparable number of Soviet citizens. That threat was existential. The threat we now face is not. Muslim extremists seek to drive us from their lands by hurting us. They neither seek to destroy nor to convert nor to conquer us. They can in fact do none of these things. The threat we now face does not in any way justify the sacrifice of the civil liberties and related values we defended against the far greater threats posed by fascism or Soviet communism. Terrorists win if they terrorize; to defeat them, we must reject inordinate fear and the self-destructive things it may make us do.

The second observation is that the answer to the question of whether we can defend ourselves and persuade others to support us as we do so lies first and foremost in our own thoughts and deeds. Muslim extremists cannot destroy us and what we have stood for, but we can surely forfeit our moral convictions and so discredit our values that we destroy ourselves. We have lost international support not because foreigners hate our values but because they believe we are repudiating them and behaving contrary to them. To prevail, we must remember who we are and what we stand for. If we can rediscover and reaffirm the identity and values that made our republic so great, we will find much support abroad, including among those in the Muslim world we now wrongly dismiss as enemies rather than friends.

To rediscover public diplomacy and to practice it successfully, in other words, we must repudiate Caligula's maxim and replace it with our traditional respect for the opinions of mankind. I do not think it is beyond us to do so. We are a far better and more courageous people than we currently appear. But when we do restore ourselves to mental balance, we will, I fear, find that decades are required - it will take decades - to rebuild the appeal and influence our post-9/11 psychoses took a mere five years to destroy.

(Adapted from remarks to the United States Information Agency Alumni Association.)

Posted by Doug Dobney -
08/26/2007, 05:29 PM

"To prevail, we must remember who we are and what we stand for. If we can rediscover and reaffirm the identity and values that made our republic so great, we will find much support abroad, including among those in the Muslim world we now wrongly dismiss as enemies rather than friends."

And what does the U.S. now stand for?
Abortion, sexualization of children in the media, violent movies, homosexuality, multiculturalism.
These are not what made the "republic so great".

Watchdogs, meet a gadfly
Dan Froomkin writes that Chas Freeman is a Washington insider with a twist. A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he now runs a think tank dedicated to raising questions that otherwise might never get answered -- or even asked -- because they're too embarrassing, awkward, or difficult.

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