Senator Brownback’s latest piece of legislation, “the Strategic Communication Act of 2008” is a landmark proposal to reform U.S. public diplomacy efforts at the institutional level – by creating a new National Strategic Communication Center that fuses the responsibilities of the Broadcast Board of Governors with the public diplomacy functions managed by the State Department. There is a lot to digest in the bill’s language, in terms of language, strategy, institutional dynamics and policy implications. I will address these in a series of posts, starting with a discussion of the justificatory assumptions behind the bill.
First and foremost – this bill effectively discards the term “public diplomacy” to name the institutional function of this center. Public diplomacy becomes what the “National Strategic Communication Center” does. But these are not necessarily equivalent ideas. While Matt Armstrong would argue that public diplomacy is subsumed under the term “strategic communication” (which I think is perfectly reasonable), his distinctions are analytic. This bill’s terminological shift is political. If names and labels perform their own symbolic function – I would argue that “strategic communication” as a master term links what some call “public diplomacy” to the instrumental aspect of propaganda in the pejorative sense. Sure, it’s just a name. But Strategic Communication as generally understood doesn’t really connote more dialogue, listening, and culture-centric aspects that are less obviously instrumental or, well, manipulative. (of course, this may be changing in the way the DoD is wrestling with the term). This institution created overtly proclaims itself in a way that carries the historical baggage of propaganda and manipulation (it may as well be called the Ministry of Information) – perceptions that already exist in the crucial target audiences for the Center’s activities. Why play into the foreign suspicion of U.S. advocacy that masquerades as impartial international broadcasting? Symbols, names, and language matter.
Second, the justification for the bill is grounded in opposing “radical Islamists” (a term the bill uses twice; it also uses the term Islamist without a qualifier). The impetus for this bill is admittedly based in the contemporary struggle against “violent extremism.” But this bill also establishes an institution whose purpose and scope will likely extend beyond the historical confines of the contemporary obsession with “radical Islamists.” Should this one enemy define the U.S. strategic initiative here? Let’s face it – a lot of other actors besides the aforementioned “Islamists” don’t’ particularly like us, and aren’t’ particularly interested in imposing an alternative universal system of values. And yet, these actors and publics are the context for what we want to do in foreign policy. A quick glance at the Pew and PIPA polls provide a sobering assessment of global, let alone extremist, attitudes towards the U.S.
Second, the focus on “Islamist” runs counter to previous efforts by the Bush administration to de-link the religious term (which lends credibility to extremist movements) with the descriptive terminology that captures notions of “violence” and “terrorism.”
According to the bill’s text, Congress believes that the bills goal would be:
“advancing understanding and appreciation for the founding principles of the United States; and defeating the ideas that are inimical to the founding principles of the United States.”
In the introductory language of this bill, which sets forth the justifications for subsequent details, the framing language is important. I have two basic issues with this. First, it suggests that Congress believes that the “founding principles” of the U.S. must be advanced and defended. And, that groups exist that wish to “overthrow” such principals.
Does the “War of ideas” really revolve around the currency of these “ideas?” Not to be too dismissive of this over-arching catchphrase for public diplomacy – but are the foundational principles of the U.S. system themselves under threat? Winning (targeted) foreign publics over on the virtues of democracy will not win the war on terror or, for the matter, the war of ideas. The front-lines of extremist activity is a tactical sphere as much as a meditation on Western values. It is where U.S. policies are labeled, reframed, and woven into acts of intimidation, violence, and oppression while celebrated in a shadow industry of virtual media production.
The immediate, if perhaps daunting, job of advocacy-centric public diplomacy or whatever you want to call it, is breaking the symbolic links that have been forged between our values and how our policies are represented. This is a critical element of this larger struggle. Yes, some reparative work may be required to reacquaint foreign audiences with “American” or “Western” values – but the real issue is how policies, actions, and images are used to reframe what the U.S. says and does. But this cannot come at the expense of the larger vision of public diplomacy engaging the rest of the world.
Also, I’m concerned how the very purpose of the bill seems to frame a civilizational battle, which is the kind of rhetoric that I’m sure the global extremist movements seize upon and appreciate in their own propaganda. The battle of ideas as it is justified here in this bill is squarely depicted as a battle conjoined with the forces of “radical Islam.” My concern here is that the bill reifies the strength and importance of the enemy. Once again, U.S. rhetoric in this bill builds up the legitimacy of the extremist movement. Which begs the question again – does the War of Ideas – the reason for this Center – leave room for the business and ethos of less aggressive public diplomacy? More on this in subsequent posts.