Launch of the Public Diplomacy Collaborative

Notice to the Press
Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Remarks at the John F. Kennedy School of Government upon the launch of the Public Diplomacy Collaborative
Cambridge, Massachusetts
September 17, 2009

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Chairman Wilson, Dr. Nye, Dr. Baum, our distinguished panelists and guests, ladies and gentlemen:

When I first heard about the creation and the launch of the Collaborative, I thought it was an excellent idea. It will be housed in one of the premier educational institutions in the world. It will be led by some of the most respected thought leaders in the country. And its agenda will be framed around a set of issues and questions that speak directly to America’s place in the world. So I cannot commend you enough. You will be performing a tremendous service to the nation at a time of great challenges.

One of the striking aspects of public diplomacy today is the profusion of definitions about what it is and should be. However, I don’t think this should surprise us at all. Since at least World War I, there have been highly contentious debates about the concepts and practice of public diplomacy and government communications. Today, we see an even wider spectrum of approaches and arguments. At the same time, it has been remarked—as many of you will recall—that despite this wealth of strategies and resources, we have still failed. We are still being “out-communicated” by people in caves.

But I would take issue with that. I agree with the words of Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said, “Our biggest problem isn’t caves. It’s credibility. Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on our promises.”

Such credibility, of course, depends on a mixture of policies, actions, and engagement, by our own nation and others. The State Department’s public diplomacy operations must carry out this mission in partnership with colleagues throughout the U.S. Government, not in isolation. But there is a tremendous amount that we can do—and are doing—to build credibility, trust, and relationships.

Some observers might respond that such talk—of “credibility, trust, and relationships”—is not “soft power,” but simply soft. Not so.

Our approach begins with the premise that you have to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it to be. You have to keep a sharp focus on a constantly changing environment; regardless of all the complex, messy, inter-related problems we face. And you must devise your solutions—large and small—in a tailored, realistic way.

I saw this very clearly on my recent trip to Pakistan, where 68 percent of the population now holds a negative view of the United States. As one person told me, America’s message to Pakistan “has been a rollercoaster ride over the past 30 years.” Another said, “People think the U.S. is playing a double game on the Afghan-Pakistan border.”

We cannot wish those views away. We cannot whitewash them with expressions of good intentions. We have to listen to them—and deal with them—directly. Reestablishing trust and credibility in those circumstances will not be easy. But avoiding the challenge will only make our situation worse.

We cannot sit behind embassy walls and speak only to the people who agree with us. We have to engage, even when we disagree with others. We have to communicate—two-way communication, not one-way messaging—through both government-to-people dialogue and people-to-people dialogue.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have set profound, positive examples for this type of public diplomacy during the first year of this Administration. President Obama’s speeches in Cairo and Ghana, and Secretary Clinton’s trip throughout Africa have helped challenge stereotypes about the U.S. by directly addressing many of the criticisms leveled at our nation.

Conspiracy theories and wild speculations about the U.S.—as many of you know—grow like vines in many countries. Extremist voices abound. For decades, a vocal minority in some nations has leveled a list of charges against the U.S. They argue that we are exploitative, unilateralist, hypocritical, unreliable, and readily interventionist.

As one senior editor in Pakistan told me, “Today’s conspiracy theories are like the storytelling traditions of the Mughal courts.” They are plentiful, they are colorful, and they are full of larger-than-life characters. But public diplomacy—speaking directly with the people of other nations—can help address such myths and bring dialogues back to reality.

International exchanges play an important role in this effort, too, by adding personal experience and direct engagement between citizens to the mix of our public diplomacy tools. Let me give you just one small example. I was recently in Germany and I met a reporter there from one of the larger newspapers in Munich. He was a smart guy, a very knowledgeable person. And he told me, very candidly, that he had always had a somewhat arrogant attitude toward the United States. He thought it was crass. He thought it was somewhat of a bully. But then he came here on one of our exchange programs, and he met with some of our academics, politicians, and journalists. And it completely changed him. His view of the United States—and the way that he reported on our country for a very influential paper—was changed.

That’s public diplomacy in action. In most cases—not all cases, but in most cases—people who come to the United States leave with a far more positive impression of our country. This is good for people-to-people relations – but it is also good for our nation.

I should point out here, since I’ve mentioned Pakistan already, that more students from Pakistan are studying for advanced degrees on Fulbright scholarships than from any other country. And I am sure we can count Fulbright alumni among those Pakistanis who have a favorable view of the United States.

I also want to note that Harvard University and other academic institutions are our valued partners in these efforts. Fulbright grantees from many countries are a regular presence on your campus, as are scholars from around the world. So I want to thank you for your generous support and involvement.

The private sector, too, is a growing part of the international exchange equation. Organizations such as Business for Diplomatic Action are building incredible bridges to foreign communities by sending American entrepreneurs and experts abroad as speakers. We intend to issue a call for action to get even more private sector participants, industries, and nonprofit organizations involved in these activities. There’s an extraordinary demand abroad, for example, for speakers on environmental issues or health care issues. We can—and should—respond to those calls.

This is what Senator Fulbright meant when he talked about “humanizing international relations.” He said we can turn “nations into people.” That’s a critical component of public diplomacy.

Public diplomacy also means understanding and articulating mutual aspirations, such as improving social welfare, economic growth, increased trade, respect for the popular will, and democracy.

Our dialogue may—and often does—start with security, but it need not end there. In places such as Pakistan, it can be about the economy, it can be about jobs. Indeed, the list of mutual aspirations, particularly around social welfare, is almost limitless. I viewed one impressive example during my recent trip there. I was shown a pilot program in “telemedicine.” This is a government-funded program that connects a local software developer in Pakistan with counterparts at MIT. One part of the project enables Pakistani and Pakistani-American doctors to provide their services over cell phones to Pakistani villagers. Doctors in the U.S. are able to treat patients in Pakistan and do such ordinary things as remind people to take their prescriptions.

We now have nearly four dozen joint research projects with Pakistan, and we hope to have more. None of this, of course, is going to stop us from needing to continuously engage on the issues where we have differences. But knowing that there are Americans who care about the health of Pakistanis is one example of the various ways we can build better relationships with the people there, and in other nations.

So, taken together, these are core elements of our public diplomacy:

  • A clear and full recognition and understanding of the perceptions, concerns, and interests of other countries and their citizens;
  • An accurate and multidimensional portrayal of America – our policies, our actions, and our society; and
  • A strategic and sustained dialogue on mutual interests and aspirations—one in which we engage, not just lecture.

I’ve spoken a good bit about these overarching principles. Let me now say just a few words about how we are approaching these goals in tangible terms—the nuts and bolts.

Four months into this post, I am more optimistic and energized than I was on Day One.

I’ve now had an opportunity to see the capacity that we have—and the readiness for change that we have—from the bottom-up, among our front-line diplomats within the State Department. I’ve been extremely impressed by the caliber of our foreign service officers, civil service officials, and vitally important local employees. They are our most valuable resource. They are knowledgeable, creative, and committed to serving their country. And they are the starting point for everything we do.

And I’ve seen the prospects for change as I look across the government. Among my counterparts at the Department of Defense and other agencies, I have found not just a willingness to work together, but also an eagerness to work together. Rather than turf-battles and finger-pointing, we have started a true effort toward a “whole government” approach to U.S. global engagement.

But, by far, the most important part of the equation that I have seen is in the top-down factor—the deep level of commitment by President Obama and Secretary Clinton to public diplomacy. Each of them has emphasized to me directly the importance they place on global engagement. They believe quite strongly that we cannot allow America to be defined by its military actions alone. The consequences in such cases are long-term and damaging. And we wind up, in the words of one of our generals, trying to put out a fire with a hammer.

A “whole of government” approach, of course, is easier to advocate than to accomplish – but it is also the best way to achieve our goals. Foremost, we are developing a Strategic Plan that clearly links our public diplomacy activities and resource allocations directly to U.S. foreign policy priorities. This was an immediate priority for me, but it is also something that the White House, Congress, and the American people expect and deserve.

Second, we are going to work extremely hard to ensure that—beyond the State Department—there is an expanded Strategic Plan for “whole of government” global engagement and public diplomacy. And we have received excellent cooperation thus far in getting that approach off the ground. We are already working with the National Security Council, Department of Defense, and others to implement a full “whole-government” approach to global engagement—not just at my level, but all the way down our respective organizations.

Finally, we need to ensure that our capacities, capabilities, and efforts match the interests, perceptions, needs, and communications environments of foreign communities. Should we use “new media?” Of course—but not at the expense of the old! We must recognize that social media might be effective in some countries, but television remains the dominant medium in many countries and cell-phone use surpasses Internet access in others. Throughout the world, the media provide a powerful channel to address not only the good news about shared interests and progress, but to deal with the most contentious issues of the day.

The salient point is that we always need to start with our audience: what they are thinking about and what they see as their priorities. We need to engage with—not talk at—people of other nations in order to be effective representatives for the United States.

As I said at the start, this Collaborative is an excellent idea—an opportunity for you to help us in so many ways. So, in that spirit, I thought I would pose some questions for you to consider in your research:

  • What, for example, are the best ways to measure the results of public diplomacy—the impact, the outcomes? This has long been a dilemma for public diplomacy and many other federal government agencies. We have staff who are working full-time on this, but we could benefit from your suggestions.
  • How can we strengthen our relations with the private sector—both businesses and non-profits—to draw on their talents and abilities? Global engagement is a potential role for all Americans—not just an assignment for government representatives. So I am working with others, inside and outside the Department of State, to create and enhance these partnerships, but we can and should do more.
  • And, finally, how do we ensure that our “whole of government” approach to global engagement fully incorporates the activities and initiatives of our many agencies and departments—not just State, DoD, and AID, but also DHS, NIH, HHS, Education, EPA, and others?

I hope you are able to delve into these questions. Public diplomacy is not simply about speeches or broadcasts or modern media. It is about using the power of respectful dialogue to create credible, trustworthy, and enduring partnerships that serve mutual interests and aspirations. Decades ago, President Kennedy said:

Acting on our own, by ourselves, we cannot establish justice throughout the world.

We cannot ensure its domestic tranquility, or provide for its common defense, or promote its general welfare, or secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

But joined with other free nations, we can do all this and more.”

Thank you for your time, and thank you for the invitation to be with you here today.