Syria’s ongoing deadly civil war, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and a renewed focus to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the three main diplomatic maneuvers currently at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in the region, and they present quite a challenge. Our recent performance record includes the 2012 attack on the embassy in Benghazi that saw a U.S. ambassador killed, involvement in the unsuccessful Geneva II negotiations, and a history of supporting repressive authoritarian regimes in the region. At a time when the resolution of Syria’s chemical weapons program has arguably weakened the White House’s image, public diplomacy is even more essential to prevent further erosion of the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Image courtesy of seothín ©2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of seothín ©2009, some rights reserved.

Public opinion of the United States in the Middle East today is characterized by distrust, disapproval of American ideology and culture, and general animosity. The influence of this negative opinion is extensive; it impacts the United States’ ability to advance its foreign policy interests, the effect of its military efforts, the market for American goods and services, and increases support for anti-American and terrorist groups. Consequently, effective public diplomacy is instrumental in furthering American interests in this vital part of the world.

Prior to WWII the U.S. military served as the main institution that communicated with foreign populations; however, this practice evolved in accordance with Cold War concerns. Widespread dissemination of Soviet propaganda justified the creation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953, institutionalizing early public diplomacy, which mainly focused on containing communism. Hence, the USIA’s primary purpose evaporated when the Soviet Union collapsed. Public diplomacy was essentially forgotten until the attacks on 9/11 sparked a new wave of interest focusing specifically on Muslim and Arab populations and the links between anti-Americanism and terrorism.

In the modern international system, public diplomacy is the multidisciplinary practice of explaining American foreign policy decisions, institutions, and cultural norms and values to the Arab public, not through their governments, but instead through direct contact. In essence, its mission is to “understand, engage, inform, and influence foreign publics and elites in support of policy objectives.” It is important to note that public diplomacy is distinct from propaganda; it emphasizes dialogue and mutuality while complementing traditional diplomacy. An expression of soft power, public diplomacy capitalizes on attraction and persuasion and can pressure governments and leaders in ways formal, more traditional diplomacy cannot.

The U.S. Department of State’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is the current division in charge of public diplomacy, and it works closely with the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and bureaus of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Public Affairs, and International Information Programs. Additionally, each embassy has a public affairs officer and team to run and supervise public diplomacy programs.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is the most prominent organization outside of the State Department whose work is an example of good public diplomacy in the Middle East. USAID promotes a positive and genuine image of the U.S. through aid programs and personal interaction with citizens, exemplifying American cultural values and promoting the security of the region. They accomplish this through development and their work is consistent with U.S interests promoting democracy and inclusive economic growth, stimulating civil society, and working to increase employment, education opportunities, and stability throughout the Middle East.  USAID has established mutual trust with local populations through consistent years of developmental assistance and the Office of Middle East Programs (OMEP) focuses specifically on developing programs that cater to the needs of the region.

The Office of Global Affairs of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is a similar aid organization whose efforts to build long-term health capacity in the Middle East through the training and retention of healthcare personnel contributes to positive long-term attitudes towards the United States. The International Emergency and Refugee Health Branch (IERHB) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention also implicitly promotes American culture and values through their work in Iraq and Jordan.

Improving relations with the Middle East starts with ending the common misconception that aid programs and public diplomacy should be unconnected enterprises. Institutions of hard power are generally better funded making it imperative that public diplomacy capitalize on existing resources and continually focus on progress within those constraints. Collaboration between the State Department and organizations like USAID, the HHS, and the CDC through a forum for discourse on public diplomacy would encourage such progress.

In our current age of globalization the dissemination of information via media and mass communication is more important than ever before and in the Middle East, deep distrust for media and traditional monologic communication is rooted in histories of colonization and corruption. Effective public diplomacy is therefore contextually sophisticated, and should take into account such cultural and societal factors in a nuanced approach that varies from country to country. Dialogue instead of one-sided communication is key to building a foundation for permanent relationships.  Opportunities for discussion where individuals’ thoughts and opinions are recognized can have a powerful effect on people’s overall openness and receptiveness.

Vernacular television and social media remain the major tools for reaching Arab populations, and programming must be adapted to maximize these resources. The State Department should continue efforts to monitor and analyze American image in colloquial, native media (including social media) to inform the efforts of public affairs divisions in overseas posts. These posts should cultivate relationships with major local voices and maintain a network of public diplomacy officers fluent in vernacular language and culture to represent American interests.

In a 2012 study published by the Middle East Journal on the U.S. Digital Outreach Team, an earlier dialogue-based State Department public diplomacy initiative, their case study found that this approach can be improved by strengthening the amount of dialogue, response speed, and implementing specific communication strategies tailored to each country. A positive presence in media and mass communication has the potential to facilitate inter-cultural understanding and combat misinformation and prejudice with knowledge, but current programs need to be expanded upon and reformed.

Finally, the facilitation of cross-cultural experiences such as the Fulbright Scholarships and International Visitors program are powerful advocates for foreign opinion of the U.S. The Department of State should work to strategize ways to share information and expertise on public diplomacy with Congress, and ensure congressional support for participants in exchange programs to the U.S. They should also encourage the participation of non-English speaking Arabs in these exchange programs in an effort to reach people who have been exposed to less information on America.