Does public diplomacy in the U.S. know how to listen? This was the question inspiring a conference I organized not long ago at American University. Historically the evidence is not encouraging. If it has become routine for new Undersecretaries for Public Diplomacy at the State Department to pledge to “listen more and lecture less,” little programmatic room is made for doing so, beyond symbolic “listening tours” abroad which typically exhibit the form but rarely the function of real dialogue. President Obama’s newest appointment to this position, Tara Sonenshine, might signal a change. With a background in journalism and communications, she is not a corporate manager type and is already on record about the need to meet people where they are at, hear others’ stories, and “to be in the listening mode.” But wanting to listen and knowing how aren’t the same.

If public diplomacy is one of America’s critical avenues for conversing with the world, since 9-11 regular attention has been given to the inadequacies of the state-of-affairs for public diplomacy in the U.S. This attention has too often been fixated on how best to combat the “why they hate us” perception initially framing the 9-11 era.  Ten years on Fareed Zakaria’s answer to that question looks less insightful. Along with military and political responses to the problem, he rightly points to the cultural sources of much of global conflict. But his “cultural strategy” for confronting these has an ideological edge: “help Islam enter the modern world”; “broadcast fresh thinking across the Arab world.” Post-Arab Spring, what appears particularly misguided is the notion that the U.S. should be primarily “broadcasting.”

But this merely describes what passes for prevailing public diplomacy “theory” since well before 9-11. If in different ways, it has mostly been about message delivery. The U.S. Information Agency was primarily concerned with “telling America’s story” to the world. Madison Avenue-inspired approaches to cultural diplomacy as public relations treat their subjects as “consumers.” Experts in strategic communication discuss how best to control and to disseminate messages to “target audiences.” Prevailing soft power conceptions, which include the rhetoric of “winning hearts and minds,” are typically invested in getting them to “want what we want” rather than considering other wants.

More recent has been attention given to public diplomacy conceived as a global “war of ideas”: a way of framing international affairs as a kind of zero-sum competition rather than as a conversation. The latest State Department strategic vision emphasizes a need to “shape the narrative” and to combat “extremist voices.” If rhetorical violence toward the U.S. is certainly troubling, engineering the conversation we think we want is unlikely to help us better understand the meaningful sources of such rhetoric. In cultural terms, even so-called “apolitical” cultural exchange programs are assumed to be representational. We treat them as opportunities to express or to display U.S. values abroad to non-Americans. We expect our jazz ambassadors effectively to perform the “music of freedom” for these others.

There is little here to suggest the importance of listening to other peoples’ stories about themselves. The history of public diplomacy points to a relative absence of dialogue, and comfort with our own echo chamber, alongside a disinclination to plumb the depths of diplomacy as a demandingly reciprocal communicative act. And so we are permanently vulnerable to the probability of the wholesale misrecognition of our interlocutors, friends and enemies alike, at once taking them to mean what they might not while missing or not taking seriously what they try to tell us. And when diplomacy is perceived by “targets” as a campaign to influence or to control – as New America Foundation president Steve Coll recently made the point about the cultural diplomatic efforts built into U.S. counterinsurgency in Afghanistan– it is rejected.

Over the years there has been no lack of discussion of how best to fix public diplomacy. Typically these begin by noting the deterioration of U.S. diplomatic assets upon the end of the Cold War, most obviously: the elimination of the USIA and U.S. cultural centers abroad, the evident lack of language and area studies specialists, a near perpetual budgetary crisis for the funding of arts and culture initiatives, alongside seemingly boundless enthusiasm for promising new digital tools of communication and dissemination.

Highly publicized studies by RAND, the Council on Foreign Relations, the GAO, and others, have offered a range of comprehensive recommendations. These are often about how best to use available resources for effective institutional rearrangement, including addressing the prevailing decentralized public-private model for government cultural programming. Foreign affairs expert Thomas Barnett has proposed a new “Department of Everything Else.” Former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Bill Ivey, has called for the creation of a cabinet-level seat for a national culture czar. And in recent years no less than former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates regularly beat the drum for more resources to support the work of U.S. soft power. But institutional challenges are only a part of the problem.

The Obama administration came into office, in significant degree, under the sign of increasing dialogue with the rest of the world. But do we know how to listen? We can point to a sprinkling of efforts to encourage dialogue, as with the National Endowment for the Humanities program on “bridging cultures.” This is a start. In contrast to the U.S., multilateral organizations like UNESCO treat cultural diplomacy as commensurate with “intercultural dialogue.” But of course the U.S. relationship with UNESCO has by and large been a tortured one, and which we’ve recently decided to defund.

Public diplomacy scholar Nicholas Cull has been an advocate for listening, which, he is clear, can be done badly. If good listening happens in a variety of ways, it is cooperative, not covert, much more than market research; and it is not something we, as listeners, can frame. What would a diplomacy attentive to listening as a meaningful cultural act look like? It would recognize that language is not just a medium of communication but also a vehicle of identity. It would be mindful of the different cultural conventions for language and standards of narrative truth that animate the talk of counterparts. It would consider the contexts of diplomatic dialogue, as socially situated events that are open to multiple interpretations and not just our own.

Anthropologist Scott Atran has described his work talking with terrorists – at least as defined by the State Department’s terror list – as “listening to and talking with our enemies and probing gray areas for ways forward.” The gray areas are critical. When talking to a Hamas leader about the potential for a two-state solution with Israel, Atran notes an important code-shift from the Arabic “hudna,” signifying a temporary armistice, to the term “salaam,” with its connotation of a more lasting “peace.” Atran understands the need for a better grasp of others’ terms of reference, with accompanying semantic possibilities, as a way to broaden the conversation. As such “our story” can better sustain a multiplicity of voices.

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