Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

An Inauspicious Start

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Helle C. Dale


Full Text

When an American president travels to a foreign country, it is an event that provides affirmation for foreign rulers that they have captured the attention of the leader of the free world. Not only does the presence of the president carry an underlying symbolism about the relationship between that country and the United States, but the content of the visit in many ways defines the foreign policy of the U.S.-and of the receiving country.

Frequently, American presidents bear striking messages to their foreign hosts. This was the case with President John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, which showed American solidarity with West Germany, as well as with President Ronald Reagan's request at the Brandenburg Gate for Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall," an evocative appeal for the end of communism.

A very different message is being sent today. Since January, the United States has been represented by a president who has turned American foreign policy in a drastically different direction. President Obama's mantra of change has indeed come to fruition, but it is not one that is beneficial to American interests abroad. Rather, his foreign policy has imperiled America's position as a world leader and allowed the United States to become exceedingly vulnerable to international pressure.

Mixed signals

During the 2008 presidential election, then-Senator Barack Obama was determined to campaign on a foreign policy dramatically different from that of President George W. Bush. His approach was one that sought to engage friend and foe alike as a way of advancing America's interests on the world stage.1 By bringing all parties to the table for open and frank discussions based on "mutual respect," Mr. Obama believed, American interests would benefit. The Senator and his team contrasted this approach to the Bush administration's "saber rattling" and "arrogance," which were seen as detrimental to America's standing in the international community.

In order to put this bold foreign policy vision into action, President Obama has made international diplomacy a top priority for his administration since taking office. He has emphasized the need to "expand the foreign service, and develop the capacity of our civilian aid workers to work alongside the military."2 As he put it, "The finest military in the world... cannot counter insurgent and terrorist threats without civilian counterparts who can carry out economic and political reconstruction missions-sometimes in dangerous places."3 During the campaign, Obama vowed to strengthen civilian capacities by recruiting the best and brightest to take on the challenge.4 And, once elected, he kept his promise, proposing the increase of the State Department's budget by ten percent, to nearly $52 billion.5

At the same time, however, Obama has abolished another important tool of U.S. public diplomacy: the Department of Defense's Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy. The office, originally established in 2006, was disbanded in early 2009, accused by senior administration officials of conducting propaganda.6 The move constitutes a stunning reversal; following September 11, 2001, the Pentagon under then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took charge of a number of public diplomacy efforts because very little was effectively being done out of Foggy Bottom, where the job of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy was left unfilled for long periods of time. Therefore, the Pentagon had originally created the office to support and coordinate public diplomacy efforts, and to serve as the lead for developing policy within the Defense Department on countering ideological support for terrorism.7 Now, because the State Department has been allocated more resources, the majority of public diplomacy responsibilities have been transferred back to Foggy Bottom.

Resources alone, however, are not enough. Leadership is also necessary for effective public diplomacy, and President Obama has done precious little on that score. His failure to quickly appoint an Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, a post that remained vacant until May 2009, represented an unnecessary delay in American foreign engagement. Furthermore, even when Mr. Obama did nominate someone for that post, politics took precedence. The President provided his Secretary of State and former political opponent, Hillary Clinton, with the opportunity to choose Judith McHale, a campaign ally, major Democratic donor and personal friend, to the position. In this "politics as usual" approach, the position was bought for her, at $109,600.00 in campaign contributions to various Democratic politicians and committees.8

The decision raised eyebrows among public diplomacy professionals. "The position of Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should go to someone with experience in and a vision for public diplomacy, and who will be in a position to effectively integrate public diplomacy concerns into the policy-making process," wrote George Washington University's Marc Lynch upon learning of McHale's inevitable nomination. "Appointing someone with no experience in public diplomacy but with a resume which involves selling a message has already been tried."9

Lynch comments hit home. McHale's résumé, while long on business acumen, is notably short on public diplomacy experience. Others have noticed as well. The Washington Post's Al Kamen similarly highlighted McHale's lack of diplomatic credentials, pointing out that her new job was one "that involves selling a message."10

Since her confirmation, the new Under Secretary has taken a fairly unsurprising approach to public diplomacy. She has repeated what Secretary Clinton and other State Department officials have stated, emphasizing a desire to "listen" and "engage" "with peoples at all levels of society."11 Laudable goals indeed, but the strategy for successfully achieving them does not appear to be readily apparent to McHale.

Or to others. Farah Pandith, the U.S. government's new Special Representative of Muslim Relations, has expressed familiar, vague ideas about how to engage with the Muslim world, speaking only generally about "finding opportunities through our embassies to get to know what others are saying and thinking and dreaming and believing, and acting as a facilitator and a convener and an intellectual partner when we can."12 These amorphous statements suggest that the new administration still lacks a comprehensive strategy for pursuing American public diplomacy. Unfortunately, this lack of clarity has been overshadowed by Mr. Obama's extensive personal travel and engagement with the international community.

The politics of personality

To the Obama administration, America's re-engagement with the world means first apologizing, admitting U.S. wrongs, and prostrating oneself before the feet of foreign publics. Time and time again during his travels President Obama has denounced America to the world. In Strasbourg this past April, he played heavily on America's lack of engagement with the Atlantic Alliance, stressing that:

In recent years we've allowed our Alliance to drift. I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there's something more that has crept into our relationship. In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.13

Such words have consequences. As my colleague Nile Gardiner, Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation, has pointed out, "The Obama Administration's strategy of unconditional engagement with America's enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure. The overall effect of this approach has been to weaken American power on the world stage rather than strengthen it."14

Indeed, when Obama met with leaders in Strasbourg-Kehl for NATO's sixtieth anniversary summit, he repeated his consistent refrain that America must atone for her sins. But while the crowd may have cheered Obama's humility, there was little tangible result. The leaders of the other NATO member states provided little support for the mission in Afghanistan, the primary purpose behind Obama's visit. Only the United Kingdom offered additional combat troops.

Nor is the President's popularity as universal as it seems. Europe was quite clearly enamored with Mr. Obama during his campaign, and still remains so. The same, however, cannot be said for the rest of the international community-including the places where it matters most, the Arab and Muslim worlds. In a poll taken in May, just before Mr. Obama's landmark address in Cairo, only thirty-nine percent of Egyptians surveyed said they had any confidence in the new American leader. Additionally, the survey found "little change in the views of U.S. foreign policy with sixty-seven percent say[ing] that the U.S. plays a negative role in the world."15 Furthermore, attitudes on the so-called "Arab street," though improved from the past administration, do not convey the overwhelming embrace of the new president that was once expected.16 According to the Voice of America, the U.S. government's official radio and television broadcasting service,

Attitudes toward the United States are still negative, according to the 2009 poll conducted by the University of Maryland with Zogby International. Seventy-seven percent of those polled say the United States is the second-greatest threat after Israel, still an improvement compared to the 2008 poll. Forty-five percent of Arabs polled have a favorable view of President Obama.17

In some countries, such as Pakistan, the favorability of the U.S. president has even dropped. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, favorable views of the United States in Pakistan have decreased from nineteen percent under the Bush administration to sixteen percent under Team Obama.18 Poland, Russia and Israel have all lost confidence in the new administration as well, when compared to its predecessor.19 Even in Turkey, a major foreign policy focus of the Obama White House during its first half-year, attitudes toward the U.S. have only improved nominally, from twelve to fourteen percent.20

President Obama's apologies, however, are contagious. His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has taken every opportunity to humble the United States during her international travel. Using the public sphere as her own confessional, the Secretary has peddled American guilt as currency for buying international cooperation.

Mrs. Clinton, for example, used her recent trip to India to issue an unsolicited admission that the U.S. has made mistakes in terms of climate change policy. "The United States and other countries that have been the biggest historic emitters of greenhouse gases should shoulder the biggest burden for cleaning up the environment and reducing our carbon footprint," Clinton told Indian policymakers in New Delhi. "And certainly President Obama has put our country on the path to doing that."21

But if her public mea culpa was intended to make other countries fall in line with U.S. environmental policy, it did nothing of the sort. Jairam Ramesh, India's minister for forests and environment, responded with indignation, declaring that "there is simply no case for the pressure" that the U.S. was exerting for legal caps on emissions for developing countries.22 And, to ensure that Hillary understood his exasperation, Minister Ramesh added that India looks "suspiciously" upon the commitment and motivation of Western countries that have failed to live up to previous climate treaties (i.e., the Kyoto Protocol).23 Just as Mr. Obama's apologist tactics failed to acquire additional combat troops for NATO's mission in Afghanistan, Mrs. Clinton failed to gain the support sought to remedy climate change.

Secretary Clinton's climate change miscue was hardly an isolated incident. A day prior, she had already apologized for the inequalities in America's education system.24 And before that, Mrs. Clinton had claimed responsibility for a lack of sensitivity in America's relations with Pakistan, casting doubt on the constancy of America's "support and our friendship," much to the distrust of audiences in Islamabad.

As these and other examples make clear, the Obama administration is practicing a doomed strategy of personal vilification. Under typical circumstances, the amount of travel and engagement with foreign publics being carried out by the new administration would project a strong and robust American image. Mr. Obama's approach has done the opposite; the more he and officials in his administration talk, the more tainted America's image becomes. All of which calls into question the President's persistent claim that listening and engagement are the key to progress in the international community.

Substance, not style

Over the past half year, the international community has seen administration officials plastered across television screens, the front pages of newspapers and countless websites in a media blitz of unprecedented proportions. This has been the extent of the Obama administration's public diplomacy strategy. But there is great truth in the saying that "actions speak louder than words." Attention spans will soon reach their limits. The Obama administration has had the opportunity to reach out to the most remote places on Earth, and unless concrete action is taken to change foreign attitudes, the world will simply stop listening at some point.

Apologies and kowtowing to foreign publics will soon reveal America's vulnerabilities to its enemies, and competitors will quickly take advantage of the perceived weaknesses of the Obama administration. After six months, we have listened enough. It is time for action.