Why the Defense Secretary is RIght but Wrong

It’s not every day the US Defense Secretary urges spending more on communications rather than military equipment, but that is exactly what happened yesterday. In a New York Times interview published today Robert M Gates is quoted as saying: “We are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals,” he said. “It is just plain embarrassing that Al Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America.” He goes on to propose a “dramatic increase” in spending on strategic communications, public diplomacy and other “soft power” programs. This quote and its context were in “Defense Secretary Urges More Spending for US Diplomacy”, at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/washington/27gates.html?_r=1&ref=world&oref=slogin

Gates comments are very revealing because they show that even the defense secretary acknowledges the limitations of using force. It is also clear that he recognizes that his own job will become much easier if his colleagues in the soft power programs are successful in reaching out to other countries.

But it is disappointing to see that he apparently believes that if you throw enough money at the problem it will go away. It’s good to have resources to make a program reality, but what is still missing, perhaps, is the layer of cultural understanding and humility that would make a program effective. Critics of Karen Hughes’ public diplomacy efforts (see
Making Profitable Learnings from Dubious Success of Controversial Public Diplomacy Program) point out her lack of international experience and a tendency to think that everyone aspires to be like her. This ethnocentric attitude casts a long shadow over otherwise well meant campaigns. Until this problem is addressed I doubt that the negative perceptions can be turned round.

On a more optimistic note, Gates’ quote sounds like it was crafted to get ink in the papers and sound bites on TV, but in reality it is just a rhetorical device. Al Qaeda might be good at getting its message out to its own supporters, but I don’t think that the Bin Laden videos will convert many Americans to their point of view. In the same way the US government’s messages probably work well with people back home but certainly don’t go down well in the middle east. The challenge is to reach out to the guys on the other side, and this is a lesson for all of us. It’s easy to make messages that sound good to the people who are making them, but much harder to make a message that will resonate with the other side, and this is the challenge for the public diplomacy people. I remember once drafting a message for a senior manager who commented “I don’t like it”. “Good”, I replied, “this message is not aimed at senior managers so if you like it there is something wrong with it.”

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