The Case for a New Public Diplomacy

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(Note: I wrote about Obama, China and Public Diplomacy in a Viewpoint piece on November 12 for AdAgeChina. The article is behind a subscription firewall, so I have expanded on, updated and revised it below for the benefit of Silicon Hutong readers.)

Now that Barack Obama has made his key foreign policy appointments, speculation and punditry is now turning to the shape that U.S. foreign policy will take after January 20th. When Barack and Hillary sit down to compare notes, I suspect that getting out of Iraq, staying out of Iran, fixing Afghanistan and North Korea, engineering a new Bretton Woods, and repairing ties across the Atlantic will probably top their lists.

Somewhat further down that list will be America’s relationship with China. Given a full slate of issues, I am sure the President-Elect will be tempted to maintain the status quo, even if that may cause him some ideological discomfort.

I hope he resists that temptation, but not for the reason others might give.

A Different Audience

Since Henry Kissinger’s first secret trip to Beijing in July 1971, the modern history of Sino-American relations has been conducted between U.S. diplomats and political leaders and a relatively small elite in the Chinese government. That same small elite, spread across the Party and the bureaucracy, has directed national policy, editorial bias, and public attitudes toward the United States.

When President-elect Obama is sworn into office, he and his foreign policy team will face a China that is different in subtle but fundamental ways from the China that each of the four past U.S. presidents faced upon entering office.

First, while the government and party remain in control, the means by which decisions are reached is evolving. China is increasingly governed through a process by which consensus is reached among groups and policy makers, or as I like to say “one party, many factions.”

Second, this change has opened a window for groups outside of the government to exert more regular influence on policy making. While China’s leaders and bureaucrats still operate in a system where they are free to ignore public opinion when they forge policy, they are (for a variety of reasons) seeking more input from business leaders, academics, foreign experts, and even the public itself.

Third, this is all taking place in an environment where the role of the web is growing in China, and the permissible scope of discourse is wider than most non-Chinese appreciate.

That all of the above has implications for the way companies do business in China should by now be axiomatic. What has not been explored is its importance to diplomacy. Because what this means is that the cauldron in which perceptions, attitudes, and policies are formed now includes a growing helping of public discourse.

Obama’s China Challenge

This has critical implications for the approach the Obama administration needs to undertake in order strengthen U.S. ties with China, especially as many of the new administration’s actions to address the daunting challenges it faces will be seen as running counter to Chinese interests. The Bush-Paulson Strategic Economic Dialogue was not without value, but it has shown its limitations in the wake of recent events. If Obama is to keep his hard choices from backfiring with China, he must make his case to both the Chinese government and the Chinese people.

And to be sure, Obama will need China. To see how much he will need to forge a true trans-Pacific partnership requires only a quick glance at the list of issues he faces. At the very least, China will be essential in forging a global energy and environmental regime, bringing security to Central Asia, ensuring that Russia remains integrated in the global system, midwifing North Korea’s return to that system (and perhaps its peaceful re-unification with South Korea), and, of course, resolving the current global financial crisis and forming new system to both nurture and regulate international finance.

Speaking to the Chinese People

Conventional diplomacy will form a part of the Obama administration’s effort to enlist that support, as it should. But in the current environment in China and the world, it will not be enough. Once in office, the President-elect and his team will need to undertake an unparalleled effort of public diplomacy to engage China’s wider policy environment. This effort must shun the neo-propagandist tools and tactics of the Cold War, creating instead strategies, approaches, and messages more appropriate to a world rendered naked by the Internet.

That effort needs to be built on a foundation that includes, as a minimum, four fundamental steps that should be implemented by July 2009:

First, the administration must begin the effort to create (simplified) Chinese-language versions of nearly every public-facing U.S. website on an agency-by-agency basis. Some, like the Department of Defense, will and should be limited in their international friendliness. But others, like the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture, and Transportation have immediate value and applicability in delivering US messages abroad, as does the White House site itself. This effort alone will open channels of communication that have been heretofore closed for no good reason. Meiguo.gov, maybe?

Next, the administration needs to learn how to listen to China’s public voices. While this begins with engaging businesspeople, academics, editors, and other influential types, it has to delve far beyond the elites and find ways to listen to the people of China. Polling won’t work. Far better to find a way to listen to what they are saying to each other, and China’s blogs and online forums are an excellent place to begin. In lieu (or in advance of) creating an office in government to do that, independent contractors could be brought to begin delivering this information quickly and efficiently to every section of government.

Third, as the administration builds the capability to conduct its public diplomacy, it would do well to draw from the toolkit it created to win the election. Banished should be the United States Information Agency (USIA,) the Voice of America, and the feeble attempts to date by the U.S. government to use the Internet as a diplomatic tool. Any government can conduct propaganda. Given our tarnished credibility, America needs to win hearts and minds through engagement, not pronouncement.

This means learning how to make appropriate use of all of the online tools available to the administration that are popular among China’s people. Trying to use tactics that worked in the U.S. would miss the point. Public diplomats must learn how to use the channels frequented by China’s netizens in a way that will seem appropriate to those netizens and to China’s leaders. That means treading lightly.

Finally, the administration must realize that to be effective, American public diplomacy must incorporate a substantial P2P element. Obama’s efforts to enlist the help of all Americans in the changes he advocates would be well directed to an effort to rebuild our frayed reputation. In the long run, it will be the relationships between individual Americans and Chinese that will form the basis for grass-roots support for America in the homes and on the streets of China.

Walk First, then Run

The one impression I do not want to leave is that the administration should rush into this effort with great fanfare, with oversized expectations for near-term wins, or with the desire to create a massive new diplomatic bureaucracy. The art of diplomacy was not created overnight, and the Cold War public diplomacy I refer to above was itself a constantly evolving effort. It will be no different with the new public diplomacy with its new tools, new approaches, and new audiences.

What must happen quickly, though, is to recognize the challenge the U.S. faces in the reconstruction of a badly-damaged global reputation, to understand the value of the Internet and its myriad media in repairing America’s image, to focus on China as perhaps the single most important focus of that campaign (aside, perhaps, from our erstwhile Atlantic allies), and to begin the effort at once on a modest scale.

I have no doubt that this idea will cause discomfort in some of the offices at the new U.S. Embassy on Nu Ren Jie and in the corridors and break rooms of State Department in Foggy Bottom. All the more reason to begin soon, while the new President still basks in the glow of his historic victory.