Branding the United States

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Photo: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines public diplomacy as "any of the various government-sponsored efforts aimed at communicating directly with foreign publics to establish a dialogue designed to inform and influence with the aim that this foreign public supports or tolerates a government’s strategic objectives".

To “inform and influence”, a government representative must have a message to which the audience will be receptive and communicate values with which it can identify.

Spokespersons must speak with credibility – either on their own behalf or on behalf of their principal.

And the message must be consistent and rational.

With respect to public diplomacy, this would require a tool chest for public diplomacy officers to use to depict their government, their country’s way of life, their policies and objectives as desirable.

In this, the United States currently has a difficult task indeed.

Minute by minute people everywhere watch television programs, movies, books, and music that underscores the violence, hatred, divisions, and racism that plague the country. Ubiquitous crime shows and movies underscore the effects of a society where guns are available to almost anyone who wants one, where some police authorities are corrupt and/or racist, and where violence is portrayed as a way of life.

Minute by minute, CNN and other U.S. news outlets bombard a worldwide audience with the internal divisions and weaknesses plaguing the American political system, the racism and divisive tactics of many senior leaders and politicians, and a governing class that seems more concerned with achieving the personal goals of the few rather than looking out for the good of the country as a whole.

Minute by minute President Trump tweets messages that become the policy of the day – often reflecting his racist or xenophobic views, and subject to a complete change of direction any time he tweets or says the opposite, which happens often.

His reverence for impulsive governance and unpredictability undermines attempts to cast the United States government as a well-informed and well-balanced center of governance.

And yet, the United States itself remains a magnet for many who seek better lives.

These are the myriad contradictions with which U.S. public diplomacy officers must deal with on a daily basis.

How does a public diplomacy officer portray the U.S. as a stable democracy when its own President and governing party try to attack the institutions of democracy at every turn?

How does the officer counteract the deluge of negative messages carried by real and fiction-based movies and television programs that are a global entertainment staple? Some may argue that the entertainment products of other countries also portray the crime and corruption in those countries. However, U.S. mass media is the only one with global penetration, and this creates perhaps a lopsided view of U.S. reality.

And how does the officer explain or contradict his President’s irrational and hateful verbiage without risking losing his or her job? This was not the case before Trump took office, and it matches the situation of spokespersons representing other governments that are not so democratic or freely elected.

This leads me to question whether the United States today can have an active public diplomacy program and if State Department officers are capable of carrying it out with any degree of success.

When the President daily or hourly tweets offensive racial or religious messages as a matter of course, how can diplomatic officers present a positive image of inclusion to foreign audiences?
If the President engages in insults towards foreign leaders, how can officers engage the public and government officials in their countries of accreditation in a viable dialogue that will lead to greater understanding and cooperation?

And, if the President is categorized as having told twelve thousand lies in his two and a half years in office, and has no set policies that can withstand a 3 a.m. reversal on Twitter, how can diplomats convince foreign governments and audiences to trust any agreement the U.S. government may propose or sign?

This is a difficult time for U.S. diplomacy.

It has to deal with the incredible negative images broadcast globally by U.S. media.

As well, diplomats must continually excuse their own President’s boorish behavior and uncouth language privately but abstain from critical commentary publicly. They must square the circle of explaining how the lack of a coherent foreign policy can lead to positive bi-lateral or multi-lateral engagement.

And finally, they must deal with a State Department that has been gutted – the most experienced diplomats have either retired prematurely or been forced out, replaced by political appointees whose main objective is to enforce President Trump’s whims with potentially little or no expertise in or knowledge of the myriad complex issues with which diplomats must deal on a daily basis at home and abroad.

America First is rapidly resulting in America Alone, as allies wonder what can replace U.S. global leadership and U.S. values diminish almost daily. The U.S. has pulled out of crucial international agreements such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Trans Pacific partnership, and reduced significant amounts of funding for U.N. agencies combatting natural disasters and mitigating the suffering of millions of refugees.

No other country has the economic and military power to lead, and no other country has ever been called “indispensible”. How do U.S. public affairs officers dissuade global audiences from believing that U.S. influence is on the wane and may never recover its past glory?

Hence the question: if the U.S. were to have a viable campaign of public diplomacy, what convincing messages could it send out at this point in history?

With this President, there is little that they could say honestly and convincingly about constitutional checks and balances when the Congress is gridlocked, the President attacks daily the media and the judiciary, and assails the status of independent federal institutions?

The very bastions of democracy that U.S, diplomats used to portray globally in the past are under attack by this current administration, leaving very few credible messages to transmit.

However, U.S. public diplomacy officers can still claim that, unlike China and Russia, the U.S. president has to face the electorate in 2020 in a free election with a real opposition that could well win, the media is free to attack the president and his allies with no fear of violence, arbitrary arrest, or censorship as is the case in Russia and China, and that the president is constrained by the legal system and the constitution, regardless as to how much he attacks it – whereas leaders like China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin rule with impunity.

These are good issues to share to foreign audiences.

The question is, are these the messages that the administration wants its public diplomacy officers to promote and, if so, will anyone find them credible?

Public diplomacy is crucial to a major power to help ensure that it can meet its objectives without resorting to violence or military action. The power to persuade is essential in a world beset by terrorism, the mass migration of refugees, countless local wars, and a climate that may soon prove hostile to human existence.

With all that said, and absent any changes in the upcoming Presidential election, U.S. influence is slowly eroding as foreign leaders and audiences lose any confidence in the United States or its representatives, and there is little its public diplomacy can do to reverse this trend.

edelbuey@gmail.com