Foreign Policy Blogs

The War of Diversion

After a long pause, there is activity once again on the front lines of America's official public diplomacy. Part of this is a seasonal phenomenon — every summer, the little-known U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy issues a report with recommendations, usually appealing for more resources for the State Department's public diplomacy operations. But this summer, in addition to the Commission's recommendations, there is a provocative new analysis of what the U.S. worldwide public diplomacy strategy ought to be, provided by James Glassman, the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy.

Glassman, who recently took over the job vacated by Karen Hughes last December, argued last week in presentations before the Council on Foreign Relations, and before the Washington Institute, that his objective in the waning months of the Bush Administration would be to create a sort of ideological “diversion” to derail the appeal of Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups. He compared it to a simple consumer choice:

Think of it this way: we’re Coke; they’re Pepsi. Our job is not to get people to drink Coke in this instance, but to get people not to drink Pepsi. They can drink anything else they want. They can drink milk, ginger ale, tomato juice. We think that ultimately they will come around to Coke; that is to say, come around to principles of freedom and democracy. But in the meantime, we want them to stay away from Pepsi — that is to say, violent extremism.

Despite the consumerist analogy, Glassman is of a more military bent. He's clearly looking for a hard edge to soft power. The war of ideas for him is not a figure of speech, but an actual fight. He wants to give ammo to the right parties in the “battle” within Muslim society. This approach doesn't leave much room for subtlety. Today the extremist Muslims, tomorrow the Russians and Chinese. As he puts it:

The shorthand for this policy is diversion — powerful and lasting diversion, the channeling of potential recruits away from violence with the attractions of entertainment, culture, literature, music technology, sports, education, business and culture, in addition to politics and religion.

Glassman seems to suggest that if we could only distract and divert foreign populations with some sort of new cultural commodity, that the appeal of terrorist ideologies would dissipate. This is a very different approach than usually employed by public diplomacy professionals, who have tended to emphasize American values and institutions rather than products.

Glassman, who was previously head of the Broadcast Board of Governors (the oversight board for USG-sponsored foreign broadcasting), has announced that he intends to give “focus and emphasis” to his role as “supreme allied commander in the war of ideas” — the phrase used by Sen. Lieberman in presenting Glassman for confirmation last January.

He does not have much time to execute his call to arms — whatever instruments they may turn out to be. Karen Hughes, his predecessor, has just signed on with Burson-Marsteller, which, given its importance in shaping the campaign strategies of candidates in this election year, may exert more influence on the long-term direction of U.S. public diplomacy.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy