Foreign Policy Blogs

A Wrong Turn on the War of Ideas

Thanks to my fellow blogger for bringing up the newly-confirmed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy (PD) James K Glassman's remarks at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy (view video here).

Clearly Glassman will be a more than competent placeholder until the next administration names its own Public Diplomacy czar. But some elements of his remarks leave me deeply troubled, even for the short time he will occupy this office.

Glassman began by describing the mission of Public Diplomacy as the “achievement of the national interest” by “understanding, engaging, informing and influencing foreign publics." He said: "Our aim is to influence foreign publics to make it easier to achieve US foreign policy goals. The key goals today are to diminish the threat to Americans and the rest of the world posed by Islamic fundamentalism and weapons of mass destruction. And to help people around the world achieve freedom…”

Nothing controversial here.

Glassman then described his personal role as Undersecretary as “dual hatted.” One hat entails overseeing the traditional tools of public diplomacy at the State Department, its international broadcasting programs, and its "crown jewels‚ " its educational and cultural programs. The second entails service as the "supreme allied commander" in the "War of Ideas" (WoI), which he states is a government-wide, inter-agency initiative, lead by the Undersecretary for PD.

The aim of the WoI, as Glassman stated that day and wrote in a June 24 opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, is to: "Create an environment hostile to violent extremism, especially by severing links between al Qaeda and like-minded groups and their target audiences."

So far so good–important duties await Glassman while wearing either of his hats. The problems arise when he defines what the WoI doesn't entail:

"Unlike traditional functions of public diplomacy like education and cultural exchanges, the aim of war of ideas is not to persuade foreign populations to adopt more favorable views of the US and its policies. Instead, the WoI tries to ensure that negative sentiments and day-to-day grievances toward the US and its allies do not manifest themselves in the form of violent extremism."

He continues: "Let me put it another way. In the WoI our core task is not to fix foreigners' perceptions of the United States. Those perceptions are important, and I would be happy to address the issue of America's image in the question and answer period. But America's image, and indeed the United States itself, is not at the center a the WoI."

Huh??! Does "Death to America" ring a bell? How could negative views of the United States NOT play a role in violent extremism? Osama bin Laden wants death to America. 9/11 happened to Americans. Al Qaeda members are coming to Iraq to fight America. Disdain for America sticks to violent extremism like white on rice.

Rather than the WoI being about the US, Glassman said: "Instead we need to recognize that there is a complex multisided battle going on in Muslim societies for power. We cannot be a bystander, and simply step aside and watch them slug it out for power. This battle effects the US directly, and was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people one day seven years ago."

Are we really to believe that the "War of Ideas" is not actually a battle between our ideas and their ideas (like it was during the Cold War, when the term was coined), rather between their own ideas within their societies?

This misunderstanding of the root causes of violent extremism is perilous, especially coming from the "supreme commander" (though he has company). It de-links the US, the image of itself that it projects, and more importantly its policies, from the behavior of violent extremists‚ when these are the very factors that the US can directly manipulate in order to persuade extremists to change their behavior.

It's not that Glassman and company don't think negative views of the US are a problem‚ they just don't think they have anything to do with the WoI. By the "We're Coke, They're Pepsi" analogy, Glassman means that the aim of the WoI is not about getting the extremists to like US, rather it's about getting them to not like violence. But America and violent extremism are not two mutually-exclusive options in a vending machine. Beliefs, perceptions and actions are all intricately related.

Not only is it flawed, Glassman's conception of the WoI is also inconsistent with what he defined as the main goal of PD. Later in the question and answer period, when he finally addressed the US image problem, Glassman conceded: "Negative attitudes make it difficult to conduct US foreign policy." So if  PD's aim, as he stated, “is to influence foreign publics to make it easier to achieve US foreign policy goals," and if winning the WoI is the main US foreign policy goal the PD czar is responsible for, he should be working to remove any obstacles that keep him from achieving it.

I do not mean to come down too harshly on Glassman. Rather, I see the problem stemming from this new division of the Undersecretary's mission into two "hats"‚ "traditional" public diplomacy activities under one hat, commanding the WoI under the other. This erects an unnecessary wall between two important tasks that should consistently support and build off each other.

True, a visit to an Al Qaeda training camp by Cal Ripken is not going to persuade jihadists to drop their guns and play baseball. Glassman has made this point clear. But projecting a positive image of the US to the many skeptics around the world (those with a propensity to act violently or not) is, if not the primary responsibility of the Undersecretary, at least a task that comes under both of these two new "hats." A failure to recognize this will only prolong the "War of Ideas" and the US image problem.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.