Foreign Policy Blogs

Embedded in the "War of Ideas"

Thankfully, we have a debate here — on the ideas behind Jim Glassman's “War of Ideas.”

It is a topic worthy of debate, although to many it may seem like inside baseball.

It was Glassman, the new Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy at the US State Department, who earlier this month called for a “War of Ideas” by the U.S. Government to help defeat terrorism. It appears he was mainly talking about fighting Al Qaeda and its supporters.

According to Glassman, if the United States government could only “divert” such sympathizers or potential sympathizers away from radical, violent ideologies into other pursuits — even sports, computer games and the like — it would be a step in the right direction.

If only.

There are several problems with Glassman's argument. First, by reducing the issue of violent anti-Americanism to essentially a cultural-consumer choice — he actually compares it to choosing Coke vs. Pepsi — he removes ideas from the “War of Ideas.” Just find an activity to distract people, he seems to be saying, and our problems are over.

It's far from that simple. Those who pursue violence, not to mention suicide attacks, are motivated by a cause, not a pastime. Through argument or emotion, you must counter the appeal of the cause, not replace it with XBox or midnight basketball.
Second, it assumes that the US government has some way of creating or introducing “diversions” — whatever they might be — into mass populations around the world. America's protagonists and ideological opponents may believe or sow the belief that the U.S. government has such powers, but history and common sense suggest otherwise.

Third, it misunderstands the important assets of “soft power” which are medium- to long-term in nature. American culture, science, sports, ideas have tremendous appeal — but as a long-term pattern of influence and the result of America's overall interaction with the world. The job of U.S. officials carrying out public diplomacy is to draw attention to and utilize this immense power, but with an appreciation that America's soft power has appeal precisely because it is democratic, private, and not directed by government.

My co-blogger is right to point out (below) that when we talk about public diplomacy, we’re not directly talking about foreign policy. True. But errant or unsuccessful policies cannot be salvaged by public diplomacy alone.

Whether art, skill or tactic, public diplomacy works when it makes policies better understood and improves the chances that they may win acceptance overseas.  If Glassman's approach is also to seek to discredit radicals who foment terror, well enough, but perhaps this is best done by those who have greater credibility with the target audiences.   Whether public diplomat or behind-the-scenes communication strategist, Glassman will be embedded within the Bush Administration for only six months.  Hardly enough time to accomplish either mission.



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