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.

  • Roy Schmadeka

    Mark, you are very correct in many of your points, but most particularly when you state, “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.” Yes, yes and yes. This is perhaps one of the more misunderstood factors behind our (USA) past & current PD approaches.

    The well-intentioned US diplomatic corps professionals are attempting to replace the appeal of the terrorists’ cause with “selling America and American values.” The problem with this approach is that one has little or nothing to do with the other. Terrorism and violence must be discredited in and of itself — and there are plenty of Islamic Key Figures who are actively disavowing AQ and similar Muslim terrorist groups. The trick is to capitalize upon the actions of these highly credible anti-terror Figures in order to support US objectives and goals — namely, to realize a marked decrease in terrorist support and activity in selected regions, and to engender an environment that is, at the very least, compatible with The American Way.

    Activities to “distract” actual and potential terror supporters is, however, an idea not completely without merit. I believe what Glassman is proposing is that “idle hands” must be given alternative activities (and, above all, Hope) to fill the void in the target's life — a void currently filled by the lure and appeal of terrorist groups. Once again, the value lies within the approach taken. For instance, a US-sponsored youth soccer (football) clinic with a primary theme of “AQ Sucks, Isn't America Neat?!” would not be nearly as effective as a Host Nation-sponsored soccer clinic (discreetly funded with USA PD dollars) with the primary theme of “Terror Groups are No Threat; Government Security Forces Provide a Safe, Stable Environment for Our Children to Play,” or variations thereof. The key factor is, as you’ve already identified, the low susceptibility of targeted audiences to a USA anti-terror message.

    America's task should be to ascertain how best to assist currently active Islamic anti-terror activities. They have the credibility. What they may lack are items or capabilities that the USA can provide. Funding? Communications reach? USA PD efforts could enable and expand these Islamic activities to maximize effectiveness. A collaborative effort would be optimal, but even this is not necessary. Working separately yet in parallel, identical objectives and goals can be realized.


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