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No Substitute For Substance

By Robert R. Reilly
The Journal of International Security Affairs
November 9, 2009


The primary purpose of U.S. public diplomacy is to explain, promote, and defend American principles to audiences abroad. This objective goes well beyond the public affairs function of presenting and explaining the specific policies of various administrations. Policies and administrations change; principles do not, so long as the United States remains true to itself. Public diplomacy has a particularly vital mission during war, when the peoples of other countries, whether adversaries or allies, need to know why we fight. After all, it is a conflict of ideas that is behind the shooting wars, and it is that conflict which must be won to achieve any lasting success.

Yet, U.S. public diplomacy is generally acknowledged as a failure—and since 9/11, an especially egregious one. This is particularly clear to those on the battlefield, who understand the importance of an active U.S. effort in the war of ideas to the safety of their troops and comrades-in-arms. Meanwhile, those whose very job, one would have thought, is to “influence” will not even admit this is their mission. At an October 2008 strategic communications conference, Jeffrey Trimble, the chief of staff of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said as much when he told participants that doing so “is not in our mandate.”1

How is it that a country founded upon rational deliberation has been reduced to kinetic means as its primary, perhaps its only, means of communication? One reason for this is that the destruction of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999 eliminated many of the capabilities for such activities. However, the main reasons for failure stem from confusion regarding what it is we are defending, and against whom we are defending it. The results of our inability have been made vividly clear not only by the success of Osama bin Laden in galvanizing substantial parts of the Muslim world, but by the increasing unpopularity of the United States almost everywhere.

 

Defining the problem

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke posed the question years ago before a Senate panel: “How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?”2 Simply put, that “man in a cave” was able to overcome his technological disadvantages through the content of his communications. Bin Laden has been staking a claim, however perverted, to justice—the highest kind of appeal. As he asserted in his post-9/11 video, “Our terrorism against America is benign. It seeks to make the unjust stop making injustice.”3

Such an assertion may strike us as absurd, but it is not absurd to the audience to which he is speaking. Animated by moral outrage, Bin Laden and other radical Islamists offer the most powerful sort of narrative: a gross injustice has been committed, and they are redressing it in order to reestablish justice. He who wins the argument about justice wins the war of ideas. Al-Qaeda understands this very well. “True victory,” it has proclaimed, “is the triumph of principles and values...” It also understands that its chief vulnerability is “a loss of the justice of our cause.”4

The job of U.S. public diplomacy, then, should be to advance the justice of our cause—our “principles and values”—while simultaneously undermining our opponent’s claim to the same. Any activity that is not engaged in doing at least one of these two things is not public diplomacy. Or, as Senator Chuck Hagel lamented not long ago, “Much of the world has lost its trust and confidence in America’s purpose and questions our intentions.”5

Implicit in Senator Hagel’s statement is the idea that power without a higher purpose does not earn or deserve the trust of others. If the exercise of power is not set within the context of its service to moral principle, it will be seen as an expression of raw self-interest. Because of our failure in public diplomacy, this is the way in which the United States is broadly understood today—a bully pursuing its own interests regardless of others.

Before considering how to get this right, however, we should examine how and why we got it wrong. What is the reason we have neglected to present a higher purpose as the aim of our actions? One place to look for answers is the recent emphasis on advertising and pop entertainment in U.S. public diplomacy, and another is the general thematic stress on tolerance and diversity as the preeminent American virtues. As a result, the means have overcome the message, and the message, to the extent one remains, is superficial and even self-defeating.

 

On advertising and credibility

In a commemorative column five years after September 11th, British author Frank Furedi discerned a deeper problem in the “lack of clarity about what the West stands for.” He wrote:

For a brief moment, many observers believed that 9/11 would represent a rallying point and provide the West with a sense of mission. However, in the absence of a coherent system of meaning, the West struggles to promote its own values; instead, it relies on tawdry advertising and marketing... This focus on improving ‘the image’ indicated that the U.S. was not prepared to engage in a serious battle of ideas.6

Furedi is right about the reliance on advertising and marketing. In response to radical Islamist ideology, the United States has been playing pop music to the Middle East and trying to run ad campaigns about how tolerant Americans are. In 2001, the Bush administration enlisted Charlotte Beers, the former head of the world’s two largest advertising agencies, as the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell averred that “she got me to buy Uncle Ben’s rice and so there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something.”7

Thus, the problem was seen principally as an image issue that could be addressed by better marketing. Beers’ first initiative was a $15 million TV ad campaign on “shared values” with the Muslim world, which every Arab country, with the exception of Kuwait, refused to broadcast.

The problem was one of content. What if the goal of the United States is to promote democracy? Democracy assumes that citizens treat each other as equals, who deal with one another through rational persuasion rather than force, and hence that men form free governments through rational deliberation. In other words, promoting, practicing, and defending democracy requires the primacy of reason over passion. Can advertising achieve this? Certainly, it can contribute a certain level, and in certain situations. But, since advertising is not about reason, using it in an attempt to manipulate the passions of the masses and inducing them to embrace democracy is, to say the least, oxymoronic.

Advertising operates as a form of manipulation designed to elicit certain responses in its target audience. It does not appeal to reason, but to desire. Its ideal outcome is not rational calculation but emotional impulse. And in the sweeping battle of ideas now raging throughout the Muslim world, it has proven completely ineffective.

 

Tone deaf

After 9/11, the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, the main governing body overseeing U.S. foreign broadcasts, turned to leaders in the “communications society.” The BBG was mainly composed of media executives who had made fortunes in radio and TV in American domestic markets, and they naturally thought to replicate their huge commercial success by using the same techniques to reach overseas audiences. They therefore revamped the Arabic and Farsi broadcasting services of the Voice of America into mainly pop music stations, Radio Sawa and Radio Farda. They knew from experience that pop music could attract large youth audiences. Large audiences are the “metrics” of success in commercial broadcasting because the size of the audience dictates the advertising rates the broadcaster can charge. But why attract large overseas audiences with pop music with non-commercial radio that does not offer advertising? To the extent that there was a theory behind this, it was expressed by the chairman of the board, Marc Nathanson, and the chairman of the Middle East subcommittee, Norman Pattiz, both of whom said on separate occasions, “MTV brought down the Berlin Wall.”8

However historically ill-informed and naïve this view may be, it touches upon a truth well known to the ancients. Socrates approvingly quoted Damon of Athens as saying that he would rather control the modes of music of a city than its laws because music would be more influential in forming the character of its citizens, particularly its youth. Music could form or deform character. For this reason, Socrates thought that certain modes of music should be forbidden, as it led to behavior that was incompatible with self-rule. The inference from this might be that Nathanson and Pattiz thought that MTV, given the nature of the music it played, had corrupted East German and Soviet youth and brought down the regime.

If this were true, did this music prepare these same youths for democracy—the transition to which was the aim of U.S. policy? One would hardly think so. And it is unclear what wall the BBG was aiming to tear down with the export of Britney Spears and Eminem to the Middle East. It may come as no surprise to learn that some Arab religious leaders, though not versed in Damon of Athens, wondered if this were not a subversive attempt by the U.S. to corrupt their youth and attack their religion.

By officially promoting pop culture, the United States has inadvertently embraced the image of itself as an adolescent. An adolescent superpower is not a source of comfort to U.S. allies, much less a magnet for those seeking their way out of a crisis in the Muslim world. While it is hardly strange that the United States, when feeling misunderstood, should turn to what it is good at—entertainment—it cannot entertain or advertise its way out of a war of ideas. And so long as it tries, it will not be taken seriously.

 

The limits of shared values

The United States has been leading its other public diplomacy dealings with a message of tolerance and diversity that creates the appearance of indifference to higher things. Tolerance was the paramount value behind the State Department’s ill-fated “Shared Values” ad campaign. Look, it seemed to exclaim, there are happy Muslims in the United States who are free to choose Islam and practice it freely. Certainly, this is a laudable message, but it may not be persuasive to people who consider Islam an obligation, instead of an option. The fact that Americans allow free choice of religion can strike Muslim audiences as nothing more than indifference to the truth of what they believe.

Unless American tolerance is situated within a teaching about the moral imperative of freedom of conscience, it will appear to much of the world as a form of decadence. Why does the U.S. government not pre- sent freedom of conscience as a moral imperative? Perhaps because this is a largely alien notion within Islam, and would exacerbate the very antipathy toward democracy that the ads are supposed to overcome. In other words, for this kind of effort to succeed, work must first be done at a deeper level to establish the “values” that we wish to share.

This has not been happening, however. In fact, U.S. policy seems to suppose that moral and religious considerations are of secondary importance, if not to be shunned altogether. On March 15, 2007, Karen Hughes, then the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, appeared before the Washington ambassadors representing the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Her remarks reflected the mistaken belief in diversity that now permeates public diplomacy officialdom. “The vast majority of people in our world, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or those of no faith at all—want to live secure lives of opportunity—this is not a goal owned by any country, but a shared human goal—despite differences of language or culture or skin color, so much more unites us as human beings than divides us,” Hughes said. “Yet we live in a world where misunderstanding and mistrust are spreading, often being fanned by extremists...”9

The clear implication here is that faith is not central in directing these people’s lives. Hughes minimized and subordinated the substance of the faiths she mentioned to the desire for material security and opportunity (though she never says opportunity for what). Not only is there no decisive difference among faiths, she seemed to say, there is no distinction between believers and unbelievers in this regard either.

Actually, this is decidedly not true of the vast majority of the human race, especially of people in the countries represented by the Islamic Conference, who are primarily motivated by their Muslim faith and who, therefore, have substantive differences with Jews, Christians, and Hindus—to say nothing of those “of no faith at all.” There is a way to appeal to Muslims on common ground, but it is not by demoting the defining importance of their faith.

During his brief tenure, James Glassman, Hughes’s replacement, demonstrated a far greater grasp of the war of ideas. But even he made statements that betrayed some serious fault lines. In calling for “a full range of productive alternatives to violent extremism,” Glassman espoused a policy of “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.”10 People animated principally by religion are not going to be “diverted” by entertainment, sports or music technology because they are primarily interested in saving their souls. No one animated by moral concerns is likely to be diverted by amoral ones. Islamism is fueled by a sense of moral outrage that is widely shared in the Muslim world. Music will not soothe this savage beast. Islamist recruits are inspired by theological hope, perverted as it may be. Without a replacement for this hope, they will not be diverted. In fact, they are more likely to be infuriated by the condescension implicit in the attempt to divert them. Certainly, they will not be driven to respect the source of the diversion.

 

In search of purpose

Through its embrace and export of pop culture and its promotion of tolerance based upon moral relativism, U.S. public diplomacy has succeeded in cementing the equation of democracy with unbelief in the minds of many Muslims—a feat that would have astonished the American Founders. In short, the United States has not addressed the struggle at the level at which it is taking place, preferring instead to pretend it is something else that is easier to deal with. It has failed so far because it has seriously neglected the larger issue of moral legitimacy—its own and the enemy’s—which is the real nub of the conflict. If we have nothing to say about justice or the ultimate good of man, we will lose. If we appear indifferent to these concerns, we will be dismissed—in fact, despised.

In other words, in order to fight a war of ideas, one has to have an idea. As I have written elsewhere:

This is not as simple as it may sound. A war of ideas is a struggle over the very nature of reality for which people are willing to die. Therefore, the first thing one must do is formulate the ideas that are so central to one’s life that one is not willing to live without them. For a nation successfully to project such ideas, there must be a broad consensus within it as to what those ideas are.11

Have we failed so far because this broad consensus in the United States has eroded to the point that public diplomacy has become impossible? Is the American inability to express its purpose due to its being unsure of that purpose?

Since the United States won the Cold War, there may be a temptation to dismiss this diagnosis. Everyone now celebrates “our” victory over Communism, conveniently forgetting that the struggle was not only with Communism, but within the West as to what the West and Communism meant. During the Cold War, the West was afflicted by self-doubt to the extent that some thinkers thought we would lose. Communism was a form of absolutism fighting a form of relativism. As such, Communism had the clear advantage, and only lost it after the moral recovery of the West under the leadership of John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and others, who spoke unequivocally about the inviolability of each human being, endowed by God with inalienable rights.

It seems, then, that for public diplomacy to function, there must be a recovery of purpose and that this purpose must be related to justice. We need to restore moral vocabulary to our thinking and communications if we are to have an impact on others. As we know from the Cold War, this will not be easy, because it reveals fissures in our own society. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” he was denounced in the United States and Western Europe as an irresponsible cowboy. The anti-anti-Communists in the West were frightened by Reagan’s vocabulary for the Soviet Union because they feared it might lead to war, but also because the use of the word “evil” had implications for themselves with which they were extremely uncomfortable.

This problem remains today. However squeamish American elites are in using a moral concept like evil, the fact remains that their discomfort makes it very difficult to talk with people of other cultures who take good and evil seriously. Indeed, it is even worse when much of the campaign against us is based on defining us as evil. To fight this new war of ideas, we must understand the justice of our own cause, and then explain it to our enemies and our friends.

 

The new war of ideas

How, then, might a restored sense of purpose be applied in the new war of ideas? Every challenge that has threatened the existence of the United States has come at the level of moral principle, with a competing claim to a universal truth that is inimical to our own. The Nazis proclaimed their doctrine of racial superiority and the Soviets their dogma of class superiority. Both explicitly rejected the truth of human equality as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. That was their reason for seeking the destruction of the United States. Now, we are in another struggle—this time against Muslim radicals who assert a perverted standard of faith as the litmus test for life or death. Share it or die. They serve an angry god who demands human sacrifice, first from other Muslims who do not subscribe to their worldview, and then from us. Islamism uses its deformed theology to elevate the “believer” and dehumanize those who do not share its ideology.

It is at the level of principle, then, that the United States must first defend itself against the new barbarians. In his inaugural address, President Obama said that “our security emanates from the justness of our cause.”12 But this is true only if we persuasively present an understanding of what justice is—not simply for ourselves (that is, an “American” justice), but justice as it is or should be for everyone, everywhere, according to the intrinsic worth of each human being. The recovery of that standard, as suggested above, is the first step: the reestablishment of our moral legitimacy. The second is to understand the nature of the enemy, and to undermine its claim to moral legitimacy.

Islamist ideas, in other words, must be correctly identified and defined before they can be defeated. As M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, has warned, “Unless the President can articulate the harm of the Islamist movement distinct from the ability of Muslims to practice their faith of Islam in freedom, he cannot make any progress in this war.”13 There is a great hesitancy in doing exactly this because of the sensitivity of dealing with what is thought to be a religion. The consequence of this reluctance has been to give al-Qaeda, in the words of Robert Andrews, “a theological safe haven.”14

But Islamism is not a religion in the traditional sense. Most religions, in fact all monotheistic ones, put before man a revelation from God that is similar in certain essential respects. The revelation contains a moral code by which man is expected to live if he wishes to achieve eternal life in paradise. Paradise is located in the hereafter—never on this earth. This general view is shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which see perfect justice as being established by God’s final judgment.

Islamism, on the other hand, is an ideology in the classical sense of the word. It insists upon an alternative “reality”—one that collapses the separate realms of the divine and the human, and arrogates to itself the means for achieving perfect justice here in this world. It insists that reality conform to its demands, and its adherents live under its particular reality and obey its laws.

The means for transformation here, as in all ideologies, is force based upon absolute power. But while most ideologies are secular attempts to displace religion, Islamism is based upon a deformed theology that nonetheless shares in the classical ideological conflation of heaven and earth. It is exactly in these terms that its chief ideologue, Sayyid Qutb spoke: “[Islam] chose to unite earth and heaven in a single system,” and its goal is “to reestablish the Kingdom of God upon earth.” This is obviously not a political objective, but a metaphysical one.15

It should be no surprise that, in its political manifestation, Qutb’s “single system” duplicates the features of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century’s secular ideologies. “In such a state,” said Qutb’s ideological soul mate, Maulana Mawdudi, “no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic state bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states.”16 It is, he remarked, “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy.”

The United States needs to fight this form of totalitarianism as it has all previous ones. It does not need to remain silent before Islamism because it masks itself as a religion. To the contrary, it should be unmasked so that its true contours are clear to us and to those whom it attempts to seduce in the Muslim world. By seeing Islamism for what it is—an expression of a pseudo-religion and false reality—we can both ascertain the sources of its strength and divine its vulnerabilities. Although Muslims who practice Islam as a faith rather than an ideology may not be naturally attuned to democracy, they are certainly not congenitally disposed to totalitarian tyranny, and will fight to escape its embrace if given the chance. They are natural allies if we can assure them that we make the distinction between Islam and Islamism, and they themselves make it as well.

Here is where the damage from our public diplomacy comes in. In the West, we seem clueless that much of the Muslim world sees our presentation of freedom as morally empty. In My Son the Fanatic, a prescient short story published before 9/11, British Pakistani author Hanif Kureishi describes a scene in which the immigrant father says to his son, “I love England... they let you do almost anything here.” The radicalized son responds, “That is the problem.”17

The problem is freedom with no moral orientation—freedom as inimical to moral order. Many Muslims are disoriented by the forces of globalization, and are faced with the following choice: greater freedom with no purpose (the West), or personal submission to a higher purpose (the Islamists). So long as Islamists successfully frame the question in these terms, we will lose, and it is why we are losing.

Abdulkarim Soroush, the exiled Iranian philosopher, has said, “Muslims would like to live in a democratic milieu, and at the same time they would like to keep their faith as well. They do not want to live in a democratic atmosphere at the expense of their beliefs and convictions.”18 The United States should not go out of its way to convince them that this is impossible. Rather it ought to demonstrate that this is, in fact, what can be done, and that it is what we strive to do. If we can present ourselves in this manner, we can help refute the widely held Muslim equation of democracy with unbelief. By itself, that would be a major achievement.

And public diplomacy can help. Despite the damage that has been done from the embrace of pop culture and the promotion of anemic themes, the restoration of substance in U.S. government broadcasting can once again attract serious audiences in the countries that America most needs to reach. The U.S. should utilize all the means that members of this audience themselves take seriously—books, journals, films, plays, press, TV and radio discussion programs, and substantive exchanges. There have also been calls for the restoration of U.S. centers and libraries abroad and for increased exchanges, most recently by Vice President Joseph Biden. All of these did great good during the Cold War when they existed under U.S.IA, and could do so again. However, it all depends on what is in the libraries and on what is exchanged in the exchange programs.

In other words, we must help the people whose ideas we wish to see prevail in the contest for the future of that world. That we have not done so yet is one of the most puzzling aspects of the past eight years.

 

Robert R. Reilly served as the 25th director of the Voice of America, and more recently as Senior Advisor for Information Strategy at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is now a Senior Fellow for Strategic Communications at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. A longer version of this article was published by the Heritage Foundation in July 2009.

  1. As relayed to the author by conference participant Yigal Carmon, president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, on October 20, 2008.
  2. Richard Holbrooke, “Get the Message Out,” Washington Post, October 28, 2001, B7.
  3. Transcript of Bin Laden broadcast, as reprinted in the Washington Post, December 27, 2001, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/binladentape_122701.html
  4. As cited in “Letter Exposes New Leader in Al-Qaeda High Command,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, September 25, 2006, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/harmony/pdf/CTC-AtiyahLetter.pdf
  5. As cited in “In Transition—Secretary of Defense,” Washington Post, November 16, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/15/AR2008111502547.html
  6. Frank Furedi, “Five Years After 9/11: The Search for Meaning Goes On,” Spiked, September 5, 2006, http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/earticle/1603/
  7. Margaret Carlson, “Can Charlotte Beers Sell Uncle Sam?,” Time, November 14, 2001, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,184536,00.html
  8. Author’s conversations, 2001.
  9. Karen Hughes, “Statements from the Launching Ceremony of the OIC Group in Washington, DC,” March 15, 2007, http://www.oicun.org/articles/38/1/OIC-Group-in-Washington-DC/1.html
  10. James K. Glassman, “Winning the War of Ideas,” speech before the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 8, 2008; see also James Glassman, “Winning the War of Ideas,” New York Sun, July 23, 2008, http://www.nysun.com/opinion/winning-the-war-of-ideas/82438/?print=0224157121
  11. Robert R. Reilly, “Winning the War of Ideas,” Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2007, 35.
  12. President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, Washington, DC, January 20, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/
  13. M. Zuhdi Jasser, “A Post-‘Muslim World,’ Muslim World,” Huffington Post, February 17, 2009 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/m-zuhdi-jasser/a-post-muslim-world-musli_b_166885.html 
  14. Conversation with the author, March 2009.
  15. Sayyid Qutb, Social Justice in Islam, revised edition, trans. John B. Hardie (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2000).
  16. Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi, The Islamic Law and Constitution, second edition (Islamic Publications, 1960), 154.
  17. Hanif Kureishi, My Son the Fanatic (Hueber Verlag, 2008), 12.
  18. Abdolkarim Soroush, “Rationalist Traditions in Islam,”paper presented at the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut, Heidelberg, Germany, November 12-13, 2004, http://www.drsoroush.com/PDF/E-CMB-20041113-%20Rationalist_Traditions_in_Islam-Soroush_in_Heidelberg.pdf.

 


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