Winning Hearts and Minds? The US Public Diplomacy, Cold War and the Arab Spring

A recent Pew Global poll suggests that the Arab Spring has failed to improve US Image in the Muslim world: “many of the concerns that have driven animosity toward the U.S. in recent years are still present – a perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally, opposition to the war on terror, and fears of America as a military threat.” An earlier poll had shown that the US was still largely perceived in negative terms in the Muslim world, and it’s policies interpreted as being driven by selfish self-interest and disregard for the well-being and values of others.

Interestingly, such attitudes are coupled with an overall positive attitude towards Western democratic values. Thus, the poll suggests that among the protestors in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, as well as in the general public opinion in majority Muslim nations, “democracy is widely seen as the best form of government, …people …value specific features of a democratic system, such as freedom of religion, free speech, and competitive elections…[and] increasingly believe that a democratic government, rather than a strong leader, is the best way to solve national problems.”  This would support views that the negative attitudes are not “anti-U.S., per se, but rather anti-U.S. foreign policy.”

This is ironic, given that the practice of public diplomacy – concerted official efforts to influence perceptions of foreign policies among foreign publics – has persistently evolved during the Cold War, and is, albeit significantly diminished, still being practiced today.

During the Cold War years, public diplomacy was following the inertia of bipolar rivalry: one superpower’s public diplomacy was meant to be the reverse of and outweigh the other’s. Thus, the US broadcasts of the Voice of America were being retaliated by the Radio Moscow.  In view of the incredibility of military action (because of nuclear deterrence), and the limits to other leverages to intervene domestically, public diplomacy — affecting foreign public directly, bypassing foreign governments — became one of the scarce weapons in the Cold War strategy.

Successful Western public diplomacy is arguably one of the main causes of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Thus, Richmond argues that “the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism were consequences of Soviet contacts and exchanges with the West….The result was an increase in Western influence among the people in Russia who count—the intelligentsia.” However, increasingly, the public diplomacy ‘war’  became asymmetrical, where efforts by the U.S. were not being responded to by commensurate  efforts by the Soviet Union, but by direct physical disruption, e.g. by electronic jamming of radio transmissions. This showed a crisis of ideas, a collapse of the internal persuasiveness[1] of the Soviet narrative, long before the collapse of the Soviet Empire itself.

While some claim that the US public diplomacy has been successful in engaging with the Arab youth and playing a catalyst’s role in the Arab spring,  it is still unexplained why the overall perceptions of the US remain negative. Failures of ‘winning hearts and minds’ seem to have become chronic: the official narrative of a global power persuades even less and causes even more disappointment, or simply  loses authority. Foreign publics  have become less susceptible  to listening to the US official policy narrative, perhaps largely due to continuous disappointments, ‘already knowing too well what it is all about’ and due to being exposed to rival voices from other sources. And when brute facts of life caused by foreign governments’ policies affecting millions of people become at odds with the discursive integrity of their public diplomacy efforts, what is left in the toolbox of a powerful state to enhance their self-image?

The alleged success of the US public diplomacy during the Cold War was not solely or mainly the merit of a good effort. Crucially, fertile ground had appeared — the internal persuasiveness of the Soviet ideology had started to shudder from within. Also, the West did have some ‘authority’ in the eyes of the Soviet intelligentsia and people as a civilised source of alternative ideas/values. The two factors then – the internal cracks in the discourse and the Western public diplomacy – became mutually reinforcing.

Something similar must happen in the Middle East, if winning hearts and minds in the Arab world is to be successful. Indeed, the Arab spring shows that one of these two factors is present– such cracks in the internal persuasiveness of local narratives of authoritarian regimes are already widening and have already resulted in regime changes as in Tunisia, Egypt, and perhaps soon in Libya. But how much is the other factor, namely sufficient credibility of the Western official voices, their discursive authority, present today, given the widespread cynicism towards motives behind US efforts, even those behind siding with the rebels in the Middle East.

The Cold War Western public diplomacy was not relying on quick propaganda results but rather on the long-term evolution of Soviet public opinion. Techniques grew into sophistication so much as to include, e.g. radio broadcasts not crudely imposing US values, but rather reporting on “pre-revolutionary Russian thinkers who had espoused values close to Western ideas of freedom and democracy,”as well as programmes on Russian literature banned in the Soviet Union.* Such positive engagement with the targeted foreign publics would indeed require certain level of understanding of the foreign culture and heritage in order to link intertextually the message they were trying to get though with the given foreign historic/cultural heritage.

We witness nothing as sensitive and long-sighted today towards the Arab world. As the budget for public diplomacy in the US has dramatically dwindled in the post-Cold War period, efforts have become less specialised in organisation and in techniques; often simply replicating  the American commercial models of advertising.** Thus, there has been certain reversal back to the early Cold war clumsy public diplomacy efforts, forgoing all the later sophistication they had managed to achieve.  Also, there is less acceptance that policies must not just be made to be seen as favourable to other peoples.

Could the lack of sophistication be due to simply less commitment to winning hearts and minds, and more reliance on ‘quick-fix’ ‘easy’ formulas including military response, sanctions, arming the rebels, etc.? Could the difficulty associated with using military means due to nuclear deterrence in the Cold War period have been the ‘blessing,’ a stimulus for exploring more non-coercive/soft power strategies? Indeed, listening to and understanding the foreign public, before engaging with them in a (public) ‘diplomacy,’ is required — an understanding which would allow alleviating the primary cause of resentment through giving more consideration to the effects of Western policies on peoples around the world. Otherwise, the West risks undermining the current favourable acceptance of the democratic values by significant segments of the foreign publics, including in the Middle East.

[1] I borrowed the term ‘internal persuasiveness’ from early 20th c. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin.

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