IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING Barack Obama's election as 44th President of the United States, residents of a village in southeastern Turkey sacrificed 44 sheep in tribute. According to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, "Villagers held Obama posters streaked with blood from the sacrificed sheep that read 'you are one of us' and 'we love you.'"
He should take it as a compliment, of course. This was just one of many ways in which Obama's popularity has not on swept the U.S. but much of the world. Across the globe, news of his election brought dancing in the streets, tears of joy, approving banner headlines and, yes, ritual tributes such as the sacrifice of sheep.
The big question, then, is whether or not this surge of goodwill toward Obama will improve the sagging reputation of the U.S. abroad. <The answer is that we Americans cannot sit back and hope Obama's afterglow will solve that problem by itself. Indeed, it seems inevitable that once he takes office and has to make tough decisions, Obama will alienate those who disagree with his policies. That said, if he follows through on his campaign pledges, his overall approach to foreign relations -- less unilateral and more collaborative with other nations than his predecessor -- will almost certainly improve how the rest of the world regards the U.S.
But that will not be enough, which is why we should all sit up and pay attention to recommendations that the U.S. have a consciously planned and execute program of public diplomacy. By public diplomacy, I mean "civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development," as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for.
Comes now a new prescription for our public diplomacy needs via a just-released report by Brookings Institution scholar Kristin Lord. The report, which was based in part on consultations Lord had with more than 300 people from a wide range of sectors in U.S. society, calls for (and this is from the report's executive summary): "the creation of a nimble and entrepreneurial new non-profit organization, the USA-World Trust, to complement and support U.S. government efforts" as well as private-sector actions.
According to the report, which was unveiled yesterday in Washington, the USA-World Trust will (this is also from the report): conduct research and analysis; tap the vast potential of the private sector and engage companies, non-governmental organizations, universities, and others to work on innovative new initiatives; provide grants and venture capital to endeavors that advance the USA-World Trust’s objectives; identify, cultivate, and experiment with new technologies and media products that support U.S. public diplomacy and strategic communication; and bring together practitioners from the U.S. government, scholars, and talented visitors from the private and non-profit sectors to address public diplomacy and strategic communication challenges.
It seems to make all kinds of sense, and it will probably only cost a fraction of what the U.S. is already spending on our most visible foreign policy initiatives: military action in many parts of the world. Speaking of that, there's widespread recognition, even among people like Secretary Gates and General David Petraeus that, as Petraeus told the Washington Post, “We cannot kill our way to victory.” We need the tools of so-called "soft power" (or, as others call it, "smart power") to win friends pursue interests around the world.
Even though there is a strong cadre of leaders who agree with the idea of such an endeavor as USA-World Trust, the biggest question right now is whether the new Administration and Congress will give it the support it needs: namely, money and a legal status as an independent entity. With all that's going on right now, the Congressional and Administration plates are quite full.
Still, they must see the agenda of public diplomacy as a priority among others. As I have written on this subject in the past, unless we can improve our nation's standing in the world, it will be difficult for us to solve those other problems which are global in nature.
[Note: I provided some public relations help around the release of this report.]