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Privatize Public Diplomacy

New York Times

President Bush announced the creation of an Office of Global Communications to help manage and shape America's image abroad. Mr. Bush is certainly right that public diplomacy must be practiced in harmony with traditional diplomacy. Precisely how to practice it is the critical question. Mr. Bush seems content to leave it to the White House and the State Department. But public diplomacy is much too important to leave to professional diplomats.

To be effective, public diplomacy must be a function of publics, not governments; its messages must be real, not abstract.

It is foolhardy to suggest that the United States government can quickly influence entrenched, violently anti-American public opinion in the Middle East. Merely branding a public diplomacy initiative with the imprimatur of the United States government is enough to conjure instant distrust in a region whose people have long perceived Washington's hand in their national affairs and for whom anti-Americanism is the only outlet for expressing strong political feeling.

More fundamentally, the United States government doesn't appear to share the values of most people in the Middle East. This is more than a perception problem: American policy itself often inspires suspicion and resentment. The overthrow of the shah of Iran, an American client, and the holding of American hostages demonstrated this. Or consider the people of Iraq, bearing the burden of sanctions meant to punish Saddam Hussein, who continues his oppressive reign.

Short of major changes in American policy, the creation of goodwill must fall disproportionately to regular citizens and private institutions. This means building relationships in the spheres of everyday life. The recent establishment of a branch of Weill-Cornell Medical College in Doha, Qatar, for example, will do much to advance American interests and values. Teaching and medical care are profound acts of public diplomacy that can't be matched by government messages.

Even sports can have a remarkable ability to provide common ground. Think of the ping-pong matches of the early 1970's that helped thaw relations with China, the American wrestlers who competed against Iranians in the 1990's or the Baltimore Orioles playing in Havana.

The arts and entertainment also strike a popular chord among the world's young people. The influence of Arab music on Western pop and the desire in many Middle Eastern nations to host American performers should be viewed as diplomatic opportunities.

These forms of connection are important because they promote two-way conversation. It's not enough that we bolster America's shaky image abroad, as a new Council on Foreign Relations report urges. The United States must also seek to better understand the peoples of the world, their fears and aspirations.

Instead of a new government agency, President Bush should urge the private sector to become more involved in cultivating nongovernmental relations between Americans and the Middle East. Perhaps a center could be established that would coordinate sporting events, cultural and educational exchange, technological and medical training and other activities aimed at engaging ordinary people — particularly the young — in more dialogue and interaction. The best way to practice public diplomacy is through ordinary people. In many cases, only private actors have the credibility to make a difference.

Michael Holtzman, executive vice president of Brown Lloyd James, a public-relations firm, was public affairs adviser to the trade representative in the Clinton administration.

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