Jan 12, 2010

Where is US public diplomacy?

Shamshad Ahmad

The post-Second World War generation grew up admiring America's ideas and ideals, and always felt inspired by its universal values of freedom and democracy. As students in the fifties and sixties, we used to be regular visitors to USIS (the United States Information Service), the best reading places in town with books on all subjects and journals and newspapers for every taste. In that intensely bipolar world, there could not be a better instrument of public diplomacy.

With the end of the Cold War, that approach is history now, and that diplomacy is nowhere in sight. Since 9/11, it is the US military or the CIA that communicates with foreign audiences. American diplomacy in Pakistan, in particular, is a classic example of this new approach. Our most distinguished frequent diplomatic interlocutors from Washington are not State Department officials but hardcore military commanders from the Pentagon and CIA functionaries. Admiral Mike Mullen, Gen Petraeus, and Gen McChrystal are now household names in Pakistan.

According to a veteran US diplomat, this "mission creep" has got way out of hand. Pentagon-led US public diplomacy is a dismal failure. Critics all around, Washington insiders and the public beyond the Beltway, members of both major political parties, even America's friends abroad, all recognise that US public diplomacy has had a great fall. A number of separate studies, reports and findings on American public diplomacy issued by governmental and non-governmental commissions and groups also endorse this conclusion while urging remedial measures.

The common theme in these reports is that the US now has totally different priorities to be followed in the world. In the past ten years, its budget for foreign public diplomacy, which had been originally conducted by the US Information Agency and now the State Department, has remained static. On the other hand, there has been a disproportionate increase in resources available to the Defence Department for "public affairs." Thus, US image-building is now left to the Pentagon, leaving very little to non-military institutions for articulation of America's "ideas and ideals" overseas and advance its foreign policy goals.

It is 10 years since the US government reorganised its public diplomacy effort, but one has yet to see any coherent display of US public diplomacy effective enough in long-term relationships and image-building. Instead, the relationship-building effort is limited to academic exchanges while the image building efforts are left to the Pentagon, rather than the State Department. The US government has almost abandoned its public diplomacy efforts to project the cultural values of the American people through cultural presentations or full-fledged libraries, relying almost exclusively on provision of informational material via the Internet.

Even the laudable "American Corners" -- for all their value -- are but small parts of larger institutions, such as local libraries, that have their own missions. They can never present American culture the way that USIS libraries and centres once did. No wonder we witness a clueless US public diplomacy in Pakistan. Never in our history did we have so much public resentment against US policies and behaviour. An ABC report finds that anything with a US imprint is surely in for trouble these days, and has been for some time.

Despite the American's expansive diplomatic footprint, the US embassy in Pakistan could not anticipate the backlash to the Kerry-Lugar Bill and also has not been able to handle the issue involving the movement of its diplomatic and consular vehicles. The Vienna Convention on diplomatic privileges and immunities provide the US embassy and the Pakistani Foreign Office a clear framework to resolve this issue amicably. Apparently, the US embassy has been bypassing normal channels and instead dealing directly with governmental agencies and functionaries in handling cases that could be best dealt with through the normal channels.

It has been our experience that as soon as the US achieves its objectives vis-à-vis Pakistan it loses interest in cooperating with us. Pakistan was either consigned to benign neglect or hit with a succession of punitive sanctions that left in their trail resentment and a sense of betrayal. This sequence of "highs and lows" turned into a love-hate relationship between the two countries. Every US "engagement" with Pakistan was issue-specific and not based on any shared perspectives.

Washington's continued insensitivity to the popular sentiment in Pakistan only reinforces the global perception that the US was not a "steadfast and reliable" friend and that over the decades, the US neglect and "self-serving" exploitation of its friends had been contributing to most of the current problems in the world. There is no consistency between America's values and ideals and its actual practices. In fact, it follows two sets of values, one for itself and the other for the rest of the world.

During her recent visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left a positive message in Pakistan. After eight years of the Bush administration, during which suspicions between the two countries had deepened, Pakistan now had a "friendly" new administration in Washington where, according to her, both she and her president, Barack Obama, were seeking to build a new bilateral relationship to be based on mutual respect. Getting this message across was an uphill task, as she herself admitted, even as she hoped that her visit will turn a new page in US-Pakistan relationship.

Turning one page, it seems, was not enough. It has not changed the 62-year-long history of a relationship which has lacked continuity, a larger conceptual framework, and a shared vision beyond each side's "narrowly based and vaguely defined" issue-specific priorities. It has been a curious, if not enigmatic, relationship as it never had any conflict of interest, and yet it experienced repeated interruptions in its intensity as well as integrity. We expected a positive turnaround in our relationship after her visit. But the way things are unfolding, it seems we are heading into another cul de sac.

Besides their persistent trust deficit, the two countries have had no control over the growing list of irritants. There are scary Blackwater stories, almost daily incidents involving interception of suspicious US diplomatic and consular vehicular movement with fake identity papers for the vehicles involved, continuing drone attacks, non-disbursement of Coalition Support Funds, lack of any progress on market access and ROZs, and now inclusion of Pakistan in a short list of "special interest" countries whose nationals will be subjected to enhanced screening on arrival in the US. These are some of the irritants that need to be resolved through mutual discussions and diplomacy.

Ms Clinton must have also seen how the people in Pakistan feel disturbed by their country being treated as America's traditional fall guy. They consider the US responsible for all their terrorism-related problems. They are concerned over the growing Indo-US nexus beginning with their defence and nuclear deals three years ago and now developing into a multi-dimensional strategic partnership with ominous implications for the critical balance of power in the region and for Pakistan's legitimate security interests. This situation needs correction through a criteria-based approach for transfer of nuclear fuel and technology.

One fears the KLB issue was the beginning of yet another "estrangement" phase in our troubled relationship. On her part, Ms Clinton wanted us to forget the unpleasant past and look to a promising future. She assured our people that this time the US will not abandon them as it did after the Soviet withdrawal. She repeatedly said the current US engagement with Pakistan is going to be enduring, not transitory. These were welcome assurances.

Hillary Clinton had promised that she and her president were determined to redress this historic sense of injustice among the Pakistani people. The change of leadership in Washington did provide a watershed opportunity for "remaking" of the US-Pakistan relationship. We hoped Vice President Joe Biden's vision of a new people-centred approach in transforming this "transactional" relationship into a normal one will soon become reality. But there is no sign of this equation moving beyond the question of terrorism anytime soon.

Also, on disbursement of US aid under the KLB, we thought Washington's new focus will be on the Pakistani people rather than the corrupt ruling political and bureaucratic elite who have always abused this relationship for their own self-serving purposes. We have yet to see any people-centred projects on the cards. This is also an issue on which the US missions in Pakistan must engage in, in a well-calibrated public diplomacy.

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