There's another reason for public diplomacy's limits in the Muslim world today—the prevalence of global media. During the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency ran a fairly effective, nonpartisan public-diplomacy operation. (Under right-wing pressure from the Senate in the '90s, the USIA was dismantled, incorporated into the State Department, and politicized. Its activities are now supervised—at a drastically reduced budget—by the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy.) It had worldwide cultural consulates that housed libraries and hosted prominent lecturers. Its radio network, the Voice of America, beamed newscasts and jazz concerts across the Iron Curtain—and freely distributed tens of thousands of radios inside Russia, so people could hear them. Willis Conover's jazz program on VOA—and a series of State Department-sponsored jazz concerts, inside the USSR and throughout the third world—conveyed a potent, appealing image of American freedom and (somewhat misleadingly) racial equality. When I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow in the '90s, I met many Russians whose first—and enduring—impression of America had been formed by hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.
But in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and '60s, there was Pravda on the one hand, Voice of America on the other. The former dished out the dreary boilerplate of the ruling Communist Party. The latter offered exciting rhythms from the forbidden outside world. Clear-eyed Russians of the day were well-disposed to the western message.
Today, an official American image, even a well-crafted one, would have to compete with a vast array of newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts and, most crucially, satellite TV networks—some state-sponsored, some independent—that have a much better idea of what appeals to their viewers than we do.
Which is all the more reason to emphasize that America's image in the world will depend not on branding but on actions.
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