Without question, the Obama administration has been slow in coming up with a strategy to counter the threat from ISIS terrorism.
This week, Rick Stengel, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, made the case for soft power. He told a packed audience at the American Security Project his office faces challenges as momentous, but far more complex, than any the United States has seen since the fall of Soviet communism.
Stengel, a former TIME magazine editor who has been on the job for six months, is the eighth person to hold the public diplomacy post since it was created in 1999. Regardless of who serves in the post, U.S. messaging will be only as convincing as the man in the White House, where a gaping international leadership vacuum has developed under President Obama.
Stengel described U.S. leadership in the 21st century as a “gyroscope in a multifaceted world.” Hardly words of comfort for countries in trouble such as Iraq or Ukraine.
In discussing the part public diplomacy can play in the “gigantic global conversation,” Stengel inadvertently made a troubling point. “We need to figure out what to answer when people talk to us,” he said. “We have to explain our policy. We should be the nation that listens.”
This reflects the Obama administration view of the Internet as the key tool for public diplomacy. It is a view that has caused a de-emphasis of other public diplomacy tools such as U.S. International Broadcasting, one of the largest accounts in the public diplomacy budget, but one that is constantly under stress even as countries such as Russia and China beef up their broadcasting capability.
Stengel acknowledged reliance on the Internet can be problematic. “We are seeing a closing off of the Internet and the information space by illiberal autocracies,” he said. “People can close off information space. We did not expect this.” He also said he was “amazed at the surge” in Russian propaganda “in the Near Abroad,” although growing Internet censorship and other similar Russian behavior have hardly been secrets.
ISIS propaganda is the other main challenge of the moment. Stengel correctly described ISIS as combining savagery with sophistication in the digital space. Here the main weapon is the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counter Communication—a small, but critical office whose mission is to “coordinate, orient and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism.” Six weeks ago, the CSCC added English to the languages in which it broadcasts, which also include Arabic, Pashtu and Dari.
Elements of a more serious strategy did appear to be emerging relating to the Middle East. “We need to harden the soft-power landscape,” Stengel acknowledged. He said fighting lies about the United States among Middle East conspiracy peddlers probably would be a wasted effort, but we should “focus on persuading people that being in a coalition with the United States is in their interest.”
But to do that the United States has to be seen as a bedrock of commitment, not a “gyroscope.”