Tuesday, November 17, 2009

War on Terror vs. Cold War Public Diplomacy

I think Joseph Nye was pretty spot on in his descriptions of public diplomacy (well from what I know about the subject) and in particular his critiques of past and present uses of public diplomacy in the US. One of his main arguments on public diplomacy is that its messages won't work if they contradict policies and practices in place by the government. I think this has been the major failing of US public diplomacy, at least since the cold war, and definitely since 9/11.
While we engaged in two wars which were supposed to be promoting democracy and freedom around the world, and needed the support of the global community to do, politicians and others often used tactics that went against those ideals. While saying we were working to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq from the tyrannies of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, prisoners we took were tortured for information (which doesn't really work anyway, unless you're Jack Bauer), held for indefinite amounts of time without being charged or having access to lawyers, and many civilians suffered immensely from the invasions (yes they have received benefits too, but some of the casualties and suffering probably could have been avoided). In the eyes of much of the world this directly contradicted our ideals of freedom and democracy, which has turned many countries off from helping us.
Nye also discusses how language which can be used to stir up domestic support may actually diminish international support. While many countries may not approve of the actions of the countries of "axis of evil" many are also not eager to lump "disparate diplomatic situations under a moralistic label" as Nye says. So while they may be interested in supporting the efforts of the US against those regimes, they don't like the language used to describe them and therefore ultimately do not participate in those campaigns with the US. Nye states that the "war on terrorism" is a similar example as it implies a "war of indefinite duration" (did we ever win that "war on drugs"?) and countries were also concerned about its use to justify things like holding prisoners at Guantanamo.
The US clearly wanted to promote their message and win the "hearts and minds" of the people of the world, but unfortunately went about it in a way that turned off many people. Perhaps the American image would have been improved if we attempted more "soft power" approaches before invading Afghanistan and Iraq or if we had incorporated those approaches from the start of the wars.
While Nye indicates the public diplomacy of the cold war was more successful than recent efforts, in some ways I'm not sure why. When the west was fighting communism and the USSR it seems that many of the same tactics were used. There was some extreme propaganda touting the communists as evil (check out the movie "The Red Menace" among some of the other anti-communist films of the era) and an unpopular war to stop its spread. So why is cold war public diplomacy described as being so much more effective than today's efforts? I would theorize that it could be because the enemy being labeled was another country specifically (the USSR) rather than a group of people (or a small section of extremists within a group of people) and that the cold war began right after the west had finished fighting Nazism and fascism in World War II providing a wide base of pre-existing public support. That's only a basic theory, but I'd be interested in what other people think of this dichotomy.


  1. I think your theory about why Cold War diplomacy was more successful is interesting,and I think the last part about the timing and the pre-existing sentiment is probably the most likely. I would only add to it that Cold War public diplomacy was about much more than Russia-- just like the 'war on terror' this was a 'war on communism'. I'm just brainstorming here, but another similarity between the two is that terrorism/terrorist has become equated with Middle Eastern ethnicities and religions, and communism was linked to any country at all that had something akin to communism, such as socialism, etc., so sort of the same things happened—people from certain countries were always under suspicion, for example. Furthermore, like the war on terror, the war on communism was used to restrict free speech and rights in the U.S. as well as abroad, exemplified by the McCarthyism and various other persecutions and even executions of U.S. citizens suspected of being spies for the "dirty Reds."
    I wonder if Cold War diplomacy was more successful simply because of the lack of globalization of images and media—at least to the extent we have today? The photos of Abu Ghraib, the sanctioning and attempted legalization of torture by the Bush administration evidenced in the Pentagon Papers, and the unilateral action of going to war without the support of the U.N. security council made this a little different from the Cold War. The Cold War was also not preceded by Guiness Book Of World Record size protests…I’d also like to think that the (limited) popularity of citizen bloggers in-country in Iraq, like Riverbend, provided a voice that made it clear to anyone reading that the invasion was unjust, and was not having positive results…
    I also don't think I can yet step back from the Iraq War enough to comment in any coherent or objective way, and I apologize...

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  3. I think that the catalyst that united the nation, at least initially, behind the War on Terror was also the reason why a sangfroid public diplomacy effort was not the country's first recourse. The deep shock of violence of 9/11 demanded a visceral response from the national psyche. That's not to say that coming out of the gate shooting was the smartest answer; and the general public/journalists/politicians who should do their homework allowing Iraq to be drawn into the fray based on false information (or a complete lack thereof) was a mistake. This just goes to show why the public needed the elapse of time for fervor for the War on Terror to cool off-- it was a war sparked by "hot" warfare and responded to in kind. The Cold War, on the other hand, was for the most part the exact opposite. It was a war of rhetoric and fear-mongering. Granted, there were proxy wars going on that did entail real violence, but they did not involve American lives the way the War on Terror does today; and the threat of nuclear attack was not the same as actually being attacked and knowing that you are targeted by organizations that are unafraid to die for a cause that is not bound by rules or values that you have in common.