Onward, Free Market Soldiers: Privatizing Public Diplomacy

U.S. Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes' remarks at the "Private Sector Summit on Public Diplomacy" opened on a militaristic note. "Looking around the room and seeing the quality and the scope of the talent represented here," she said, "I feel like reinforcements have arrived."

Karen Hughes VNRGiven Hughes' membership in the White House Iraq Group, a key part of the Bush administration's Iraq War "sell job," perhaps her choice of imagery isn't surprising. But are her new corporate "troops" well suited for the job of public diplomacy?

The January 2007 public diplomacy summit was co-sponsored by the State Department and the PR Coalition, an "ad hoc partnership" of groups representing the public relations, investor relations, lobbying and other communications professions. Nearly 160 PR executives and government officials attended, engaging "in a dialogue over how the private sector can become more involved in and supportive of U.S. public diplomacy," in the words of PR Coalition chair and Accenture PR chief James Murphy.

The PR Coalition's recently released summit report (PDF file) contains the usual warnings about the United States' "image problem" overseas, while fretting that "anti-Americanism is bad for business." Not surprisingly, it skirts around the root causes. The opening page tersely notes that summit participants "were there to address the image problems, not create foreign policy." (While this admission is routine in public diplomacy circles, PR pros often say the opposite, insisting that their clients' new-found concern for human rights, the environment or other noble cause reflects a real change in policies and practices.)

More oblique references to fallout from the Bush administration's "war on terror" follow. "It's no secret that negative views of this country are most widespread in Muslim countries," states a summary of remarks by the State Department's Steve Shaffer, "but they also exist in sub-Saharan Africa" and "even among some long-term allies," with "much of the decline coming after 9/11." The Program on International Policy Attitudes' Steven Kull is paraphrased as saying, "There is also a fear in many countries that the U.S. will use force against them."

Wow. Even with all the high-powered PR flacks in the room -- including Burson-Marsteller founder Harold Burson and CEO Mark Penn, Edelman general manager Niel Flieger, EnviroComm chair E. Bruce Harrison, Fleishman-Hillard senior vice-president Jeff Weintraub, GolinHarris chair Al Golin, Ketchum CEO Raymond Kotcher, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide CEO Paul Hicks, and Publicis chair Lou Capozzi -- it's difficult to imagine a lipstick garish enough to distract from that pig.

Condoleezza Rice at private sector public diplomacy summitSummit participants developed eleven "Models for Action that the private sector can use to support U.S. public diplomacy." Several are to increase international exchanges, a tried and true way to increase the global awareness of frequently-insular U.S. citizens, in addition to providing first-hand U.S. experiences for foreign visitors.

However, some suggestions are vague to the point of meaninglessness. For example: "Make U.S. business practices consistent with U.S. values." Would that mean providing living wages to workers employed overseas as contractors to U.S.-based companies? Somehow I think that Wal-Mart lobbyists Robert Lee Culpepper and Sarah Thorn, who were at the summit, might object to that. (Executives from Citibank, Pfizer, Wyeth, General Electric, the Washington Post, Newsweek and Reuters were also present.)

Other suggestions boil down to co-opting civil society groups (referred to as NGOs, for non-governmental organizations). These include "strategic philanthropy and greater engagement with responsible NGOs" (emphasis added), closely followed by the clarification, "Companies should partner with NGOs that 'fit' their business model." A similar suggestion is to "create 'circles of influence' through relationships with organizations, chambers of commerce, journalists and local business leaders."

Perhaps the most striking assumption is that promoting capitalism will somehow excuse, or lessen antagonism towards, U.S. foreign policy. Elizabeth Funk of the microcredit organization Unitus told summit attendees, "There is no better way to improve America's image abroad than to allow the people in those countries to bring themselves out of poverty, and experience the free enterprise system for themselves." David Chernow of JA (Junior Achievement) Worldwide explained, "Our model is driven largely by U.S.-based multinational companies. ... We are teaching young people about free market principles and how they can create opportunities for everyone."

Of course, summit attendees hail from major U.S. corporations. It's not surprising that they see the free market system as a core American value. However, public diplomacy efforts emphasizing the wonders of capitalism are unlikely to play well in Palestine, Persia, Pakistan, or any other region where much of the population condemns the U.S. initiated conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine.

Members of the PR Coalition are skilled at portraying image-challenged clients -- like pharmaceutical companies, oil companies and the nuclear industry -- as responsible, commendable contributors to U.S. society. But applying the same PR tactics to issues of war, national sovereignty and global economic development risks increasing international resentment of the United States.

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.

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