Is it possible that our best hope for improving America’s image among the citizens of the Middle East lies not in propaganda or visits by Hillary Clinton, but instead in efforts like student exchange programs, collaborative arts projects, or even Desperate Housewives?
In the decade since 9/11, the United States has ramped up its public diplomacy efforts in order to prevent future terrorist attacks at home and abroad. Public diplomacy generally involves efforts to establish communication and dialogue with the non-American public (as opposed to standard diplomacy efforts, which usually involve only state officials). Public diplomacy strategies aim to explain a nation’s foreign policy, values, culture, and other characteristics to regular citizens.
The digital advances and global cultural changes of the twenty-first century have forced the United States to rethink its public diplomacy efforts, according to Anne Buckle (’11), whose College Scholars honors thesis addressed new trends in the diplomatic field and who is currently pursuing a graduate degree in education.
“Public diplomacy is not what we thought it was in the twentieth century, when it involved taking your nation, branding it, and selling your ideals to another people,” Buckle says. “What matters now is having a positive image in the context of having a mutual relationship, not just pouring information into one group of people.”
At UT, Buckle earned two degrees: a Bachelor of Music with a concentration in music education and a Bachelor of Arts in international communication and relations in Western Europe. She also completed internships at the State Department and the US Embassy in Paris. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in education at Harvard University, and she is also taking classes at the university’s Kennedy School; the focus of her studies is how the arts can be used in programs that foster cross-cultural relations between nations.
One early attempt at post-9/11 public diplomacy came in 2003, when the State Department launched the youth-oriented Hi magazine, which, according to former Hi staff writer Nick Kolakowski, aimed to show the United States as a multicultural, tolerant place. Published in Arabic and later in English, the magazine featured articles on topics like US education and business, as well as lighter pieces, like music reviews and interviews with Middle Eastern and American celebrities. Hi intentionally avoided political discussions, and it also made sure that the content and images in the publication were not offensive to Middle Eastern readers. The magazine ceased production in 2005.
Although readers generally liked the articles, they were naturally a bit suspicious of a publication wholly funded by the US government, Kolakowski says.
“I’m not sure whether the majority of the audience saw it as primarily a propaganda effort, as opposed to an attempt to reach out and start a dialogue. But I’m sure there was frustration on our readers’ part that we didn’t tackle some of the thorny political issues head-on,” he says. “The magazine’s big problem is that we very conspicuously avoided answering that one question that people in the Middle East really wanted an answer for: If we’re so content here, why are we bombing them?”
The Challenge of Mixed Media Messages
One of the biggest challenges for public diplomacy in the twenty-first century may also be its most powerful tool: the increasing availability of American culture and entertainment in the Middle East. Over the past decade, some Middle Eastern media entities have forged agreements with US corporations that have brought American television shows and films to Middle Eastern audiences. The Internet, naturally, has also provided many opportunities for people abroad to access US productions.
Middle Eastern audiences have largely responded favorably to Hollywood. According to a US embassy document published on WikiLeaks last December, Desperate Housewives, Friends, and, oddly, Late Show with David Letterman are popular in Saudi Arabia and have sparked an interest in American culture. In contrast, the US-backed TV news station Alhurra, launched in 2004, has suffered from low viewership in the Middle East, though it has found some success in Egypt and Iraq.
One possible explanation for the popularity of American TV shows is that the programs are made for Americans and, as such, are perceived as more truthful, at least in spirit, than a carefully constructed identity disseminated by the US government. The assumption is that we might be lying to the rest of the world, but we don’t lie to ourselves.
“People overseas know there generally isn’t a hidden political agenda with our TV shows; they just want to entertain,” Buckle explains.
But Kolakowski and Buckle agree that the wide scope of American entertainment gives rise to a fractured—and often contradictory—national identity, diluting or even negating diplomatic efforts to give the country a positive image. A teenager watching 24, for example, might gain an impression of the country as a land of amoral, heavily armed sadists.
“Most of the US media being pumped abroad tends to present America as a place full of strange crimes and gunfire and howling housewives—a caricature of what America is actually like,” Kolakowski says. “I’ve heard from Americans on fact-finding missions to the Middle East that the residents they met reacted with fear at the sight of Americans in their midst.” He notes that higher-quality American shows, such as The Wire, that present a more nuanced or thoughtful perspective of the United States and its problems are often drowned out by louder, more spectacular programs.
Buckle adds that the fact that non-Americans might find a show or activity entertaining does not necessarily translate into a good relationship between two peoples, particularly if the entertainment value lies in something negative, like violence.
“You want people to like you and have peace with you, but it’s not always about having people like you. I think it’s more important for core values to be respected and understood,” Buckle says.
Buckle believes arts-based diplomatic efforts are a good way to create a better relationship with Middle Eastern citizens. Although television programs and films can communicate positive messages to the Middle Eastern public, face-to-face interaction is far more effective.
There are several successful examples of artistic diplomatic efforts that can serve as models for future endeavors. In 2009 the Philadelphia-based Mural Arts Program partnered with the US government in a project that sent American artists to several Paris suburbs, where they worked with community members to create murals. DanceMotion USA takes American dance troupes abroad to perform for audiences in a variety of countries, including Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.
Kolakowski notes that young people in the Middle East are very interested in being exchange students, and Buckle adds that exchange programs for professionals are also popular.
“Foreign exchange is one of the best ways to build relationships between cultures,” Buckle says. “It’s going to take a lot of education—not in the sense of schooling, but moral education—for our cultures to develop a sense of respect and tolerance.”
Buckle hopes to continue her studies on the subject—sparked by her honors thesis at UT Knoxville—as she pursues her graduate degree while promoting intercultural relations. A little TV may work its way in somewhere, too.