When U.S. and Israeli officials look glumly at international polls showing their declining popularity, they often think that just some better salesmanship will do the trick. But the real problem isn’t the pitch; it’s the product, in this case policies that offend much of the world, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.
By Paul R. Pillar
An Israeli think tank, the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, has just issued a report that examines Israel’s efforts at public diplomacy. Selection of this topic as one of the first to be studied by the center, which was established only a year ago, reflects hand-wringing in Israel over why the country seems to be, to put it bluntly but mildly, so darned unpopular around the world.
Is there something fundamentally wrong, Israelis have asked, with how the country conducts public diplomacy and presents its case to audiences around the globe? The report concludes that no, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, Israel has one of the most sophisticated, well-funded and well-managed public diplomacy programs in the world.
The report contrasts the Israeli program with organized efforts to criticize Israel and observes that the latter do not hold a candle to the former. Presentation of the Israeli government’s message to the world is far superior in resources, access, organization and most everything else. The unpopularity, the report concludes, has nothing to do with salesmanship in support of Israeli policies and everything to do with the policies themselves.
There are strong parallels here with the United States, where there also has been much hand-wringing over the years about public diplomacy. The United States has its own unpopularity problem, especially in parts of the world where the negative sentiments about Israel are also strongest.
Various schools of thought have been advanced from time to time about how the United States could do public diplomacy better. Draw in audiences with a soft approach, say some. Hit them harder with a more value-laden ideological approach, say others. Or do a better job of applying the skills of Madison Avenue. Or devote more resources to the task.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attack there was a surge of interest in the subject, of the “why do they hate us” and “how can we get them to stop hating us” variety. One result was a study prepared by an ad hoc advisory group authorized by Congress and chaired by former Ambassador Edward Djerejian that looked at U.S. advocacy efforts in the Arab and Muslim world. The group’s report mainly recommended additional resources for public diplomacy.
Interest in the subject has waned since then. A year ago a standing body that dated back to the 1940s, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, quietly went out of existence when as a budget-cutting gesture Congress did not renew its funding. It was a rather silly gesture; the commission had one paid staff member, who says the commission’s annual budget was $135,000. But maybe there wasn’t a lot of advice left to give anyway.
In one sense there wasn’t. With the United States just as with Israel, the sources of negative feelings abroad are policies, not the quality of efforts to sell the policies. People feel most strongly not about a government’s advertisements and messages but about its actions — specifically, actions that affect directly their lives or the lives of people with whom they identify, or that link the government to other governments that take actions that affect those lives.
The actions range from drone strikes to military occupations to the abetting of Israeli policies in occupied territories. If there is no change in such things, don’t blame the salesmanship.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)