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Problems with current U.S. policy.

The immediate explanation for declining Arab support for the U.S. would appear to be America's war on terrorism. But the whole purpose of public diplomacy is to garner support for policies, even for unpopular policies and even from skeptical foreign publics. To be effective, public diplomacy must work not only in times of peace but also in times of conflict. Two other factors loom much larger in explaining the failure of public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim worlds: credibility and culture.

The credibility problem derives from the fact that many in the Middle East perceive a sharp contradiction between the words of U.S. public diplomacy and the actions of U.S. foreign policy. This discrepancy between America's words and actions creates a credibility problem that can discredit even the best campaign.

The other key factor, which typically receives less emphasis, is culture. Not all public diplomacy problems are communication problems, but effective communication can help resolve policy and credibility issues. The fact that Washington's communication backfired with foreign audiences points to culture as the primary culprit. Different cultural styles of communicating often produce opposite and unintended results.

Ironically, U.S. officials may have been so focused on studying their audience's culture that they neglected the influence of their own. U.S. public diplomacy very much reflects a uniquely American style of communication, public relations, and advertising. While the American public responded positively to the style, the Arab and Muslim publics, who have a different culture and style entirely, responded negatively or not at all. Several examples stand out.

First, U.S. public diplomacy focused on getting America's message out. This information-centered approach parallels the "information overload" syndrome found in America, where communication problems are solved by the supply of information. The Arab world has a more relationship-centered view of communication. Rather than focusing on one-way message strategies to inform people, the Arab culture tends to use two-way, relationship building strategies to connect people. America's information-centered goal resulted in a flood of information that was neatly packaged but which failed to connect with the Arab people.

Second, American public diplomacy relied heavily on the mass media to get the U.S. message out to the most people in the least time. In the Arab world, meeting people face to face may not be the most efficient means of communicating, but it is the most effective, and interpersonal channels are preferred. Besides, the Arab media does not have a stellar history of credibility and trust with its public. Thus, relying on the mass media to communicate with the Arab and Muslim worlds is likely to prove both ineffective and counterproductive.

For example, Washington officials were repeatedly shocked by the tenacity of rumors when the U.S. attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite a rapid response team of U.S. spokespersons covering the news cycle from Karachi to Washington, vicious rumors persisted. Rumors speak to the advantage that social networks have over the media in spreading information; misperceptions speak to the advantage that interpersonal communication has over mass communication regarding credibility.

The State Department's multi-milliondollar advertising campaign promoting Muslim life in America failed for the same reason. Television advertisements cannot compete with personal phone calls from Muslims and Arabs in America about the immigration and discrimination problems they have faced in the U.S. since September 11, 2001.

America's style relied on facts and evidence as the primary persuasive tools in making the case against Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. For most Americans, the facts speak for themselves. For most people in the Muslim world, impersonal facts ring hollow, while metaphors and analogies persuade. Not coincidentally, the dominant persuasive devices found in the Holy Quran are analogies, metaphors, and rhetorical questions. These are the tools bin Laden wields so effectively.

Directness is another stylistic difference. President Bush's penchant for "speaking straight" communicated a resolve that most Americans cheered. In many Muslim countries, such directness in public settings is perceived as confrontational, threatening the recipient's public face as well as its collective social fabric.

Finally, many of the message appeals also missed the mark. One outstanding example was Washington's attempts to show how the war on terror was not a war on Islam by emphasizing U.S. efforts to help Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Emphasizing one's good deeds is a coveted practice in U.S. public relations. Washington officials were naturally confused and offended by apparent Muslim ingratitude. However, for most Muslims, calling attention to one's charity or good deeds is frowned upon. The Quran admonishes, "cancel not your charity by reminders of your generosity or injury."

In general, U.S. officials appear to have overlooked culture as an inherent feature of public diplomacy, viewing the problem as a lack of information, and lamenting that "people don't know about us." U.S. public diplomacy got the message out but had no control over how it was interpreted. In some cases, efforts by administration officials to explain U.S. policies were as offensive as the policies themselves.

Since the American communication style elicits such a positive response from the American public, Washington officials were at a loss to explain why their best efforts were failing and the U.S. image was spiraling downward.

Key Problems

* American public diplomacy is not culturally neutral but reflects a uniquely American style of communicating.

* While the American style of communicating positively resonates with the American pubic, it negatively resonates or fails to resonate with the Arab and Muslim publics.

* Cultural differences in public communication styles undermined the effectiveness of American public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world.

R.S. Zaharna <zaharna@american.edu> is a Middle East analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org) and an assistant professor of public communication at American University. She specializes in international and intercultural communication.
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Author:Zaharna, R.S.
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Words:973
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