While the US lost the so-called battle for ‘hearts and minds’ in the Muslim world, elements of public diplomacy still retain their strategic importance for Washington.

Reflections on the two-decade ‘War on Terror’ have focused on the failings of American strategy in Afghanistan, the legacy of drone strikes employed by the US, and whether the threat of Al-Qaeda has been contained.

Most of these analyses emphasise US military and policing tactics since 2001. One area which has been neglected, however, is the American public diplomacy campaign with the broader Muslim world in the so-called battle for “hearts and minds” during the War on Terror.

It is worth reexamining this communications campaign as it highlights the failures of America’s military strategy. The US communicated a vision of itself that failed to sway or influence Middle Eastern audiences, because it was directed by the American government.

Hollywood, in this regard, proved to be more effective than Washington DC.  

Defining public diplomacy and soft power

The term “public diplomacy” was coined in the 1960s to describe aspects of international diplomacy other than the traditional diplomatic interactions between national governments. As a strategy, public diplomacy focuses on the ways in which private, societal institutions, groups, and individuals in one country communicate and interact with citizens of other nations. Collectively, this interaction can foster a nation’s reputation and image abroad, supplementing or enabling its traditional foreign policy goals.

Joseph Nye, an international relations scholar at Harvard, coined the term “soft power” as the ability of a political body, such as a state “to indirectly influence the behaviour or interests of other political bodies through cultural or ideological means, rather than coercion.”

Public diplomacy is a means, a tactic to achieve soft power.

The US campaign

After 9/11, Charlotte Beers was appointed as US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy.  Beers was a Madison Avenue executive who made a name for herself with ad campaigns for Uncle Ben’s Rice. However, selling Uncle Ben’s was a lot easier than selling “Uncle Sam.”

As Undersecretary she was responsible for improving America’s image in the Muslim world, and in pursuit of this task, she devised a TV and advertising campaign entitled “The Shared Values Initiative,” featuring various Muslim Americans living their everyday life, being content in the US.

These videos were part of Beers' campaign pitch, “boiling America’s message down to one strategic idea: freedom.”  She characterised America as an elegant “brand,” and hence emerged the euphemistic title of her campaign, “Brand USA.”

Beers had faced some difficult challenges, to say the least. She was trying to “sell America” to the Muslim world, when images of the 2001 War in Afghanistan were still etched in the minds of most of the campaign’s target audience - images that would only proliferate with the 2003 Iraq War.

Naomi Klein, in an opinion piece in the Guardian entitled, “America Is Not a Hamburger,” gave her response to America’s attempt to brand itself. She wrote:

“In the corporate world, once a ‘brand identity’ is settled upon, it is enforced with military precision throughout a company’s operations. At its core, branding is about rigorously controlled one-way messages, sent out in their glossiest form, then sealed off from those who would turn corporate monologue into social dialogue.”

Given Klein’s assessment of branding a nation, this tactic runs contradictory to one of the premises of public diplomacy based on dialogue. She argued that this campaign was propaganda and Muslim audiences saw it as such.

The US-sponsored news channel, “Al-Hurra,” was considered as another medium of propaganda and was only watched for its music channels or entertainment programs, but never its news.  

Both Republican and Democrat administrations failed in this regard. A successful US campaign would need to have emphasised two-way messages. The body that practices public diplomacy needs feedback from its target audiences.

That is the ultimate lesson of American failures of the last twenty years. It was unable to accept Middle Eastern critiques of its foreign policy and make adjustments. The drone war, which intensified under the Obama administration, would be a case in point. His 2009 speech in Cairo seeking a reset with the Muslim world was forgotten with the increased amount of drone strikes.

Other failures, such as gauging the mood in Afghanistan and the unpopularity of the Kabul government, help explain the rapid fall of the nation to the Taliban under the Biden administration.

The Trump administration’s travel ban and disastrous attempts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict did not improve America’s image, either. It did not seem this was an issue that the former American president even cared about, as he was more obsessed with his personal image than his nation’s.

The importance of public diplomacy

Joseph Nye wrote “Soft power grows out of both U.S. culture and U.S. policies. From Hollywood to higher education, civil society does far more to present the United States to other peoples than the government does.”

All weapons the US used to shape the Middle East and Islamic world only ended up alienating these publics. Yet despite this alienation, American popular media is still widely consumed.  Groups like Al-Qaeda objected to the pernicious influence of US film, television, and music; yet it was “Desperate Housewives,” not drones, that engaged Muslim audiences.

Public diplomacy must involve civil society. While diplomacy is usually associated with government-to-government communication, often closed off from the general public, public diplomacy is often conducted by non-state actors targeting foreign publics and influential academics, business leaders and media personalities. It involves person-to-person contacts, and tourism and student exchange programs like the Fulbright program are crucial in this regard.

More than 20 years after the War on Terror, the US should realise the need for public diplomacy as a means of dialogue. Rather than focusing on a sales pitch or branding, this tactic must gather feedback and be conducted as a “two-way street,” emphasising dialogue rather than propaganda.

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