Toward a More Assertive PD Strategy, by Bill Wanlund

Researchers for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, part of the German Marshall Fund [GMF] of the United States, have a few suggestions for American public diplomacy during these disruptive times. They lay them out for us in a report released September 28 called, A Strategy for US Public Diplomacy in the Age of Disinformation.

They start from the premise that “the information domain is…an essential theater of the broader, emerging, persistent, asymmetric competition between liberal democracies and their authoritarian challengers.” In that realm, the researchers say, Russia and China are eating our PD lunch. They’re challenging us and our allies on many fronts, including social media and leading search engines, to present their “often slanted” versions of events and conspiracy theories, to “undermine the soft power of the United States, and erode the idea that there is…objective truth.”

The free information environment that we democracies are so justly proud of “also creates vulnerabilities,” the GMF researchers point out; for one thing, the autocracies don’t need objective truth —  it just gets in the way of their own preferred narrative, which they can use to create skepticism and cause dissent.

To confront this, we should “Leverage [our] own asymmetric advantages” and “play to [our] strengths,” the researchers advise — meaning highlight what liberal democracies do best, like openness to criticism and the ability to “course correct, innovate and improve” what’s going wrong, “and the failures and false promises of authoritarian regimes.” They add that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to reaching those in China and Russia, but to “backsliding” or “not fully consolidated” democracies as well. 

It’s at this point where the researchers note that they are focusing their recommendations for improvement on “US international broadcasting and strategic communications activities” and not the whole of PD, such as cultural diplomacy and exchanges. We should view the recommendations, they say, as “an attempt at improving a piece of, but not the whole, public diplomacy puzzle.”

Here's a summary of some of their recommendations.

✦  Redouble PD work in Latin America;
✦ Update messaging to reflect what makes the U.S. attractive today, to include “directly and candidly [addressing] the United States’ faults”;
✦ Develop a strategy for dealing with “whataboutism”: “You lecture me about Uyghurs; what about your treatment of racial minorities, native Americans, immigrants,” etc.;
✦ Modernize technology; and
✦ Tap other U.S. Government agencies for messaging content.
Now, a couple of personal notes: First, please read the entire report: It’s not long, and it’s clearly written. I stand by my necessarily brief summary, but the researchers provide more context to consider.

Also, it’s not to denigrate their work to observe that much of what the GMF researchers recommend would sound very familiar, at least to PD field officers of a certain age and probably younger. To me, this seems partly like a plea for back to basics, always a good idea when both tech and geopolitics are racing along an unpredictable route.

Here's a curtain call: Authors of the report are Rachael Dean Wilson, managing director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy [ASD] at GMF; Jessica Brandt, policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and former head of policy and research at ASD; and Bret Schafer, a guy who I suspect gets an occasional raised eyebrow and/or admiration for his candor when he presents a business card identifying him as head of ASD’s “information manipulation team.” [Just kidding, Bret — we know what it means…right?]

Finally, as I was writing this, PDCA President Joel Fischman presciently sent around a link to an article in Friday’s New York Times that deals with some preemptive PD undertaken by the Global Engagement Center to prebunk a Russian disinformation effort: It works as companion reading to the GMF report, and it should relate nicely to the broad themes of Secretary Gates’s discussion topic at our special program on October 31.

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Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. His column, Worth Noting, appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and the PDCA Blog; it seeks to address topics of interest to PDCA members.