Some years ago, Carnes Lord wrote an essay about Aristotle's view of rhetoric as a hybrid activity involving both deception and truth telling. For the ancient Greeks, rhetoric was the silver-tongued art of swaying opinion in legislatures, law courts, and on ceremonial occasions; so naturally Aristotle judged it inferior to philosophy, which was devoted to discovering and articulating the truth. Yet as Mr. Lord points out, Aristotle did admit the legitimacy of certain rhetorical tricks — appeals to emotion, leaky logic, and colorful language — as long as they were employed in service to the truth. (Of course, for Aristotle, there was one truth, not many; he was no relativist.) As the philosopher wrote, "The things that are truer and better are more susceptible to reasoned argument and more persuasive, generally speaking."
This sentiment lies at the heart of the Western tradition of free speech – and by extension, of "public diplomacy," a vexed term, coined during the Cold War, to refer to a nation's efforts to foster a positive image of itself among foreign publics. In word, if not always in deed, U.S. public diplomacy embraces the credo that openness and freedom, not manufactured messages, are the key to winning good will. And like its fellow liberal democracies, America has long condemned "propaganda"as an instrument of tyranny — an attitude greatly reinforced by the emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Writes Mr. Lord, "The unprecedented scope and success of Nazi and Soviet propaganda for a time convinced many social scientists and other observers in the West that statesponsored information programs could be dramatically effective in shaping not only the political environment both domestically and abroad, but ultimately human nature itself."
The response of the Western democracies to Nazi and Soviet propaganda was a complicated one. On the one hand, they sought sincerely to distinguish between the "big lies" of these regimes and their own devotion to free speech as the incubator of truth. On the other hand, neither World War II nor the Cold War was child's play. For six decades, there were plenty of occasions when, in the judgment of both America and its democratic allies, it was necessary to restrict free speech at home, shade the truth overseas, and even craft "information" efforts that would easily qualify as propaganda, had the term not been taboo. The chief strength of Mr. Lord's new book, "Losing Hearts and Minds" (Praeger Security International, 152 pages, $39.95) is that it begins with an understanding of these facts — an understanding that gives ballast and edge to his analysis of the sorry state of U. S. public diplomacy today.
As befits an Aristotle scholar, Mr. Lord does not share the postmodern view that there is no such thing as truth, only powerserving falsehoods competing for hegemony. On the contrary, he insists that one of the lessons of the Cold War is that truth has a way of digging itself out from under even the tallest stack of lies. Writing about the Soviet Union, he offers this heartening insight: "Ordinary persons would prove more resistant to propaganda even in closed or totalitarian societies than had been initially supposed."
After the fall of communism, this insight (and, of course, the desire to reap a "peace dividend") contributed to the bipartisan decision, made during the Clinton administration but supported by many Republicans, including most prominently Senator Helms, to downsize public diplomacy. Between 1993 and 2001, government funding for "information" programs and educational and cultural exchanges declined by approximately one-third; and in 1999 the entity most responsible for public diplomacy, the United States Information Agency, was dismantled and absorbed into the very different bureaucratic culture of the State Department. Needless to say, the attacks of September 11, 2001 provoked a reconsideration, and since then the government has launched new initiatives aimed at molding foreign "perceptions, opinions, and ideas in the unfolding war on terror."
The press has done a poor job of covering these initiatives, and most citizens, even well-informed ones, know little about them. In part, this is due to the bureaucratic maze that has grown up around public diplomacy since World War II. All the more welcome, then, is Mr. Lord's lucid guide to the maze, which not only points to the deadwood but also recommends ways to get rid of it. For instance, his chapter on international broadcasting details the problems of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the bipartisan but highly polarized body responsible for all government-sponsored broadcasting, domestic and international. "The BBG is a highly dysfunctional organization," he writes, whose "members have become accustomed to freelancing according to their own particular interests." And "State Department interest and involvement has [sic] dwindled to the vanishing point." One need not agree with all of Mr. Lord's proposals for making international broadcasting more streamlined and accountable to appreciate the clarity with which he sets them forth.
Less compelling is Mr. Lord's account of how public diplomacy got to be this way. He blames the left almost exclusively, when in fact there is plenty of blame to go around. This one-sidedness is evident in Mr. Lord's discussion of the Reagan administration's attempts to revamp public diplomacy during the 1980s. As he writes, the White House was "committed to a more robust vision of public diplomacy than most career personnel in the public diplomacy agencies (or in the State Department) tended to be comfortable with."
Part of the White House's commitment was budgetary. Mr. Lord cites no figures, but funding for the USIA grew steadily under the directorship of Reagan appointee Charles Z. Wick, until it reached an all-time high of $882 million in 1989, almost double what it had been in 1981. These increases were welcome, of course. But as Mr. Lord reports, many foreign service officers resented what they saw as "‘politicizing' otherwise professionally sound activities." Mr. Lord chalks this resentment up to "political correctness," but he offers few specifics about what might have provoked it.
This is too bad, because in some areas, notably educational and cultural exchange, public diplomacy works better when it is not politicized. This is not to say there was no "politicization" before the Reagan years. During the 1960s and 70s, many of the Americans participating in the Fulbright Program, the International Visitors Program (IV), and other exchanges sponsored by the USIA and the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) were liberals and leftists who, in their lectures, performances, and other interactions, frequently criticized America. This element of criticism had many positive impacts, as foreigners from closed societies delighted in American openness. But it also raised hackles in Washington, as conservatives in Congress and elsewhere challenged the wisdom of funding such "anti-American" interactions.
During the first Reagan administration, efforts were made to reverse the perceived leftward tilt of government-sponsored educational and cultural exchange. For example, USIA veteran Richard T. Arndt reports in his new book,"First Resort of Kings" (Potomac Books, 624 pages, $29.95), that foreign Fulbrighters, who by custom had always been briefed by USIA officials before leaving their home countries, were now asked to attend week-long "orientation" sessions in Washington, "designed to counteract the political bias ...in the US universities." Similarly, writes Mr. Arndt, "A foreign notable who asked to talk with a specific journalist was induced to meet as well with a journalist of ECA's choosing." According to Mr. Arndt, these efforts caused some foreign scholars and journalists to feel manipulated, even insulted. Is it possible that in certain areas of public diplomacy, campaign-like strategies to "stay on message" and engage in "rapid response" are counterproductive?
Mr. Lord admits no such possibility. On the contrary, he writes that, because "educational and cultural affairs" are now "front and center in a way they were not during the Cold War," they must not be permitted to "represent an arena for essentially non-political interaction with adversaries."What does Mr. Lord mean by "non-political"? Superficially, he means not "politically correct" in the sense of fostering contacts between American and foreign Islamists. But on a deeper level, he means not straying from the purposes of a lean, mean, finely tuned system of "strategic communications" that knows how to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time. "Strategic communications" is the current euphemism for propaganda, and Mr. Lord is one of many analysts, here and abroad, arguing forcefully in favor of it these days.
The only problem is, propaganda by any other name is still propaganda, and while it has its rightful place in the public-diplomacy toolbox, it cannot substitute for certain other tools, such as openended educational and cultural exchanges. To be sure, the latter are difficult to measure and evaluate when funding time comes around. But as Albert Einstein once remarked: "Many of the things you can count, don't count. Many of the things you can't count, really count." As Mr. Arndt and other seasoned veterans will tell you, efforts to impose "policy control" on educational and cultural programs tend to backfire.
Today, the chief messages of U.S. public diplomacy — that to fight terrorism, America must occupy Iraq, restrict visas, and suspend legal protections for both prisoners and citizens — are seen as "big lies" by millions of people around the world. We can keep repeating this message, or we can change tack. Either way, our purpose is not well served by political correctness, on the left or on the right. Better to keep in mind Aristotle's definition of rhetoric, as translated by Carnes Lord: "What is crucial is to attain a proper understanding of the possibilities of persuasion in a given situation."