Saturday, May 14, 2011

Summertime, and the Living is ... Harder


Philip Seib, Director of USC's Center on Public Diplomacy, has some advice for U.S. public diplomacy in the Arab world: 

  • Encourage Israel to recognize Palestine's legitimacy, renew the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and offer assistance to new Arab regimes. Encourage Arab leaders to accept Israel's legitimacy.
  • Propose a Marshall-esque Plan to promote civil society and infrastructure building in underdeveloped Arab nations.
  • Redirect U.S. public diplomacy away from messaging toward service. ("In the Arab world, people simply don't care about such self-serving pronouncements. Anything that does not relate directly to their own lives is wasted effort.") 
While his suggestions won't meet with universal support (Shadi Hamid, for example, recently posted on Twitter: "Maybe the US should just hit 'pause' on Israel/Palestine & just focus on supporting what ultimately matters most: Arab democracy") his strategy emphasizes the importance of relationship-building and collaborative action. It's a strategy that recognizes the limitations of monologic public diplomacy. As Seib notes, Obama's famous 2009 Cairo speech "was beautifully written and radiated good intentions." After the speech, "Arab opinion of Obama improved significantly, and then it dropped like a rock. The reason? The beautiful words were seen to have been built on air, not on a foundation of policy. Arabs are a tough audience. They've heard it all before."

More significantly, it's a strategy that acknowledges the importance of promoting individual agency. Seib's suggestions aren't about the U.S. projecting a message or exporting policy. They focus on working with people in the Arab world to achieve their own society-building goals in a way that promotes peace and prosperity. Public diplomacy becomes the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness via the public sphere. It's a Music for the Jilted Generation approach that steps beyond open-source media to embrace open-source action.

Is it tenable? That remains to be seen. As The Washington Post reports, the hope of the Arab Spring is rapidly giving way to a harsh and challenging Summer. And the outcome for the region will depend on whether the Spring's rebels are able to direct their enthusiasm for overthrowing the old regimes into the difficult task of building new ones.

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