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21 March 2005

Retired Ambassador Hopes for "Reinvigorated" Public Diplomacy

Rugh welcomes Hughes appointment, discusses how to improve interaction

By Michael OToole
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Retired Ambassador William Rugh welcomes what he calls the “inspired” appointment of Karen Hughes as the new under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. He is also heartened by revived interest in the subject – particularly the emphasis on efforts in the Middle East, his area of experience and expertise -- but he sees several obstacles and no quick fixes.

Rugh drew from his service as ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, as well as director of the former U.S. Information Agency’s Office for Near East/South Asia, in his briefing at the Foreign Press Center in Washington March 16 entitled, “Building U.S. Muslim Understanding and Dialog: Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World.” 

The ambassador hopes Hughes’ appointment will “launch us onto a new and reinvigorated effort by the U.S. Government to undertake public diplomacy which, for a number of reasons, has been hampered over the past decade or so and is only now being revived.”

Rugh said that hampering began with the Cold War’s end.

“[T]he American public and the American Congress ... decided that there was no more need for public diplomacy because we no longer had a threat from the Soviet Union and from international communism, so why bother to fund public diplomacy? And the staffing levels and the funding levels during the '90s declined drastically and that has never been recovered, " Rugh said.

Secondly, according to Rugh, public diplomacy has been hampered by “an increase in security measures that have been taken abroad at all of our embassies … it's very difficult to conduct a public diplomacy program abroad if you're behind a wall and behind a security barrier.”

A third reason is technology: “We have a revolution in satellite television and in the Internet and in other means of communication which has brought a cacophony of words in the international sphere and it's very difficult for public diplomacy professionals to get a word in edgewise.”

The ambassador said if Hughes “raises to the level of the Oval Office the importance of public diplomacy … then we'll have some progress.” He stressed, however, that “this has to be a combined effort, not only her effort but also the Congress has to support what she wants to do, she has to get more resources, she has to mobilize all of the public diplomacy professionals. “

Rugh also urged paying attention to outside voices. “The day is long gone, if it ever existed, when foreign opinion doesn't matter. The President of the United States also has to pay attention to foreign opinion because if he's dealing with President Mubarak or President Bashar al-Assad or any of the rulers in the Middle East, he needs to know how they are dealing with their own public opinion. That's terribly important for the formation of policy; he needs to have it in mind.”

Public diplomacy needs to keep long-term goals in mind, according to Rugh, and not just be about “today's explanation of today's policy.” Rather, he said “it's a long-term education process … of reading books, reading magazines, watching films, and most of all, interpersonal exchanges between American and foreign audiences that will help develop an appreciation of America even if they dislike our policy."

An online transcript of Rugh's presentation is available on the World Wide Web.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)